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 It’s about a collection of short stories by a dead writer, and the existence of an unpublished final story.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 (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Man-Painted-Agnieszkas-Shoes-ebook/dp/B004QGYH6M), 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 (http://eightcuts.com) runs the eight cuts gallery (http://eightcuts.com) literary project and is a spoken word performer and novelist. His transgressive performance pieces make up the collection (life:) razorblades included (http://www.amazon.co.uk/life-razorblades-included-ebook/dp/B003QTDLBW). His novel The Company of Fellows (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Company-of-Fellows/dp/B004PLMHYC) 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.