Constructing Transgression: Criminality in Experimental Literature

Charles Kell, University of Rhode Island

Abstract

This dissertation examines integral, challenging contemporary poetry and fiction, and its relationship to notions of the criminal in multiple guises. The present focus on “criminal” excavates not only its literal meaning—the nature of crime, and its specific relation to penal law—but also brings to light how the “criminal” affects the construction of fiction and poetry, and the lives of various individuals (speakers) within the chosen texts. Intricately tied with the criminal are practices that transgress, and this study will also locate specific creations where poets and novelists construct transgressions that challenge contemporary ideas of narrative and poetic modes. This study argues that expanding the term “criminal” opens up not only the current field of “criminal studies,” but also examines contemporary poetry and prose. This dissertation argues that a new formulation of the criminal proliferates practices of subjectivities that are forced upon individuals and taken for granted, and that the “criminal” is intricately tied to works that transgress and experiment. The criminal, at its most basic, involves the nature of crime; it relates to the penal law; guilty; characteristic of a criminal. Most studies of “criminality” fall under the term “prison literature,” which focuses on individuals who have been incarcerated, and subsequently chronicled their lives in writing. Other studies and novels focus specifically on the struggle of individuals in prison. These texts take incarceration as their primary focus. This dissertation looks to make a distinct break between “prison” writing and “criminal” writing, moving the focus from incarceration to other social boundaries; however, “prison” and “criminal” are two terms that often intersect and overlap. “Criminal” writing does not take incarceration as its jumping off point, though incarceration may play a role; instead, the “criminal” is a spatial way of being in the world that either marks one off from contemporary society, or borders on notions which denote one as outsider. This project looks to expand the field from literatures focusing primarily on incarceration to studies depicting acts of transgression and deviance that may not necessarily land an individual behind bars, but mark one as separate from societal norms, as an outsider. This study envisions the “criminal” as branching out from its basic definition to include a variety of ways individuals “transgress” from their present predicament. This includes but is not limited to illegal acts one partakes in but is not caught, and acts that jeopardize one’s place in society. As such, the “criminal” is opaque, nebulous, harder to pin down; it works from the periphery, the margins, interstitial spaces; whereas “prison” writing already denotes the given fact that one is or has been incarcerated, calling to mind a fixed location and trajectory. Both poetry and fiction illustrate this branching out in similar and disparate ways, and the focus on both showcases the plurality and broad reach of these genres. The central objects of study will be a range of contemporary American poetry and fiction: James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956); Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction (2010); Joanna Scott’s Arrogance (1990); and C.D. Wright’s One Big Self: An Investigation (2007). These texts give voice to the myriad, opaque notions of the “criminal,” while at the same time blurring the lines of how poetry and prose function; each text, as well, marks off distinct breaks in the artists’ bodies of work. These texts transgress on multiple levels, in turn, mirroring and mimicking the slippery, proliferating term—“criminal.”

Subject Area

Modern literature|Criminology

Recommended Citation

Charles Kell, "Constructing Transgression: Criminality in Experimental Literature" (2019). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI13814402.
https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dissertations/AAI13814402

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