Beyond good and evil

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There’s a tendency among certain literary critics to misleadingly label certain types of writing as ‘transgressive’. This involves throwing a wide range of books (essentially those which don’t fit a narrow bourgeois remit) in together like cats in a sack. So you get shock for shocks-sake camp mixed in with genuine greatness. Extracting the brilliance from the bullshit can be difficult and the results are invariably subjective; for me Hamsun, Burroughs, Céline, Levy, Nabokov, Quin and Henry Miller are wonderful liberating writers for all their faults. Troochi, Bukowski, Brett Easton Ellis, Derek Raymond and Houellebecq I waver with, book by book. Acker and Palahnuik I’ve little time for, which is more my problem than theirs. This is, however, to accept that there is such a thing as transgressive writing, which feels like a concession too far. It seems another example of the herding impulse of critics, an impulse which is crucial to their existence as gatekeepers to the canon. We should be the barbarians at these gates.

While there will always be room for guides, more so than ever, we should set our task to undermining the walls some critics, and publishers, put up. One reason to do so is to rescue forgotten books and writers who do not fit into a neo-Victorian concept of what a book should be, ideally before said writers die in penury and obscurity. Another is to broaden and diversify great writing, which very often occurs not simply at the point where different genres meet but in defiance of these borders. The boundaries are the primary place where substantial literature happens. Dostoevsky is there. And Kafka. And Bulgakov. And effectively anyone in writing worth reading and remembering.

Rob Doyle’s Here Are the Young Men may be called transgressive but if anything it’s progressive, in the sense that writing a book about how things actually are inevitably is. It’s powerfully written, confronts contemporary nihilisms and their origins head-on (without the feeling of chattering in the vestry that blights much of contemporary philosophy) and pulls no punches. It is also a joy,if a dark joy, to read. I grew up with characters like those in the book, was embroiled in their madness and mine own and made it through, if you ever really make it through, by the skin of my teeth. Everyone I know did so too, bar those who fell through the cracks. It comes as a shock then to consider how few books there are of this kind, and not just in Ireland. So many times I’ve read reviews promising gritty transgression and hyper-realism only to find Roddy Doyle and Irvine Welsh-style farces. They could only be considered authentic by someone whose life is distantly remote but again this boils down to the gatekeepers of literature (including publishers), their backgrounds, circles and agendas. Two thousand years ago, Aristophanes described such people as occupants of cloud-cuckoo land. They remain with us still. So too, for good and ill, does reality.

I spoke to Rob for The Honest Ulsterman and highly recommend checking out his book.

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