Sunday, July 17, 2011

Topic: The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2011" My guest today Author Dan Holloway

My guest today, author, Dan Holloway

Crossing the Line

I was really excited at the thought of writing this because I thought I’d have a gazillion things to fire off. I’m still excited. But the main thing I think about sex in literature isn’t really expandable on. People have a problem with sex because it’s “different” from the other things we do. Simple as. It goes back to the early Platonists and the argument was bollocks then and it’s bollocks now. End of.

So what am I going to say? OK, here’s what.

I write transgressive material. By no means all of what I write is transgressive. Some of it is just normal everyday lives, like my novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, which has a reasonable amount of sex but just because sex is a reasonable part of what the characters do. Some of my shorts have no sex or violence or swearing or even drugs. Not because my characters don’t do sex, violence, swearing or drugs but because the bit of their lives I’m writing about happens not to have any. Just like the way in my transgressive work the characters often don’t sit in traffic jams (sometimes they do!), not because they don’t do that but because they don’t in the bit of their lives I’m writing about.

So what *is* transgression and why would I write about it?

Transgression is basically just stuff that most people don’t think of as normal. OK, it’s more than a penchant for marmite and eggnog sandwiches. It’s behaviour that “society” considers beyond the pale. I’ll get into examples later.

Now, there’s all kinds of stuff we could say about the line between sensationalism and art, and when it’s OK to write about transgression because it’s for a “serious purpose.” But that’s seven kinds of bollocks, as I hope 1997’s seminal art exhibition Sensation showed. The wonderful, liberating thing about so-called Young British Art is that it took the whole “is this art or is it sensationalism?” debate and gave it a well-deserved finger.

So I’m not going to say there are good reasons for writing about transgressive behaviour and bad reasons, or good texts and bad texts. And I’m not going to talk about copycat behaviour because that’s seven more kinds of bollocks.

I want to talk about why I write what I write. And mention a coupla heroes along the way. The first being the not-very-obviously-transgressive Banana Yoshimoto, the author of N.P., which is my favourite book of all time. It’s about a collection of short stories by a dead writer, and the existence of an unpublished final story. And an incestuous relationship that causes quiet devastation but is – and this is the transgressive bit – portrayed as the pure emotional heart of the book.

It’s this aspect that characterises Transgressive Fiction with capital letters, and is what interests me most: the sympathetic portrayal of behaviour considered to be beyond society’s pale. It’s something that makes readers extraordinarily uncomfortable, because rather like lab rats or Pavlov’s bow-wows we are conditioned to expect certain behaviours to be treated a certain way.

What refusing to paint those behaviours the expected way, or reward or punish them as expected does is jar our expectations. An illustration of how much people can’t get their heads around this kind of thing is the Oscar-winning film American Beauty, which received its 18 certificate in the UK…because it portrayed recreational drug use non-judgmentally…if you’ve ever heard anything so ridiculous.

Which brings me to another thing, which is that to create this jar through the sympathetic portrayal of unacceptable behaviour, you actually have to do a pretty good job of the characterisation. Otherwise you don’t get the sympathy. And part of that is to show characters in the round. Which a lot of writing both on the grim and the rose-tinted side doesn’t do.

This rounded characterisation, which just happens to include things that are “unacceptable” serves two incredibly important purposes which are at the heart of transgressive writing, or at least the kind I do and enjoy. First, it makes us question where the value of a person is located and even whether the idea of a person being good or bad makes any sense.

But even that doesn’t get to the bottom of it, because we’re still accepting the unacceptability of the acts portrayed, and for me the single most important thing transgressive writing does is make us question where we draw our lines. Which isn’t to say we should shift them. Not at all – but if we leave them where they are, we do so having thought about them. Take a person you’ve grown to love over the course of a book, whose tastes run to the exotic, shall we say? Does that mean you were wrong to love them? What does it say about you and your character judgment that you did? Does it mean their tastes are OK – because it’s them who chose them? Or does it just mean everyone’s who they are and there’s a story to be told about each of us that has infinitely more nuances of shade and depth than we can ever put down in words? And is *that* the point where what we read helps us to begin to know ourselves a little better, or at least to ask the questions that will get us on the way?

