7 min

Changing standards

Yesterday's 'transgressive literature' is today's acknowledged work

Credit: Xtra West files

Transgressive literature. Last spring the media bandied that expression about quite a bit. Why? Because Robin Sharpe was acquitted of two counts of producing child pornography on the grounds that the writings in question were transgressive literature. I’ll admit that, prior to this assignment, I wasn’t interested in touching the Sharpe case with a 10-foot pole. I had a vague idea what transgressive literature was but I’d be damned, I thought, if I was going to support Robin Sharpe in anything. Hopefully by the end of this essay, we’ll both agree why Sharpe’s acquittal on two counts of writing child pornography benefits us all.

What transgressive literature is, exactly, is hard to nail down. Anne H Soukhanov of the Atlantic Monthly described transgressive fiction as: “A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.”

Acknowledged contemporary writers in this category include Dennis Cooper, Kevin Killian, Kathy Acker, Scott Heim, AM Homes and Gary Indiana. For forefathers, add William S Burroughs, George Bataille, and the Marquis de Sade.

Sharpe’s trials shone light on this area of literature due to the testimony of a couple of experts. Justice Shaw’s decision notes that Professor James Miller of the University of Western Ontario testified that “Boyabuse” and “Stand By America, 1953”, two Sharpe stories, “were in the Sadean tradition of transgressive literature. … He defined the Sadean tradition as focussing attention on transgressive sexuality. He said it represents the defiant breaking of taboos controlling sexual relations and practices established by the Holy Book, by literature, and by taboo.”

Transgression in literature, though, is not only taboo content. Mark Macdonald, author and Little Sister’s book buyer, argues that “when you use the word ‘transgressive’ it’s not limited to moral transgression. I think there can be aesthetic transgression that is certainly as important.” For example, William S Burroughs’ cut-up writing, which is “subverting the form as well as the content… That, to me, is significant.”

UBC English Professor Lorraine Weir, who also testified in the Sharpe trial, agrees. “To focus on certain themes of transgression… is to limit our understanding of transgressive literature and all literature drastically. Stylistic transgressiveness, irregular prose, non-syntactic runs of language, in poetry, radical techniques of line break…. Stylistic transgression is at least as interesting as any straight up realistic narrative that has to do with actions that the bourgeoisie may find should be kept undercover. When you open your definition out like that, you know, this was James Miller’s point in the Sharpe trial, Dante is a great transgressive author, Chaucer’s a great transgressive author, King Lear is a great example of transgressive tragedy.”

Let’s say, then, that crossing beyond the established norms in content or style is what makes transgressive fiction. What is a norm today, though, in the here and now, is not the same tomorrow, nor is it the same the world over.

“I just read two books featuring sex with children,” says Arsenal Pulp writer George Ilsley. He’s referring to Camilla Gibb’s Mouthing the Words and Meg Tilly’s Singing Songs. “Is sex with children transgressive lit? No it’s not, because these are two mainstream books.”

Actress Tilly’s novel is published in the US with Penguin, and Gibb’s first novel won the Toronto Book Award. Taboo is relative to each individual in a particular time and a particular place. Context, perceived authorial intent, and narrative tone or voice are as much a factor as the content in whether we regard something as transgressive.

Ilsley says that when writers put transgressive pen to paper, they are outlining where our culture, and each individual within that culture, have their limits. “We’re drawing the map and holding it up and saying, ‘Look, there is a map. And this is where you are on the map.’

“The very notion of transgressive literature is going to move around,” Ilsley says, because community standards are always changing.” It was far less offensive to make terrorist jokes on September 10th last year, for example, than it was on the 12th. Tastes change.

The history of literature is rife with what we now call classics but which were once denounced as obscene. Every available copy of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was burned by order of the courts of England once its publisher was found guilty under the Obscene Publications Act in 1928. Although the novel was acquitted in a similar US case two years later, the novel didn’t appear again on British bookshelves until 1949. Perhaps the most famous case in last century’s history is Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s beat poem, which the San Francisco police seized from City Lights Bookstore in 1957 for being ‘indecent’ and which is now a staple in US classrooms.

So if transgressive literature helps us draw the map of our taboos, what’s the good in that?

“The writer cannot pull back from what he finds because it shocks or upsets him, or because he fears the disapproval of the reader,” wrote William S Burroughs in The Adding Machine: Collected Essays. Transgressive literature imaginatively explores the parts of human experience that disturb us because of that very fear.

“When I read Doing It for Daddy, by Pat Califia,” Macdonald explains, “it goes past my limit for what is erotic or what is compelling for literature, and yet in doing so it produces in me a reaction that is visceral. I feel it physically, which is different from reading Edmund White, where you might feel it emotionally. And as Pat Califia says, it’s important when you’re writing that you push your own honesty to the absolute extreme, that you talk about stuff that you don’t feel safe talking about. And that’s what makes it transgressive, where even the author or the artist is at odds with their material.”

