The Safety of Transgression versus the Risk of Honesty
Photo by Craig Clevenger
transgress |transˈgres, tranz-| verb
infringe or go beyond the bounds of (a moral principle or other established standard of behavior)
“You think you know pain?… You’re just a tourist with a typewriter... I live here.”
—Charlie Meadows, from Barton Fink (1991)
If an author or a particular work is labeled transgressive, what moral or behavioral boundary is being infringed upon? Certainly it’s not the act of writing itself that’s transgressive (at least not here in the industrialized West), so that leaves us with the content or subject matter of the writing. Still, what is the cultural demarcation in question, and how has the author breached it? This question leaps to the fore whenever I see my own work slotted beneath the transgressive branch of the fiction taxonomy. It’s quickly frustrated, blindly sniffing at corners and cracks of the infinite labyrinth that is the internet. The frustration stems not so much from the lack of an answer, but the lack of any source to be held accountable for the label. Okay, it’s for lack of an answer, too. And it’s not the question or the frustration, but mine.
Transgressive behavior is easy to identify on the surface, but discussing even a cursory list of such behaviors opens up institutional-size cans of worms that can mire the participants knee-deep in squirming muck. After unsanctioned violence (anything outside an MMA ring or other contact sport, but then we have to talk about the battlefield, and thus open up another can), we’re left with victimless crimes (drugs, of course, and perhaps sex work, but my own brief hesitation as to whether victimless should be in quotes/italics is the sound of more night crawlers plopping onto the pile); sex, sexuality and sexual expression in pretty much any form outside the Judeo-Christian norm (e.g., homo-/poly-/trans- anything, gender bending, role play, fetishes, ad. infinitum); likewise for religious belief and expression. The resulting index of behaviors, beliefs and practices will have so many respective adherents that the most obvious response to any one item is, Transgressive to whom?
My own work is almost completely devoid of violence; my characters may live with the threat of violence or in its wake, but the depiction is rarely, if ever, on the page. Sex, however fetish-laden it may seem to some, is brief. Drugs abound, as do primary and secondary characters of various criminal enterprise, but I’m hard pressed to believe either of those are maiden territory for anyone, writer or reader, or that the particular villainy of my characters is any more baleful or sadistic than that routinely exhibited by many antagonists in mainstream literature, film or television. The transgressive label ignores more themes and subjects in my stories than it includes: identity, memory, God, guilt, redemption, right, wrong, the System, as well as story lines that include shattered families, breaches of trust between lovers, and characters struggling beneath the crushing weight of the world they inhabit, to name a few. Not to mention a pair of adult narrators who respectively experience love arrested at adolescence, with their emotions polarized between infatuation and heartbreak. But I’m not here to mount a defense of my work against an inappropriate tag; if I want to gripe about being unfairly labeled, I need to take a number at the end of a very long line.
We’re still left with boundaries for established standards of behavior that are routinely flouted by enormous segments of society, whether they’re outright criminal acts or simply broken taboos. And these behaviors are so vastly evident that we either tolerate them by virtue of oblivious privilege (bigotry, discrimination, domestic violence) and/or numbness due to overexposure, or they’re simply too large and complex (the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on poverty, the war on ________ ) for simplistic and ideologically charged solutions to mitigate. In terms of sheer numbers, the margins of society account for far more than the pillars, thus casting doubt on their status being defined as marginal. Given that these marginal people and behaviors really aren’t so marginal, then simply writing about these things can’t be considered transgressive, either. Why, then, do such works exist with that tag? And why do writers, willingly or not, labor under that tag? As I’ve said elsewhere:
A writer cannot push, break or transgress a boundary without first conceding to the definition of that boundary, a definition which by nature is not their own. Thus, an artist who intends foremost to shock, to transgress, willingly trades his own rules for someone else’s. He surrenders his art instead of surrendering to it. And no artist creates anything worthwhile from their comfort zone.
True transgressions cannot be undone; those transgressions that can be undone are not transgressions at all (the wealthy, white couple slumming it in Harlem can always take a car back home). Whatever literary dalliance with the so-called margins of society I indulge in for the sake of impressing my audience as pushing the envelope amounts to nothing more than me being a “tourist with a typewriter.” Violence, sexual assault, discrimination, addiction, and chronic/terminal/mental illness... these things are real and happen to real people. And while all of the above are the fertile subjects for memoirs, their use as mere shock fodder by an author who has only limited experience with them (or none at all) is ultimately an act of privilege. And few things are as safe and insulated from harm as exercising one’s privilege, the product of a genetic or statistical lottery.