Let me illustrate a point using a non-sex example. Clothes. By preference I wear t-shirts, jeans a *lot* of accessories like gloves and bracelets, braces/suspenders, and a little make-up. I know several people who’d be offended if I showed up to dinner in that (though they’d always say “it’s because of my relatives” which is seventy times seven shades of bollocks as an argument). They’d maybe tell me whilst wearing a suit. And I might tell them I found their suit offensive. And they’d laugh and say “yes, but what I’m wearing is inoffensive but you’re wearing clothes you know could offend”. Now in case the reason they’re a fucktard isn’t obvious it’s this – if you accept the principle that clothing can offend, and that you as a subjective person can be offended, then you have to accept that any other subjective person can be offended – and if you’re all subjective then what offends may well be different in every case. Now I’m a come-as-you-are type so I *know* I’m a fucktard being offended by suits just because of their connotations with capitalist oppression and the denial of individuality and years of institutional violence to the mentally ill. So I’ll take it on the chin. But the fucktard in the suit better damn well be prepared to take it in the chin back. But they aren’t. They act surprised.

And that’s what transgressive fiction does – slowly makes people less surprised when individuals turn out to be, er, individuals with all the roundedness and unpredictability that entails. And step one in doing that is questioning EVERY stereotype, including the moral ones and those about the association between any two behaviours or any one or more behaviour and “character”. It asks “Is that too far?” and “OK, but is it *always* too far?” and “If it’s not always too far is it ever too far?”

Transgression doesn’t just point the finger at readers, though. We all draw our own lines and what and where they are form questions that constantly prod me in the side. There are things I will write – but not transgressively. Some forms of sexualised violence, for example. I have criminals carrying them out in thrillers. But that’s not transgressive. For me the transgression, the interesting questions, lies as much in the treatment as the material. It’s the tenderness of the incest in N.P. that makes it such a transgressive book ad makes it different from, say, Chinatown.

For me the hardest subject matter of all is nothing to do with sex. The most difficult scene I ever had to write, in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes (, is when a racist is tearfully cradling her dead son. I almost certainly should have made it a more tender scene, forced readers to confront their feelings for her, but I just couldn’t do it. So she remained nothing but a monster. Racism, homophobia, things that could generically be called “hate crimes” terrify me in a way that other behaviours just don’t. I think it has to do with the sheer scope of the hate involved. The most sickening of paraphilias remain between individuals – a single, secretive perpetrator and their desperate victim. Hate crimes involve the complicity of millions in the systematic act of eradicating other millions. I think it’s that group aspect that terrifies me most. Since the first time I was surrounded by a gang of schoolyard bullies, I’ve always found groups the very last transgression, the line I won’t cross. And yet it’s a line I should cross, and I wrestle with myself daily about it.

There’s a line in Paul’s letter to the Romans that says the law made sin sinful. It took away the excuse. I don’t often find myself in agreement with St Paul, but that’s one of the wisest things I ever heard. Complacency, the belief we have it figured out, accepting the status quo but not even thinking we’re accepting the status quo because it’s somehow just “there” – that’s the most dangerous, disgusting, nauseating, sinful trait that infects every part of our society like spores of rot. Transgressive fiction does exactly what St Paul says about the law – it takes away the excuse for complacency. It takes our deepest held beliefs, the things that seem to be the very fibre and fabric of what it is to be human and reminds us that every one of those beliefs is nothing to do with “the way things are” but represents a choice we made.

Remember that next time you see the tabloids calling for censorship. What do they really object to? Some words on a page? Or having something there, in their line of sight, making them think things they would rather not. What’s really worse? The things we write about? Or it being OK for a whole society to hold moral opinions they’ve never questioned?

Dan Holloway ( runs the eight cuts gallery ( literary project and is a spoken word performer and novelist. His transgressive performance pieces make up the collection (life:) razorblades included ( His novel The Company of Fellows ( spent more than 2 weeks in Amazon’s top 100 fiction charts. On July 28th he will be part of Blackwell’s Rising Stars panel at the world-famous Oxford store.


  1. I've seen several mentions of Transgressive lit during this series and, to be honest, it is something I have not read. Okay, I'm sheltered. Your description/explanation is enlightening, intriguing, and well written. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Maxwell. What I didn't include - Yoshimoto aside - is any reading. Do take a look at Lautreamont's Maldoror, J G Ballard, Burroughs, and for more contemporary stuff the website filmically, you could start with Nagisa Oshima's Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses), Cronenburg's Crash and Dead Ringers and the Tetsuo series

  3. Dan as you know I can't agree with most of this, because I start out form a position that there is no such thing as transgressive behaviour, only some activities that as you say, gets up people's noses. To me that wraps up such behaviour into notions of identity, transgressive people running the risk of becoming their transgressions worn like badge of courage or defiance.

    "Transgressive fiction does exactly what St Paul says about the law – it takes away the excuse for complacency" - does it really? Law is just a line of 'acceptable' behaviour drawn on the ground and anyone stepping beyond that is a criminal, is literally an outlaw. That line is based on societal consensus. My approach is to attack the unthinking and unquestioning nature of consensus itself (as a power structure with a superficially democratic veneer), how that line is policed & enforced, and much wider notions of our epistemologies and what we mean by reality in the first place. I am not trying to say my approach is any more valid than yours, but I would query the notion of a distinct 'Transgressive literature".

    With the emergence of the long tail and the information reach of the Net, nothing is beyond reach, nothing will remain transgressional so long as some producer somewhere is knocking out the accessories and the props.

    Marc Nash

  4. It sounds as though you're saying what I'm saying but in different words. I'm not saying there is such a thing as transgressive behaviour - I thought I'd made that clear - but there are consensuses, and there is behaviour that transgresses them. Likewise we can portray that behaviour unsympathetically (as most thrillers do) or sympathetically.

    I am certainly happy to try to uncover and question lazy consensus where I find it in the way you suggest, but I don't always think it's the most effective way. For me a story like (Maxwell, here's another great book) Boy A can be just as effective in making people both realise they have and question their presuppositions as any direct engagement. I'm trying to avoid saying the two approaches are show and tell but I think that's possibly the best metaphor. and there's a place for both. I just find that when i try to engage directly with people about their preconceptions they always think I'm somehow not really talking about them - either that or they get instantly defensive or shout me down as some kind of monster before they've heard me out, so I prefer to challenge them by showing them what they hate and making them love it.

  5. Holy god, Dan, after reading your post (twice in fact), my head really hurts. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a compliment. When I think too much, that usually happens! And your writing got me thinking I’ve been reading transgressive fiction all along without realizing it. I’m not really one for labels, so never paid much attention to it.

    Take, for example, the book I read at age eleven, which affected me so deeply and is likely the reason I write erotica today – Story of O by Pauline Reage. It’s a story of a woman who is a willful slave to her lover. The tests he puts her through are severe, both sexually and psychologically, and yet…the erotic element is unmistakable. I wouldn’t ever have classified her behavior as transgressive only because sex is such a strange animal, and it’s a mystery why certain things arouse a person. If I read that book thinking that I wished I were in her shoes (or handcuffs, for that matter), does that make me abnormal?

    My favorite writer is Charles Bukowski, whom has also been classified as a writer of transgressive fiction. Sure, his stories deal with rebelling against the norms, and he may take it a bit farther than some, but I’m having a difficult time understanding how his work is classified as transgressive. Alcoholic, misogynistic, and sometimes prone to fits of violence—yes, he is all these things in his books, but that wasn’t far from who he was in real life. I am attracted to his writing because of these very things, not in spite of them.

    Suffice it to say, I’d sure as hell prefer to sit down with him for a bottle of scotch over the James Pattersons, John Grishams or Dan Browns of the world ---who for me, are all interchangeable.

    Now... off to take a couple of Tylenol, thanks a lot Dan!


  6. I probably agree with Dan and Marc, except in that I don't like labels.

    So 'transgressive fiction' doesn't really mean anything to me.

    I mean one person's 'norm' is another person's 'crime' is another person's 'kink'.

    Who decides what is trangressing what?

  7. For all Marc and I appear to disagree, I'm not really one for labels either, but I do think transgressive literature is a good way of describing this kind of questioning by the use of limit cases.

    the Story of O has had an effect on more than one person I know - and it's a classic text precisely because it's about exploring boundaries. I'm trying to think what texts have influence me that way. I guess the male equivalent of O is Venus in Furs, but I only dipped into that recently (and after, I confess, the Velvet Underground song, which I adore). I think the closest would be Josephine Hart's Damage, which I read after seeing the film.

