Taking Risks in Literature?

In fiction, writing on 09/02/2012 at 17:05

One of my favorite things about having a Nook (and Nook for PC!) is the Free Sample feature. Pretty much every book has a free sample you can download, and some book’s samples are upwards of thirty or forty pages, which is pretty nice.

Yesterday I downloaded a sample of Jonathan Franzen’s “Strong Motion,” and one of the blurbs caught my attention, because it’s a phrase I’ve often seen associated with literature but never quite understood.


Michael Blumfield of The Orlando Sentinel said of Franzen: “A brave author, not afraid to take tremendous risks.”

Considering all novels are written from the safety of one’s chair, how brave do you need to be?

And more importantly, what constitutes risk taking in literature? I have only read a few pages of “Strong Motion” so far, so I won’t pass judgment on it, but “The Corrections” and “Freedom” don’t seem particularly risky to me.

Don’t get me wrong, they were very unique novels, but I never felt some bold, new method of writing had been implemented. Often when a writer takes extreme risks (EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, anyone?) the author is generally called a hack, the risks are chalked up to gimmick.

Michael Chabon could be called a risk taker. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” spans several continents and decades, jumping from wartime Germany to 1950s New York to the far reaches of Antarctica. Is that risky? Or is that just the big, bloated novel we have come to know in this day and age?

Cormac McCarthy’s earlier novels were pretty risky. “Outer Dark” has a ‘plot,’ if you can call it that, revolving around a woman trying to recover her missing newborn baby. The reader is unclear how she will find the child, considering she has absolutely zero leads and days have passed before she even knows the infant is gone. It becomes readily apparently that she will not find the child, and yet the narrative progresses. Still, this gritty form of storytelling has been done before and since, so where’s the risk?

“The Orchard Keeper,” McCarthy’s first novel, is perhaps the only true risktaking I’ve come across in literature. The novel features a large cast of seemingly unrelated characters, most of whom go unnamed. It’s a tough narrative to keep up with, and McCarthy takes the risk of most readers dropping the book after two pages, utterly baffled.

Still, it’s not satisfying. Taking risks in literature. Tell me, reader, what would you consider to be a big risk a writer might take?

  1. This blog reminded me something that happened to me as an author: but when my novel was going through editing, I was asked me to make a major change: drop the second most important character’s age and add a romantic subplot between him and the protagonist.
    The lead is a young woman who has crushes on the men around her, but never has a boy friend. They are on a space ship, so her options are extremely limited.

    It’s science fiction, so I figured the romantic subplot was not needed. I chose to follow my gut and not add it, I knew I was taking a “big risk” at the time. Happily discovered that is one of the aspects to the novel people really like. Phew!

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