Teenagers and Transgressive Fiction
Posted by Felicity J. Stewart
Transgressive fiction. The genre in itself has been called ‘juvenile’, an ironic tag when considering the overall content of most transgressive literature. It is not too difficult to see where the approach comes from; there is a degree of writing that comes across as little more than the wildest, weirdest nightmares of sexually frustrated teenage boys (or, in fact girls – I’m not here to judge). In a world of desensitization, it is often difficult to fully realize what constitutes the stuff of nightmares – the boogey man is long gone and in his place is a mirror that we are forced to look into to fully answer the question: what scares us most?
What is Transgressive Fiction?
The exact definition is a difficult one to pin down and modern works of the genre are often met with disdain, although there are a number of blog entries and essays that I feel are useful in trying to define it. Still, none have been quite so objective as to do so without bias, and while I have no designs on remaining unbiased myself for the duration of this post, I do feel that to fully make my point, a brief explanation is required. This post, I feel, gives a brief yet fitting enough description. Wikipedia’s page is also quite useful.
The words ‘transgressive fiction’, will most likely conjure up a few contemporary names, or novels, most of which have fairly successful movie adaptations attached to them. Authors like Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis and Irvine Welsh; Fight Club, American Psycho, and Trainspotting respectively. The bias shows here, as I am a fan of both Palahniuk and Easton Ellis, but even if I was not, their ties to modern transgressive literature are undeniable – a less contemporary, but similarly infamous novel is A Clockwork Orange, a name that when mentioned to my own parents stirs not so much fond memories in them as an acknowledgment of the film adaptation’s notoriety in British cinemas.
Writing Transgressive Fiction
The tension in most transgressive literature comes from the ‘self’ rather than any concrete narrative, from the central character (the word ‘protagonist’ feels like something of a stretch) and their misdemeanors, crimes, sins or in some cases, their utter lack of humanity. Some focus may be placed on dysfunctional families, or irresponsible parenting, and while not being a tool for the blame in the story, may most definitely provide some kind of reason for the seemingly irredeemable behavior – what it all boils down to, however, is that modern transgressive fiction is decidedly shocking, whether this is intentional or not.
But where to teens factor into it? We’re the world’s disaffected youth, aren’t we? We don’t flinch at shock TV, the foul things that come out for ratings or for the sheer hell of it. We’re not supposed to care about the people around us if it means we’ll get something out of it; so how on Earth would we be affected by transgressive literature?
Well, perhaps the answer itself lies in the question. If ever there was a time when someone feels so ostensibly different, separated from society as a whole, it is during adolescence. A common stereotype that seeps into most media, though most predominantly movies and television, is the ‘nobody understand me’ teenager. Nobody understands the internal suffering of a teen going through puberty. Nobody understands why they’re so frustrated with the world and everything in it. Nobody understands their pain. The irony is that most everyone who has ever been a teenager does, on some level, understand, but more often than not, we don’t want to hear it; I’d be lying if I said I’d never told my mother she doesn’t understand what I’m going through, not really, when she has presented me with an anecdote from her teen years that matched mine entirely.
So, this internalized ‘suffering’, exaggerated by hormones as it may be, is an excellent place to start. Naturally, this is only in the case of writing transgressive fiction, which of course, is not for everyone, and here I feel I may end up being a little selfish and defending my own choices, rather than causing the idea in itself to make sense. But I feel this needs more clarification; that there is an awkwardness in ensuring this internal tension does not come across as whiny (I have a friend who hates Catcher in the Rye with a vengeance for this exact reason) , or so self-centered that the work itself may simply be a diary of sorts.
I take American Psycho as my first example here, where the shallow nature of Patrick Bateman’s life essentially causes him to seek meaning in brutal murder. Wikipedia displays this quote from Easton Ellis on the writing of this novel:
[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of “American Psycho” came from. It wasn’t that I was going to make up this serial killer on Wall Street. High concept. Fantastic. It came from a much more personal place, and that’s something that I’ve only been admitting in the last year or so. I was so on the defensive because of the reaction to that book that I wasn’t able to talk about it on that level.
Of course, this is just one novel in, perhaps, hundreds (it’s not a hugely popular or well-known genre, and whether or not it can be called a genre at all has been up for debate), but there is another way in which, I feel, the teen years contribute to the overall nature of writing transgressive fiction. How many of us, at some point during our teen years, feel disillusioned by the world around us? I know I went through this phase. It’s almost like the inverse of rose-tinted glasses; for a while, everything gets a little murky and grey.
The further implications of writing transgressive fiction are many, varied, and I’ve rambled for long enough on this front, so I won’t bore you with them. I will say, however, that by this logic, there’s relatively little that should stop us from at least trying.
Reading Transgressive Fiction
This is, quite possibly, the more accessible side to transgressive literature. I have already mentioned some of the more widely known titles, all three of which have been turned into films; other work by the same authors, by default, also fits into the ‘genre’. One of the most interesting trends I find here, is that many of the ‘protagonists’ (if they can be called that) are quite young.
The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis follows a small number of college students in a fictional liberal arts college. The narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s infamous short story, Guts, is only thirteen at the time of narrating it. Alexander, the controversial narrator of A Clockwork Orange, is fifteen in the novel, while the film adaptation upped his age to seventeen or eighteen to minimise controversy.
Perhaps I’m speaking only from personal experience here, but if my parents knew what I was reading – really reading – they’d either be shocked or very, very, confused. A natural reaction. What parent would really want to know that their nineteen-year-old daughter is reading about a psychopathic killer on Wall Street (every murder described in vivid detail), or a woman losing her lips and gums to frostbite – as well as the gruesome tale that marked exactly how she got there? What parent wants to admit to their daughter’s deeply cynical outlook, matched by what she reads? Transgressive fiction has, at times, been called popular amongst youths, but this doesn’t mean it’s seen as safe reading. It doesn’t mean my parents might not try to empty my bookshelves if they read it for themselves; it’s not to say I live a double life or anything, but reading is a recreational habit for me. Chuck Palahniuk states in Haunted‘s afterword, that a book is ‘as private and consensual as sex.’ What I choose not to share, and what I choose to share, in other words, is entirely up to me.
The unfortunate fact is that it often becomes difficult to look past the content that is constantly pushing at boundaries. It becomes difficult to look, primarily, past violence and brutality, then after that, sex, sin, cruelty, ideals that might make people’s eyes burn. It becomes much easier to see the book as something offensive because it exposes us to things we might not even dare to dream of, some version of a ‘video nasty’ but in literary form. It’s supposed to implant less-than-savoury ideas in our heads, in much the same way as video games are supposed to. So, if you scrub away at the filth, the blood, what’s left? Nothing, surely.
If you scrub away at the filth and the blood, then you find the underlying messages. Themes. In the case of A Clockwork Orange, it is the question of what makes a man a man? When his free will is denied, does he cease to be one? American Psycho is a brutal attack on the yuppie culture of the 1980s, Snuff a jarring yet compulsively entertaining look at the adult film industry (and Palahniuk’s last book to date), Trainspotting explores the loss of Scotland’s heritage and national identity (a theme I hold close to my heart, my roots being there). This is the bare bones, without the ultra-violence, the drawn-out torture scenes, the sex, the drugs. What covers is, the flesh, the skin, is just there to make you sit up and pay attention to what the author is really saying; what you’re supposed to glean from reading these novels.
Therefore, to look at them as a simple excuse for depravity is a disservice. I’m not denying that there are writers out there who build up the skin and bones without it having a skeleton. Something fake. Artificial. Gore for the sake of it. They will always exist, and I’ll bite, some six or seven years ago, I was one of them.
As with all books, however, a work of transgressive literature is meant to immerse the audience just as much as, say, a romance. A thriller. We’re still encouraged to judge the actions of the central characters, although here, in a more visceral way.
