With the paperback release of Alissa Nutting’s novel, Tampa, this week, writer and bookseller, Nikki Hall examines taboos within literature.
You can never deny the power of controversy within literature. Especially if abundant in sex, murder and lechery. The moral importance placed upon books is that it allows the writer to harmlessly exercise their morality against dispute and abhorrence. A type of book which continually divides readers and critics is the taboo-breaker. Breaking taboos is usually deemed objectionable by society, and that is, a main factor in our wish to read books that make us privately salivate, and blush in public. Even bestsellers quietly tackle the darkest of the human spirit, with Harry Potter, Games of Thrones and Twilight all tackling witchcraft, incest and the undead, respectively.
Yet, taboo-breaking literature has a long and illustrious history. The extensive references to bodily functions in 18th century literature, notably satirists Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope led the way to the modernist novel, Ulysses. Ulysses subsequently became a cause célèbre. The ever so Orwellian, New York Society of the Suppression of Vice (yes, it’s real) tried to ban the book from entering the United States on obscenity grounds. They succeed, after trial, in 1921.
In the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov’s loin burning novel Lolita, brought paedophilia to a wider reading public. Professor Humbert’s obsession with a prepubescent girl, broke one of the most unsettling taboos of modern life; the illicit affair between the predator and the innocent. Considering the current media fixation on padeophilia trials, Lolita remains an undisputed taboo-breaking modern classic.
Sexual fetishism became a recurring motif within taboo-breaking novels; think “highbrow toilet humour” or a more erudite 50 Shades of Grey.
The literary origin of this motif started with John Cleland’s 1748 prose porno, Fanny Hill. It is largely considered to be one of the most controversial novels written but it was not until Marquis de Sade’s French erotica, 120 Days of Sodom that sexual taboo reached literature. Other French writers tackling saucy taboo include Georges Bataille (Story of the Eye) and Pauline Reage (Story of O). The Marquis de Sade‘s 120 Days of Sodom introduced to the modern lexicon the term “sadism” – meaning to derive sexual pleasure from infliction of pain on others. 120 Days of Sodom, broke ground with its 1904 publication due to its intricate descriptions of sexual fetishism. 120 Days’ barbaric tale of four wealthy, anarchic gentlemen who lock themselves in a castle, inflicting sadistic acts on their female prisoners, echoes a certain transgressive American novel from the early 1990s…
Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 transgressive classic satire, American Psycho, on one level embarks on psychotic diatribe against consumerist society, it is the immersed offbeat tortures by narrator and serial killer, Patrick Bateman that seeps in and tarnishes the readers‘ minds. Set in the yuppified 1980s, a time synonymous with corruption, American Psycho horrified readers with its gratuitous violence against women, which included that rat scene. Like Lolita, the novel spawned adaptions; a cult film and a recent hit musical, despite references to massacre, necrophilia and cannibalism. Other examples of similar works of US transgressive fiction include, Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, and Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite, with an honorable nod to Henry Miller’s 1961 squalid, hyper-sexual masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer.
There has been a shift in taboo breaking novels in the past couple of years Tampa by Alissa Nutting, Natalie Young’s Season to Taste both, taking somewhat feminist twists on the taboo subjects of paedophilia and cannibalism. But does taboo in cosy, domestic settings work? The lack of moral panic on both titles suggest, not so much. The publication of Nutting’s Tampa, while raising several eyebrows was actually based on fact, thus failing to capture the wayward imaginations of its readers.
The rise of online activity has given a new dimension to the meaning of taboo. We no longer find anything immorally extreme.
However, the lack of uproar towards the story of the novel – its factual background, its depiction of paedophilia, its suburban setting – is disquieting. In comparison to Lolita, have we become immune to such immorality? Today, as the male dominated world of taboo and literature becomes over run, gender reversal has added a shocking new twist to age old subjects. Natalie Young revisited the controversial subject of cannibalism in her dark modern fable, Season to Taste, following a middle aged, middle England divorcee who slowly eats her husband, after killing him with a spade, and shoving him in the freezer next to the Haagen Dazs and frozen peas. She then forms a questionable relationship with a young local lad. The novel’s deadpan, morbid humour would not feel out of place in an episode of BBC’s The League of Gentlemen.
While the moral code of taboo within literature has given writers a chance to exercise the darkest depths of the human spirit, our means to escape the limitations of real life have risen to a multitude of outlets. The rise of online activity has given a new dimension to the meaning of taboo. We no longer find anything immorally extreme.
Looking forward, how will taboo-breaking literature evolve? We have seen recently the rise of the “bad girl literature”of Zoe Pilger (Eat My Heart Out) and Emma Jane Unsworth (Animals) to “book club transgression” of Young and Nutting, that it is now female writers that a set out to break taboos. It is far cry from Radclyffe Hall’s transgender-lesbian-femanifesto The Well of Loneliness standing trial for obscenity in 1928, A once male dominated area of fiction, taboo breaking in the 21st century now relies on subverting gender expectations for taboo fulfilment. But can bad girls and “mummy porn” substitute the ineffable foul literature of the 18th century or the hyperbolic, transgressive literature of postmodern literature?
Taboo breaking literature tended to create moral panic, hence the book burning, banning, obscenity trials of the yesteryear. We seem much more morally pacified and in the light of new wave of taboo-breaking literature, somewhat civilised. Sigmund Freud proclaimed in his seminal text, Totem and Taboo, that incest and patricide were the only two universal taboos, and they both formed the basis of civilisation. Could it be that, despite their controversy and shady history of prohibition, these taboo-breaking books have contributed to a much more civilised literary canon?
My top ten taboo-breaking books
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
120 Days of Sodom, Marquis de Sade
Ulysses, James Joyce
Season to Taste, Natalie Young
Tampa, Alissa Nutting
Fanny Hill, John Cleland
The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall
Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille
Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
Nikki Hall, for Waterstones.com/blog