One of the most distinctive identifying characteristics of transgressive fiction has to do with how it treats descriptions of the human body, specifically the processes and functions that are not often discussed in polite society. Sometimes this treatment is exaggerated and hilarious, as is the case with much of Chuck Palahniuk’s work, and sometimes it’s chillingly precise and realistic, as with Bret Easton Ellis. Either way, it’s almost always just plain gross. The willingness of the author to test the reader’s limits by being what I would call “exquisitely disgusting” is how you can tell that the writer is purposefully exploring the territory of the transgressive. In other words, it doesn’t happen by accident.
Different strains of transgressive fiction experiment with how to ignite the greatest level of recoil in the reader in different ways. Transgressive fiction that falls into the genre of crime/thriller/suspense will most often detail the gory reality of what it takes to dismember and dispose of a human body, while transgressive fiction that is more fantastical or experimental might describe murder or massacre with vivid beauty, painting it as an artistic scene. What I have noticed though, is that most transgressive fiction explores the theme of violence when the author begins to experiment with the power of repulsion and what it can do to a brave reader.
Most transgressive fiction, it should also be noted, is written by men.
I actually love this violent masculine side of transgressive fiction. I love the weird, brutal fantasy orgies of William S. Burroughs, and I love the ruthless power games of the Marquis de Sade. But I have also noticed that there is another side to transgressive fiction that is rarely discussed. I don’t think it’s being purposefully ignored by transgressive fiction fans, I just think there’s honestly not a whole of information out there about it. It’s the feminine side of transgressive fiction, and it’s just as deliciously strange and repulsive.
When people who are more dominant in feminine energy write transgressive fiction, the focus shifts away from violence done to the human body in the external world, to an inward examination, acceptance, and enjoyment of the weird and disgusting facets of the human body, or two human bodies joined together. This delights me on a deep level. I am someone who is dominant in feminine energy and I’m a very internal person. I’m an emotionally-centered introvert. If I’m not absorbed in examining what’s going on in my own self, I’m absorbed in examining what’s going on in my closest relationships.
We see this more feminine focus as it occurs in transgressive fiction in descriptions of urination and defecation (and much of the time menstruation for those authors who menstruate), and also the clunky, awkward, sometimes icky elements of masturbation and sex. However, it can also show up in descriptions of body hair or body odor, flaking skin, or various other natural excretions. Charlotte Roche’s novel, Wetlands, is a great example of this. When I wrote my first transgressive fiction novel, Between the Shadow and Lo, it showed up in my work too, although I didn’t plan it. I wrote a long description of a typical morning in the bathroom when you have the digestive system of an alcoholic. I fought with myself about whether or not I should delete that passage in the book—it IS based on my true life and it IS downright embarrassing—but I included it in the end because it felt important. It was a real experience with my body that was meaningful to me, even if it was also totally gross.
I think it can be harder for people who are dominant in feminine energy to write transgressive fiction because so much of our work does reveal the human body—and most of the time our particular human body—in this way. And when you’re a person who identifies as feminine in our society, you’re expected to be pretty, and clean, and sexy, and classy. Even all those “strong female characters” out there who are badass warriors aren’t talking about the fact that they poop, or bleed, or possibly relish the smell of their own farts. But characters in transgressive fiction written from a feminine perspective ARE talking about these things, and it can feel extremely weird to be the person who’s writing it.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that, out of all the transgressive fiction authors I’ve ever read, my most adored idol of all time is Jean Genet. When I first read his novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, I knew I was in love. Genet was a thief and a prostitute, as well as a gay man who was dominant in feminine energy in the middle of twentieth century Europe. Although violent, beautiful, masculine characters populate his work at every turn, the primary focus is always internal, on his own body and a deep examination of his connection with the men that he loves, why he loves them even when he shouldn’t (because they’re usually criminals and murderers), and how their bodies join together in the act of this love, with all the explicit, true details of the sensations and colors and smells that come along with that.
Even though Jean Genet was a man and I’m a woman, I recognize myself in him and his writing. We’re both dominant in feminine energy, and so we both write transgressive fiction in a different way from the traditional masculine model.
If you are a person who is dominant in feminine energy and also writing transgressive fiction, take heart. Your disgusting descriptions of your life and your body (or your characters’ lives and bodies) are exactly what they should be, and there are readers out there who are going to snicker and giggle and sigh and keep turning pages because they want exactly what you have to offer as a writer. Yes, you are a totally disgusting weirdo, but you’re part of a greater movement of totally disgusting weirdos. The best thing you can do is be your totally disgusting weird self.
And keep writing.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, a transgressive novel based on her experiences as an alcoholic battling her alter ego in Seattle in the early 2000’s, and its sequel, West Is San Francisco. You can SIGN UP HERE to join her newsletter and get your free copy of the e-book Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers.