If you feel confined by the average genre novel—think your standard thriller, fantasy, or romance—it might be time to try writing transgressive fiction. This genre deals extensively with exploring taboo subject matters in a way that can be groundbreaking and even life changing for the reader, when written well.
Here’s a quick hit of everything you need to know about this literary trend and how to incorporate it into your own writing.
What is transgressive fiction?
Transgressive fiction features characters who want to break free from society and its basic norms. Because of this, transgressive literature usually features a range of taboo topics. Protagonists might be relatable sex workers or criminals. They probably have a dark past. Stories might feature dark themes and polarizing topics like drugs, crime, rape or incest. Violence and obscenity on the page are the norm.
Transgressive authors tackle these types of topics and themes head-on, in a way that really makes the reader stop and think about society and its issues.
While transgressive fiction may seem “punk” or on the more modern side, this literary style is hardly anything new. You can find classic works of transgressive fiction throughout history, from famous names like the Marquis de Sade. You may have even read transgressive writers in a high school or college literature class.
Some of the best transgressive fiction
While transgressive literature can seem edgy and “out there,” if you’re new to the genre, it’s not as uncommon as you might think. You may have read a transgressive novel in the past, as many are featured on school reading lists. Many are also made into movies, so you may have seen a film based on one of these novels, even if you haven’t read one.
Here are a few examples of popular transgressive works.
Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.
This famous book and even more famous film deal with issues such as drug use and sex work, but the broader theme is about obsession and the human longing for connection. Deeply disturbing and pretty depressing by the ending, it follows parallel stories of a mother and her son, both addicted to various substances for their own reasons.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Another famous book-turned-movie, American Psycho deals with themes of materialism and capitalism, and the violence that accompanies both. While the novel and movie take that violence to the next level, the message is still clear and the book serves as a warning sign for the future of society.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Another transgressive book-turned-famous-movie (are you seeing the trend, here?), Fight Club comments on a lot of different issues from masculinity to consumerism, perfectionism to the exploration of the real vs. not real.
You can interpret this book many different ways, which is a recurring hallmark of quite a lot of books and stories within the genre.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
While the above three examples are pretty well known and considered transgressive classics, you can also find some newer, more modern transgressive works, too—like Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. While Flynn may be best known for her thriller Gone Girl, it’s Sharp Objects that more so bleeds (quite literally) into the world of transgressive fiction, dealing with uncomfortable topics like alcoholism, self harm, and abuse in bold and unapologetic ways.
While the themes aren’t quite as big and bold as those you’ll find in American Psycho, they are a little more akin to what you might get from Fight Club—only where Palahniuk’s piece focuses on violent masculinity, Flynn’s work looks at the dangers of female relationships and female stereotypes.
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
Published in 2020, this award-winning, acclaimed book deals with all sorts of heavy topics, from BDSM to political upheaval to paternal sadism—all while exploring a more universal theme of human connection. If you liked Requiem for a Dream, this is a good next pick for you to add to your TBR list.
Querelle of Roberval by Kevin Lambert
Lastly, this social and dramatic tragedy published in 2022 uses sex and violence to talk politics, setting the titular protagonist in a Canadian lumber town in which a millworker strike heats up over the course of the book. The protagonist particularly fits the bill of a transgressive character, using his sexual prowess to, in part, drive the plot, in a work that reviews have said “will either repel or attract a reader.”
Books that blur genre lines
There are some books that we could include on our list of examples that straddle one style and another. Some readers might consider them transgressive, while others might consider them something else entirely.
For example, 1984 by George Orwell definitely includes elements of the transgressive genre, with its violence and overarching themes, but it could also simply be considered a classic dystopian sci-fi novel. Similarly, The Secret History by Donna Tartt is frequently considered a dark academia novel, but it also deals with violence and themes of social disparity and manipulation.
Writing transgressive fiction: The 3 things you need
So what do you need if you’ve fallen in love with this style of writing and you want to write your own transgressive work? It’s not quite as easy as just throwing some shocking scenes or themes on a page. Transgressive fiction doesn’t just shock the reader with out of the ordinary and emotional or strange writing. It also says something important in what was once thought of as socially unacceptable ways.
Here are the things you’ll need in order to break free from convention and convey your message.
1. A theme
Every classic piece of transgressive literature that goes down in history (or, rather, infamy) has an important theme—something to say. The theme of American Psycho, for example, is the superficial, violent nature of capitalism. The theme of A Clockwork Orange is violence as a necessity for the human experience.
So, what’s your theme going to be? What important thing do you have to say and, more importantly, has it been said before? If it has been said before (and most things have), how can you say it differently? What do your writing style and choices offer readers that they haven’t already seen?
2. A protagonist with a rich internal life
A strong character arc is important in any successful story, but a character’s internal arc is especially important when it comes to transgressive literature. After all, a theme is best delivered when it’s proven by how a protagonist changes (for the better or worse), or tragically doesn’t change at all, over the course of a book’s events.
Before you begin writing, spend some time putting down on the page who your character is and what makes them who they are. What dark secrets do they hide? What trauma made them the person they are today? What big internal issue are they fighting, alongside the plot elements that they’re fighting externally? Are they mentally ill and that makes this fight harder, or is being mentally ill their fight? How do they fight these issues in socially unacceptable ways? How do they cause controversy?
3. A plot
Of course, every story needs a plot, but it’s all too common for transgressive authors to fall into a trap of just throwing shocking content on the page for the shock’s sake alone. So, make sure that your story has a real plot and that it’s not just a conglomeration of random, cheap devices thrown together for shock value.
If you feature violence heavily in your book, for example, the violence should move the plot along and actually mean something to the greater story. Make it matter.
If a character dies, why? How does it impact your protagonist? How does it change their trajectory? Why does this story need this death in order for it to make sense? If you remove the death, does everything in the plot stays the same? If so, then it probably doesn’t need to happen.
Writing transgressive fiction: A big undertaking with a big payoff
Writers drawn to the transgressive genre are in for a lot of work. It can require a lot of forethought and planning in order to ensure your plot both works as a believable story arc and conveys an important theme to your readers through the shocking and disturbing.
However, if you can get it all right, you’ll find you’ve written a story that provides meaning and intellectual value that transcends literary divides.