    I've heard Bukowski called transgressive but I don't really see it either - I think there has to be more than calculated misogyny because, sadly, I don't think the abhorrence of misogyny is an accepted social norm, so texts that question it always end up very contentious (which may be a good way of questionning of course) - think of, for example, Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. Bukowski was brilliant but I have an on-off relationship with him because sometimes it seems every writer for the last 3 decades is just trying to be Bukowski only not as good.

    Talking of Chucks, I should add (he's been mentioned before on this month's posts) Palahniuk to the transgressive reading lists - I believe Choke has been mentioned more than once already.

  8. Maybe it is transgressive to be misogynist and demand not to be treated as 'abhorrent'.

    I find it hard to analyse my own work but I wonder if some of it is about saying it is ok to hate women! Because as the child of feminism, I am sick of the way everything is scrutinised for misogyny.

  9. I should have put a link to some places online where my transgressive pieces are in case people are curious.
    My short "The Last Fluffer in La La Land" is at:
    and "Meat" is at
    both of those involve the juxtaposition of sex and death (but not really necrophilia) to make us think about how human beings do or don't connect whilst Photo Fit ( is about hybristophilia, a form of parahphilia that looks specifically at abnormal power relationships (and is sometimes called Bonnie and Clyde syndrome)

  10. Elly that's a really good example, and shows that you don't have to set out to "be transgressive" to produce something that's transgressive because the transgresision may lie in more than the text itself. I'm sort of looking at just that in the new Oxford thriller but can't say too much without plot spoiling

  11. As with most things, transgression is in the eye of the beholder ;) I am transgressive . . . but would never label myself as such - what is normal? I say it's different for everyone, which makes it all subjective. That's what art is, in the end - something people hold strong opinions about.

  12. As Elly and Sessha have both brought up the question of "normal" I think I'd want to say that I see a difference between a person's values which are entirely variable person to person. On the other hand, "norm" or "normal" is simply (as I use it here) a sociological term to describe views held by more than 50% of people. Obviously a "norm" will vary according to the group you talk about, but groups do by and large have norms and we, by and large, find ourselves for cultural and geographicla reasons in certain groups, so I think the notion of material being transgressive makes sense in that context. i have a feeling that saying this isn't the case is one of those things that makes perfect sense in theory, but as we live our lives I think it's rather disingenuous to say we are utterly unaware of external pressures on us to think a certain way - in the bohemian world of literary fiction, for example, there's pressure to avoid expressing conservative opinions. In a small village in south east England, there would be consequences for even raising the subject of incest as anything other than a disgrace. In real lived lives these pressures occur everyday, and as long as they do, transgression is a meaningful phrase.

  13. I think I agree with Marc and i think I agree with what I think he is suggesting- that form could be more important than content when it comes to 'transgression' in writing. Or else you are just producing the next 'in thing' - from zombies to necrophiliacs, to homos, to adulterers to people who fuck fossils (I had an idea about someone who collects fossils then masturbates with them, but it seemed very tame. I think I have been watching too much gay porn).

    If you don't challenge the form of writing, of literature, of thinking, you are not transgressing anything. And writing that challenges can be in any genre, any space, any subject matter.

    I find I know it when I see it.

  14. I see what you're saying, Dan - but I don't believe there is a 'majority'(much less 50%) of the population who would agree on a sexual 'norm'. There's a lot of variation out there in preferences. Labeling some behaviors as transgressive only further isolates those who already feel disenfranchised - I'd much rather think of sexuality as a continuum of nearly limitless choices with anything safe, sane and consensual being given the same weight and validity.

  15. Sessha:
    "nearly limitless choices with anything safe, sane and consensual being given the same weight and validity"
    I wonder if that comment shows that you do think there is a norm - I don't think I would ever say there is a majority position as to what people "do" but I think there is in terms of what people "don't" which, basically, would be anything that is not safe, sane, and consensual. I'm not saying that unsafe, insane, or non-consensual sex is good, but I think I do want to keep prodding people who think it's bad until they can give a reason for thinking it. As I hope I've made clear, I really don't mind what people's values are with sex - what matters is that they've thought before reaching them.