Will Christopher Baer and I were waiting in an airport shuttle station, some years back. In between announcing train arrivals, the loudspeaker would blast static intermittently and loudly throughout the platform. Out of nowhere, Chris remarked, “There are people, schizophrenics, who hear that in their heads all the time.” Whether his was an accurate assessment of a symptom of schizophrenia, I don’t know. But it was typical of the apparently dark and random thoughts that drift through his head from time to time. But I know Chris, and I’ve also been privy to a goodly amount of his unpublished work. Such thoughts are neither as random nor as dark as they may at first seem. Chris doesn’t write dark stories for the sake of writing dark stories; he writes about very damaged people with such profound empathy I sometimes wonder how he’s enough remaining brain space to remember where he parked the car, to defrost the chicken, or do any of the day-to-day minutiae of being a husband and father. His stories are indeed violent and sexually charged, but they’re also very personal.
Likewise for Rob Roberge, whose work traverses the (reformed [sometimes]) junkie landscape of fiction, but with little emphasis on its gory physical details and more on the weighty emotional aftermath that sandbags his characters’ ongoing or attempted recovery. And fiction that openly touts itself as transgressive is more prone to focus on the shock-value specifics of an addict’s lifestyle while shying away from the vivid portrayal of shame and self-loathing with which a recovering addict is grappling, which is to say it covers the safest territory possible.
Then there’s Vanessa Veselka, a life-long activist fighting the good fight, whose first novel, Zazen, showed us an extrapolation of her politics in a vaguely recognizable but non-specific future. Her narrator occupies an ideological gray zone that makes it very difficult to pump one’s fist in the air for any particular extreme. Any self-examination on the author’s part was not done at the expense of the story, but I doubt it was done without a lot of flinching during the first draft.
For all three, their stories are emotionally personal without being autobiographical; the boundaries transgressed are their own private boundaries; they freely take the inherent risks in testing their own comfort zones instead of those of their readers (which takes no risk at all, beyond perhaps public censure, which is typically used for PR purposes and thus obviates any remaining claim to risk-taking).
And therein lies, for me, the difference between being deliberately transgressive versus being honest. Assailing someone’s sensibilities, their comfort zone, is an act of power—either claiming it or reinforcing it—of the writer over the reader. Not the power that comes from holding them spellbound with a masterfully-woven story, by evoking a memory, or eliciting a shared emotional response. A reader can’t be spellbound if you’re pushing their buttons, evoking a memory is more akin to hypnosis or seduction than an act of aggression, and nothing is truly shared when one party asserts power over another. And shared emotion is key, here. Shock, disgust, and fear, or the warm, visceral reactions we may have to puppies, kittens, or babies are all real and profound; they’re hard-coded into our most basic neural wiring. But they aren’t necessarily shared.
Whenever I hear someone say they write to “express themselves,” my first thought is, nobody cares. Life is hard for everyone, some more or less than others, but it’s hard enough that a complete stranger demanding attention in order to express feelings about whatever is significant to them, personally, smacks of entitled bullshit, aka privilege. I tell my students over and over, the purest way to express an emotion is to elicit that emotion from your reader. I say purest, not quickest or easiest. The expression is purest because the emotions are the reader’s, unadulterated and straight from their own motherboard.
Conveying an emotion—fear, joy, anger, love, contempt—by eliciting that response from the reader makes the feeling shared. It’s those moments that make reading so worthwhile, those moments when we come across a passage that speaks to us, where the author simply nails it by putting into precise words a feeling, perception or experience that is so fleeting and nuanced we thought we were alone with it, or lacked the capacity to express it, to share it. Those lines that make you stop and think, Yes, that’s it, exactly, those are the moments when the writer and reader meet each other halfway. It’s the shared experience of emotion taking place above some chasm of time, distance, age, etc., that is the very nature of empathy. “Yeah, I get it.” “Me, too.” “I thought nobody else felt that way.” It’s the same note struck at the beginning of a friendship or love affair. “Yes, you get me.”
Outside the toolbox of syntax, grammar, punctuation, story mechanics, etc., empathy is a writer’s greatest tool. It’s the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes without leaving your desk. It comes with time, experience, observation, trial and error, and in general making a conscious effort to cultivate it while getting some life behind you. And empathy cannot exist where there is an imbalance of power.
When we say something moved us, be it a story or a piece of music, is among the highest praises we can offer. To say something moved us is to say it took us—emotionally, spiritually, call it what you will— from one place to another. Works that move us are the ones we return to, again and again. Shocking a reader, gunning for their weak spots while not exposing any of your own, is simply another way of keeping the reader at a distance. Deliberate transgression does not, in fact, cross anything, but creates a wall between the writer and reader. And it’s really tough to move someone through a wall.