Most writers in the mainstream writing scene today don’t know what transgressive fiction is, have never heard of it, or immediately think of it as something disgusting, twisted, or perverse. Even the writers who write transgressive fiction oftentimes don’t know what they’re writing, or that other people are writing it too, or that readers exist out there who would be interested in reading it.
Being a writer who writes transgressive fiction, or is even interested in exploring this kind of creative territory, can be a lonely road to travel. Because if you only scratch the surface of transgressive fiction it’s easy to get the idea that it’s filthy, or obscene or lewd, or that people just write it for shock value alone. It’s easy to see all the reviews on Goodreads from people who call it “trash” or “not even worthy of one star” and believe that it’s not worthy at all.
But that’s a big lie.
The truth is much more interesting.
My journey with transgressive fiction began over 20 years ago. As a young writer I experienced all the angst and depression common to young writers. I didn’t know how to write and didn’t know where to begin and it seemed all the writing instructions didn’t work for me. It also seemed like the stuff I was interested in was way too weird, too dark, and just too “out there” for anyone else to even want to talk about it with me. I felt like an outcast and a weirdo, and I was full of anger and sorrow because I felt so different from everyone else, and so out of place. It felt like no one was on my wavelength.
But I was one of the lucky ones, because I ended up in a class on the Beat Generation my senior year of college, and when I was introduced to the work of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, it was like coming home. These people were writing about the deep howling loneliness I felt living in America, surrounded by people who wanted nothing more than to conform to a ready-made value system fed to us by the media. They were writing about that feeling of not fitting into your own family, of having to leave and find a new family, one made up of the people you collected along the way who were kindred spirits and felt closer to you than your own biological brothers and sisters. They were writing about experiencing sex and spirit in a way that was seen as sinful and blasphemous by mainstream organized religion.
They were writing about so many things that spoke to my soul, and their writing made me feel, for the first time in my life, that maybe I wasn’t actually all alone on this planet.
Their writing made me see that there were other people out there like me, I just had to find them.
So, after I graduated college, I moved to the West Coast, to Seattle. And then, four years later, I had a vision of Jack Kerouac telling me to come to San Francisco, so I moved there. The first week I was in town I made my way to City Lights on Columbus Avenue in North Beach, the rebel bookstore founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and an epicenter of Beat culture for decades, but all I could do was stand outside and gawk. I was too overwhelmed with emotion to even step inside. I came back a few weeks later and finally did find myself among the shelves, browsing through the poetry of Amiri Baraka and the theories of Noam Chomsky. And again, I knew I had come home.
Finding the Beats all those years ago was the beginning of my love affair with transgressive fiction and it’s a love that has burned steadily through all the ups and downs of my life. It’s not the darkness of it or the weirdness of it that keeps me coming back—although I love both those elements dearly—it’s the fact that it’s a tool for the expansion of consciousness. And after figuring out I’m an empath and an intuitive, I realized that the expansion of consciousness, my own and that of humanity in general, is one of the core reasons I’m here on earth.
Transgressive fiction is not just a genre of writing. It’s a framework of ideas, a philosophical lens that can be used to change your perspective of the world. It’s a power source you can use to give yourself the fuel to question your own beliefs, and any repressive belief system under which you might be suffering that doesn’t belong to you, and has been foisted on you by others as a means of manipulation and control.
In fact, as I wrote this piece on transgressive fiction, I was repeatedly reminded of the memoir of one of my good writer friends, Rebekah Mallory, which I’m re-reading at the moment. Rebekah was raised as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. She broke free as a young adult and went on to write her memoir, Train Gone, detailing the abuse and exploitation she’d experienced in her life as a female who was taught that her voice didn’t matter, and to never question what was handed down to her by the elders. With every chapter I read about her experience I heard the same William Burroughs quote playing inside my head:
The first and most important thing an individual can do is to become an individual again, decontrol himself, train himself as to what is going on and win back as much independent ground as possible.
Transgressive fiction helps people with exactly that.
Whether we’re writing a memoir like Rebekah and finally speaking our truth, or we’re writing poetry or political essays, the spirit of all the transgressive writers who have gone before us are helping us along our way. Because of writers like Allen Ginsberg, Kathy Acker, Hubert Selby, Jr., and Diane di Prima, all of us have more creative freedom and more creative courage at our disposal. That’s what transgressive writers do—they devote their lives to pushing the envelope so that we all have more room to expand our consciousness.
I was inspired to write this article because Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of the City Lights Bookstore, passed away last week. Another writer friend of mine sent me this excellent video about his life and work:
And if you’re interested in reading Rebekah Mallory’s book, you can find it here:
Finally, if you’re writing transgressive fiction yourself, just know that you’re not alone. There are writers writing it and people who want to read it. So keep writing and rock on.
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.