And what’s the effect of that transgression? How do we benefit from it?

Macdonald continues. “I think it can affect your perspective on the world. I think it can open new sorts of possibilities about how you see yourself in the world.”

For example, says George Ilsley, “Up until recently child abuse was not talked about. So even if the ideas of transgressive literature, or how they manifest, makes us uncomfortable, we have to remember the alternative is this horrible silence.”

The alternative is living in a culture of denial. “My work has been linked to exposing hypocrisy,” Ilsley explains, “and that’s like a double standard in our culture where people believe two things at once. They know things aren’t okay but they don’t talk about it because somehow that’s even worse. If transgressive literature is one thing, the silence is the dark side of that force.”

Adds Macdonald: “If we can imagine the Lord of the Rings’ world, then why can’t we imagine the Dennis Cooper world? Or the Anne Rice SM world? It’s the same thing. It’s fantasy. They’re as legitimate as one another. Fantasy is really important.”

But fantasy regardless of content?

“I would say the right to have those fantasies, yes, regardless of content,” Macdonald replies. “I don’t believe that people act out on pornography. That’s something that the courts have also found. That’s something that has consistently been presented to the provincial supreme courts and also the Supreme Court of Canada with Robin Sharpe. You’ve got lots of people telling you that, actually, you know, for active paedophiles, access to pornography is going to prevent crime, except in the cases where it’s actually produced through crime, you know, in the photographing of actual children or whatever, but that for somebody who’s compelled by their fantasies to be told that, no, they can’t explore or release those sexual fantasies, is what ends up [causing] violent behaviour.”

Whether transgressive literature influences behaviour is much debated, and decided, in the courts.

Justice Shaw ruled that stories like Sharpe’s “Boyabuse” and “Stand By America, 1953” might glorify acts of sex and violence between boys and between boys and men, but “they do not go so far as to actively promote their commission.

“Nor, in my view,” he wrote in his ruling, do they “send the message that sex with children can and should be pursued. If that were the case, then literature describing murder, robbery, theft, rape, drug use and other crimes in such a way as to make them appear enjoyable would likewise be said to advocate or counsel the commission of those crimes.”

He finished, writing, “I conclude that ‘artistic merit’ should be interpreted as including any expression that may reasonably be viewed as art. Any objectively established artistic value, however small, suffices to support the defence. Simply put, artists, so long as they are producing art, should not fear prosecution.”

In response to the Sharpe ruling, George Ilsley says, “I thought it was a very low standard of artistic merit. You can quote me on that but I’ve never read a full story. I’ve read parts from the court transcripts.”

The media may have had a field day describing Sharpe’s writings as ‘horrific’, but none of the press had access to any of the impugned material in question.

Weir explains: “The very mysteriousness that surrounded those texts promoted the construction of a certain kind of discourse. They became so awful that it couldn’t be spoken. What we fear most is what’s mysterious. If we can get a hold of it, look at it, think about it, we can make up our own minds. We exercise our freedom to choose because we’re free to investigate those possibilities, but if texts are demonized, if that demonization rings bells for us for whatever reason-personal, political, religious, whatever-then we’re dealing with the irrational. We’re dealing with the whole force of the irrational, and that’s pure power, the irrational that we can’t tangle with. That’s what consumes us. Real texts that we look at everyday, we can just say, ‘that’s trash,’ and walk on. It doesn’t haunt us.”

Which brings us back to the role of literature in our society.

“What literature has always done, I suppose, is disturb the peace,” says Weir. “That’s the function of art, to disturb the peace. For us to go around holding onto some kind of white-picket-fence sense that we must contain and control artistic production is the death of art, is the death of imagination. The tragic thing about this is we’ve been here so many times before. I can think of James Joyce making the same kinds of arguments under the same kinds of circumstances. And no, Ulysses is not the same as Sharpe’s short stories. No, it’s a much more complex text, but it flirts with bawdy moments and it flirts with what was unsayable in polite society of its own time, just as what the best of Sharpe’s writings do in terms of conventions of our times. That’s what literature does. If we close up shop on literature, we close down the imagination and we close down the most fundamental of our freedoms as human beings.”

Ilsley concurs. “At the edges of free speech we get uncomfortable. The right of free speech is fundamental, but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to want to read somebody else’s free speech.”

Freedom to choose. Freedom to make up your own mind. Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression. They’re supposed to be guaranteed in our Charter.

* Michael V Smith is the author of Cumberland, a novel which explores, among other themes, straight men who have sex with gay men in small-town Canada.