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    more on literary "risk"

    So I've been trying to clarify, in my own head, just exactly what constitues literary "risk."

    For me, there are two axes involved. The first is essentially the axis of "predictability" vs. "unpredictability": I think it's safe to say that a "predictable" piece of writing is less risky than one that's unpredictable. In order to assess what constitutes a "predictable" piece of work, I've relied on the concept of genre conventions: the more a piece of writing adheres to the typical standards of its genre, the more predictable it becomes. (This gets slightly tricky when you're dealing with a genre like language poetry where a certain level of "unpredictability" is, in fact, part of the genre, but that's really a discussion for another time.)

    The other axis has to do with subject matter: "risky" subject matter being all things taboo or esoteric, anything that's antithetical to subject matter that we could describe as "mainstream." Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum we'd find stuff that is mildly scandalous, vaguely "controversial," stuff that would seem "edgy" to an NPR listener.

    For me, for a work to be genuinely "risky," it be found in the quadrant where "risky" subject matter meets the formally unpredictable. Someone like William S. Burroughs, writing in his fragmentary cut-up style about junk addiction, pederasty, and erotic death scenes. Or Kathy Acker.

    Risky subject matter with an adherence to genre conventions yields someone like Stephen King; writing about topics which are nominally taboo in a format that's been proven to be crowd-pleasing.

    Something like the book I'm reading now, Helene Cixous' The Book of Promethea, is formally experimental but thematically it's essentially a book about love, a pretty mainstream topic. It drifts up towards the more "taboo" regions because its take on love is that love is essentially indistinguishable from agony and slavery, not exactly the conventional take (although probably more so in Cixous' native France).

    Stuff that's both thematically safe and formally safe would be something like, I don't know, a Bond film, adhering diligently to the format of its genre while not exactly providing subject material that's especially challenging to anyone.

    Scatterplot time!

    My own personal tastes tend to gravitate to "risky" work in the top right section, followed by the "genre books on esoteric topics" in the top left. But stuff in the lower left can certainly be fun at times.

    Note: "physics textbooks" in the top left are esoteric, not taboo; if you want something totally genre-bound yet which also deals with the culturally taboo, insert "Penthouse Letters."



    Wednesday, August 31, 2005
    1:36 PM


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