    I do see your point about not further disenfranchising, and this is something that will always split people down the middle. It's something I've not experienced firsthand with sexuality, but with mental health there is real debate between those who want to demedicalise the whole thing and place everyone on a spectrum of normal, and those who want to say "I am mentally ill, what's your problem", which position goes all the way to people who would reclaim words like psycho and mentalist and wear them as badges of pride and a way of constantly being in people's faces (rather the same debate as takes place in the LGBTQ community). For reasons that are part to do with my personality and part to do with my philosophical approach to disconnectedness I tend to fall into the latter camp but I realise there are people who are passionate about being in the first camp, and I understand why.

    @Elly - I love what Marc does with form, and I think you're right that the truly edgy things going on in literature are those that play with form, but (you know how the two of us differ on this :)) for me writing is much more personal - I've experienced so much prejudice firsthand as a result of my mental health and people not thinking that I still think there's work to be done in challenging preconceptions (about whatever) before I would want to move on to working with form.

  16. Dan, I'd go so far as to leave out safe and sane (I've done it in practice often enough, after all). Even if I didn't, the safe and sane gamut of sex possible includes much of what is labeled as transgressive (or, in the words of the common man - wrong). That labeling automatically rejects those of us with 'edge of the bell curve' tastes - and that is what I would love to change (oh, and throw in a helping of world peace and infinite compassion while I'm at it!)

  17. I absolutely understand that - as I say what I want as someone with mental health difficulties is to be taken for who I am without judgment and though I embrace the "diferent" label in that respect, I completely get people who see the continuum. To be honest it had never occurred to me to think of anything consensual as transgressive, with the exception of incest. I know there are lots of different debates at play, but I should reiterate it's not acts or behaviours that are really transgressive, it's the whole thing including the means of conveyance and the audience for which it's written. And I do agree that labels aren't particularly useful - but they are a convenient way of describing the kind of pieces I'm talking about - ones that seek to question unthought-through preconceptions

  18. Here is a comment from Kate Rigby, sent via Facebook, which she had problems uploading. I should add, Sessha, that I remember feeling outraged when the film Crash (the Cronenberg one) was labelled transgressive because it feautured sex between disabled people, so I absolutely get your point.

    This is a really interesting interview. Thanks Dan and Soooz. It had me replying to various bits:
    Firstly, on the subject of incest, I wrote an article in Bifrost magazine years ago about the difference between consensual and non-consensual incest, it really annoys me the way the word incest is used synonymously with abuse. It's the consensual aspect that's important and this was the point I was trying to make in the article.
    It's also interesting what you say about not being able to write about eg perpetrators of hate crimes etc. I've found by helping to understand and giving some redeeming feature, we ultimately come to understand the complexities of human nature rather than a straight us and them dichotomy. And yet, when you were talking about newspaper censorship, and I read the Daily Hate Mail, propounding its lies and affecting the way people think, creating and reinforcing prejudices, then I'm ambivalent. I'm all for free speech but whose freedom are we talking about here, when those in power shape the thoughts and prejudices of others? It's very topical here at the moment and I've been one of those fighting for ages for Murdoch not to have full control over BSkyB for these very reasons. Thought-provoking. Thanks again.

  19. Dan you do play with form. That was the most transgressive thing about MEAT for me. The shock of the form.

  20. Late to this discussion, but it does seem to me that the core point that a function of sex in literature, and perhaps the most interesting, it to challenge the reader's preconceptions. And it seems that that is the essence of the transgressive: to make the reader think about things in a way that they might not otherwise. Hence the importance of characters that are rounded and three dimensional: characters who do not allow a reader to fall back on stereotypes. The label transgressive may be relatively new, but the form has been around a long time. Les Liasions Dangereuse (spelling may be off) challenged assumptions about proper behaviour; L'Etranger challenged preconceptions regarding grief, amongst other things; Lolita looked at paedophillia in a way that was uncomfortable for many readers, as it was not simply black and white; and John Fowles in The Collector managed to make an obsessive stalker almost sympathetic. For me, all literature should strive to make the reader think, all literature should challenge preconceptions and prejudices and all literature should have an iconaclastic bent, challenging accepted paradigms. Except, of course, that's very didactic and doesn't sit comfortably with my equally strongly held view that there should be no limits on what is literature . . .


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