Chances are, you have been reading offensive literature since you were in ninth grade.
Have you read Fight Club? Heard of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984? If you have read any of these, then unconsciously you are participating in a subset of literature deemed “offensive.” While this generation is known for violence, extreme sexual content, and extreme prejudices, the concept of grossly offensive literature containing these themes dates back hundreds of years.
We as ENC students need to be mindful of this literature and identify what pieces are being considered offensive. Perhaps the content may disturbing, but readers should think about the purpose behind the graphic content. More often than not, authors are making a social or political statement in these pieces of writing.
One of the best-known satirists and “offensive lit” writers today is national bestselling author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke, Pygmy). His novels contain violence, extreme political and religious views, and disturbingly sexual content.
One of his most popular novels, Haunted, is about a group of people who go on a writers retreat. The novel is written as a collection of short stories, and each character’s story contains something that is sure to make even the most experienced reader uncomfortable. When Palahniuk performed live readings on his Haunted book tour, it wasn’t uncommon for at least one or two people in the audience to pass out while listening to the intensely graphic stories. However, the graphic content in his novels seems to have only made him more popular.
The “offensiveness” in Palahniuk’s novels come from a combination of the content and the style in which the stories are written. Palahniuk’s novels are considered intensely nihilistic, meaning that the characters lack morals and view life in meaningless or insignificant ways. While most characters in his books seem devoid of morality, there is a decidedly satirical theme to his stories.
His most popular novel, Fight Club, adapted into film by David Fincher in 1999, expresses challenging views about the everyday man in society and the culture of consumerism. What starts with a group of men violently attacking each other in a parking lot quickly turns into an organized crime operation bent on destroying big corporations and producing anarchy. The challenging views Palahniuk conveys are what make the story so interesting and even relatable to the reader; this relatability makes readers cope with the offensive and graphic content within the text.
Palahniuk pushes the limits of what is bearable to readers, yet he is still wildly popular. But is literature today actually becoming more offensive or more accepted than in the past? For this, it is important to understand offensive literature in the past.
The satire is one of the greatest forms of offensive literature that has not only been offensive throughout time, but also eye-opening and educational in hopes to cause societal change. Palahniuk’s style of writing is nothing new (or extreme) compared to when we look back into the past.
English professor Dr. Marianna Krejci-Papa provided her expertise on the topic.
“I think satire has a history of creating things that people have found offensive, because that’s what it’s designed to do,” she shared. “Satires are written to address controversial material in a safe way.”
Krejci-Papa named many ancient philosophers and authors, such as Voltaire, Moliere, Juvenal, and Pietro Aretino who are well-known for writing satires on various topics. Aretino once wrote a satire that compared convents to places of prostitution.
Jonathan Swift is best known for his satirical essay of the 18th century, “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested that community members eat their young children to solve the overpopulation and starvation problem in Ireland. The satire did what it should: be offensive to get people’s attention.
In the past, many books that we consider classics today have been previously banned for being offensive, such as 1984 by George Orwell, A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
1984 has been challenged repeatedly since its publication for its portrayal of a suppressive government, oppression of freedom, and censorship of society. The book was banned by the USSR because it was seen as a narration of Stalin’s leadership; in other parts of the world it has been called a novel to support Communism. Though 1984 is read in high school English classes today, it challenges students with its startling predictions of a government that has total control over its people.
Although books are continuously challenged around the world today for their questionable content, it does not mean offensive literature and entertainment is becoming less accepted.
According to Krejci-Papa, the acceptability of offensive literature has remained the same when looking at it from a broader sense throughout time.
“[The] definition of offensive definitely changes… as cultures change,” Krejci-Papa said.
Krejci-Papa explained that offensiveness is relative to boundaries; accepted forms of entertainment in the past that might be found offensive today. Gladiators combatting to the death today in America is deemed violent and offensive, but were glorified during the Roman Empire. Gladiators were seen as the strength of the Roman Empire, and the violence that went into the combats fueled the people’s pride.
While we now may consider gladiator combat in the Roman Empire offensive, overtly sexual novels like Fifty Shades of Grey have only increased in popularity since it was published in 2011. Taboo language and sexual content are on the rise in television and movies, thus becoming more commonly accepted in our modern-day literature.
Of course, what is truly offensive depends on the individual. Our personal values play into what we pick up and what we skip over in Barnes & Noble, what we approve and what we condemn.
A culture may have its own qualms against a particular kind of entertainment, but it also comes down to the individual who will be interacting with the literature.
Today we live in a culture that emphasizes the individual rather than the community. While offensive entertainment can be seen as relatively the same as centuries ago, it is what we are accepting that changes, and perhaps how we are accepting it. The violence in an action-packed novel may not be real, but it is still there nevertheless, and it excites the audience. Sometimes a shocked reaction to literature isn’t a bad one; it makes us question if accepting offensive forms of entertainment and literature is actually just allowing ourselves to be challenged.