Most characters in most novels will do something we disagree with somewhere along the line; when I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the first time, for some reason, I couldn’t adjust to Harry’s character throughout. I’m not sure if part of this stemmed from Harry’s failure to become a school prefect, a very sore spot for me at the time (sure, it was only middle school, but still) … but I was constantly judging him as a character, just for losing his temper a few times. Magnify this maybe a hundred times, and you’ve got your ‘protagonist’ in a work of transgressive literature; at some point or another, perhaps they thought they were trying to better themselves. Yet later, there’s the impulse to scream into the page ‘what are you doing!?’ because, whatever it is, is possibly so abhorrent it’s impossible to imagine anyone doing it.
In a way, this could almost seem therapeutic. Trying to learn from the mistakes of fictional characters; a twisted, perverse, yet wholly contemporary fable, no? Take instruction from the things you wish these characters wouldn’t do. But no, although Bret Easton Ellis has occasionally called himself a moralist, these stories never are about morals. They’re about how far humanity may push itself; how far individuals may push themselves, echoed in the readership. Sometimes, just reading these works means pushing your tolerance to the absolute limit. But isn’t that something we do every day, when confronted with ignorance, arrogance … in my case, dealing with people. Spending all day inside a house with relatively little to do tends to leave you a tiny bit agoraphobic. The outside world is a completely foreign land.
My initial point here, however, is that transgressive fiction is not designed to really warp anyone; in a sense, it works to do the opposite, as I have already stated. The bleakest of stories, while not always carrying hope for their ‘protagonists’, either act as food for thought, or remind us to be careful. Of ourselves, and sometimes of others.
I sense I’m sounding a little preachy, so it’s time for me to cut off. And no, this isn’t so much a suggestion that every teen starts reading heaps of Easton Ellis, Palahniuk, Vonnegut … more is that it’s something that’s been playing on my mind for quite some time, now. If the outlook on teen writing is that most of it is immature, that it doesn’t really strike the heart of the deeper issues, then there is, most assuredly, something wrong. First and foremost, my aim is to prove that teens are capable of writing this. Beyond that, that we at least understand it; that we’re not all so wrapped up in our own little worlds, drinking, smoking, doing whatever else (at least here in the UK) to forget that there is more out there. We have our own problems, too; sometimes, however, they’re not so far removed from adult life. Sometimes, we’re more in tune with these issues than anyone might dare to think.
So, finally, my thanks to John and Allegra for allowing me to post this. My thanks to you for taking the time to labour through this. If you didn’t, thanks for taking the time to check it out anyway!
About Felicity J. StewartThe first, and possibly only thing you need to know? I'm a serial procrastinator. I write. I mean, naturally, I have other interests as well, but I do love writing. So naturally, I'm going to blog about writing; I could blog about singing, or art, or Fallout. However, I'm going to blog about writing because it seems like the only viable thing for me to blog about, and I dedicate an awful lot of time to it. I also feel as though it's a little easier to blog about writing than it is to blog about, say ... sharks. Unless you have a genuine interest in sharks, I suppose. This constant digression is my tried and tested method of diverting personal interest, because I don't like talking about myself much; I like talking about the things that I enjoy and the things that I do. I like talking about my findings and most of all, voicing my opinion, but I like to deflect the most personal of questions. What I will say, however, is this: I am nineteen years old. I am unemployed. I am broke. I have always been enthusiastic about the English language, but I did not realize it until I finished my GCSEs and started a BTEC in Art and Design that did not end well at all. The writing came later; it was more something that I did than actually did consciously knowing I was capable of doing it. I enjoyed it, I received a degree of praise that was most likely age-related more than anything else, but I never thought much of the prospect of say, a career in writing. Oh, the irony.
Posted on October 4, 2011, in Guest Posts and tagged adult, Anthony Burgess, boundaries, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, Kurt Vonnegut, message, mistakes, morality, pushing, self, shock, sins, soul, teenagers, testing, transgressive fiction, video nasty, youth. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.