My love affair with the surreal began when I went on to study film and television at university. Locked away in a tiny bedroom that overlooked a busy highway, I wrote and read screenplays daily. At the time I thought that screenwriting was the closest thing to bringing any fantasy world to reality. A script had hope; a chance for a story to morph into the physical realm. With its diverse artistic palette, from splashes of technicolour to strong symphonic soundtracks and striking talent, movies could captivate and transport any audience.
There was always something absurdly dark in the worlds created by Lynch, Kauffman, and Buñuel. These filmmakers had a talent for reflecting humanity’s vices in the most surreal and voyeuristic ways. No matter how grotesque or uncomfortable their films made me feel, there was always a lingering sense of intrigue, like I was suddenly immersed into a dream that I couldn’t wake from. Here were artists so open about confronting the status quo, with no shame or fear of offending. I recall trying to replicate a few short surrealistic screenplays myself, often following unconventional plotlines with even more unconventional characters. But these stories lacked originality and seemed to only ever brush the surface of the deeper story hidden within. Frankly, these screenplays were more likely to see the inside of a trashcan than a cinema auditorium.
After a few years of working as a freelance screenwriter, I began to feel unmotivated about the writing process. The script format – with its set page length, simplified syntax, and overemphasis of the ‘show don’t tell’ motto – was restrictive, a maze with 100ft high hedges that prevented me from ever seeing what or who was on the other side. I needed to escape its confines, tunnel my way out and enter into the psyche of my characters. Writing prose fiction allowed me to explore characters and ideas more closely. No longer was I looking outward in, only describing action or dialogue, now I could use the pen to probe and dissect my characters’ deepest thoughts, to finally see what they saw.
And just like those Lynchian films, I was not only repulsed by the stories I found myself writing but strangely intrigued. The further I studied my heroines a cauldron of subversive desires began to boil. Ready to spill over the pages were voices of unrest and contempt, staining my innocence and passivity. These women wanted to get fucked, they wanted to do the fucking, they wanted to use and abuse, to seek out the heroin addict hidden in the alleyway, they wanted to cuss, they wanted to experiment, they wanted to be bound in order to be set free. From the green girl to the matriarch mother, and those between and beyond, these were the stories I wanted to read and write about – stories about the multifaceted woman.
It occurred to me that the rebellious acts these women sought out were not only for comfort but ways in which they could make sense of their inadequate nine-to-five existences; to escape the anxiety and the biased expectations. These women couldn’t ignore reality with the help of a Katy Perry playlist, they needed something stronger, more potent, pushing their bodies beyond the edge of control.
Little did I know at the time, these perverted stories encompassed a broader genre amongst western literature known as transgressive fiction. Whilst mainstream fiction will bore you with sentimentalities, transgressive fiction will fuck you in the arse, over and over.
I take no pleasure in quoting directly from Wikipedia, but I could not find a better definition of what transgressive fiction stands for. As a literary genre, transgressive fiction explores ‘characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in illicit ways.’ With an emphasis on all things taboo – sex, drugs, violence, crime, pornography – transgressive fiction certainly has an acquired taste and those squeamish may recoil upon reading. Since Sade’s infamous manuscript 120 Days of Sodom was discovered in the walls of a Bastille prison cell back in 1789, transgressive fiction has gone on to make appearances in some of the major obscenity trials of the twentieth century – starring most notably The Catcher in the Rye and Lady Chatterley’s Lover – and has even managed to find its way into the mainstream, with Bret Easton Ellis’s, American Psycho and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club making waves in Hollywood during the 90s.
It is clear that transgressive fiction has continued to tantalise and torment readers for centuries, but what isn’t clear is why so many of its characters are middle-aged white men and why even more of its readers are of the same demographic – is it that violence is attributed more to the likes of a male audience than a female audience? Whilst it’s a rite of passage for the male hero to smoke crack and lust over a prostitute, perhaps even partake in some form of incest, the female heroine must remain ‘likeable’, or God forbid readers will react with irritation and dismissal.
If we take a look at that definition again – ‘characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society’ – would this not appeal more to women, the second sex, the minority, those contained by the stereotype and stigma that gender has within our culture. Would it not make for a richer story if an ostracised woman succumbed to the illicit as a way of seeking autonomy in the world that diminishes her existence?
I think yes.
The fairy tales I read as a young girl were full of colourful utopias and never-ending rainbows, far from the original, raw and wicked tales of the Brothers Grimm. Indoctrinated by these fictional worlds of everlasting love (and talking rodents) distorted my reality. A reality where I didn’t need to raise my voice for there would always be a talking phallus ready to speak for me. I came to fear my voice – the thought of being interrupted and not being able to roll the words eloquently from my tongue caused me great anxiety.
Now in no way am I saying that children should stop reading fairy tales and opt for the unsettling Brothers Grimm tales, rather I’m drawing on the adverse biases that become instilled in society when the world only ever shines a light on such happily ever afters. If we only ever read about the woman with agency – the crystalised woman, the transparent, the career woman who has it all, the woman who exists between shopping sprees and caring for her children – we ignore an incredibly multifaceted world of women, of human beings, who may not have it together on the surface, but seem to grasp the grave reality of their position in society more than any Mills and Boon woman could.
We cannot judge these faulted heroines when we read, only traverse with them in order to better understand our own lives; challenging us readers to look at things within ourselves that maybe we haven’t looked at otherwise, to ask ourselves questions that maybe we wouldn’t have asked otherwise.
But I am not the first or last woman to stain the pages with acts of subversion, many female writers have stood upon the podium, often forgotten amongst the mainstream but re-read within cult book clubs and underground feminist dojangs – Tama Janowitz, Lynne Tillman, Mary Gaitskill, Donna Tartt, Kathy Acker, to name a few.
Transgressive fiction tells us that knowledge can be found at the edge of experience and the body is the site for gaining that knowledge. Nobody knew this better than Kathy Acker. Through shocking and seductive tales of the female form, sex, prostitution and pornography, Acker saw the potential this form of writing could have to empower women. She recognised the role of language as being a key element in transgressive fiction, mentioning frequently how there ‘is a deep relationship between the body and language,’ and the role of words in the construction of identity. When you ignore archaic language and style, and write of such obscene and unnatural behaviours without apology, you are giving the middle finger to convention and habit, moving one step closer to dismantling social injustice (whatever that may mean to you). The transgressive fiction writer therefore becomes the subversive writer.
I encourage you writers to descend into the underworld, to follow in the footsteps of those filmmakers and writers who have rejected traditional artistic boundaries. And then, once you’ve reached the pits of Hell, pick up the dagger and stab those artists in the chest. Now it is your turn to write chaotically. Your turn to think for yourself. Do not be afraid. Rebel against the ordinary. This is literature, and in the words of Gaitskill, it’s ‘not a realm for politeness.’