Literary Risk-Taking

A recent new literary prize, The Folio Prize, emphasizes how all the writers on its shortlist “take risks”, and seems to see this as something laudable; but what does it mean, to talk about “taking risks” when writing a novel? Does it mean they are risking their lives, or their sanity? Or are they risking being ridiculed, or left unread? And why is this seen to be good? And why are people in the literary world using an expression taken from management theory?

What is risk anyway?

According to management theory, risk is the existence of more than one possible outcome.

Let us understand outcomes in terms of “art”.

A novelist who is “risk-taking” will aim at the highest artistic achievement, with no other consideration. They know there is only a small probability of achieving it, and that, taking the path they are, most likely they will produce something utterly worthless, but they are prepared to take the risk.

There are a few other “attitudes” to risk as well. In management theory, these are called “risk appetites”.

Some people, for instance, are “risk averse”. These are novelists who seek to follow that path which is least likely to end up with them producing something worthless. Rather than concentrating on being great, they concentrate on not being awful, and in all probability produce something mediocre.

Other people are “risk neutral”. The risk-neutral novelist makes a careful calculation, before setting out on his work – presumably around his use of content, form and style; and then, using some form of risk-based probability theory, determines which combination is most likely to achieve the highest standard of art. On average, his work will be better than any of the others, but a few risk takers will produce greater art.

And then there are those odd people who are “regret adverse”. These novelists guide their decision-making by the sense of regret they are likely to feel when they fail to achieve what they could have. (Post-modernist writers – especially those who believe in the impossibility of communcation – are likely to fit into this group).

A key element in any discussion of risk is uncertainty. If there is no uncertainty around taking a certain course of action, then there is no risk involved. Discussing novel-writing in relation to risk implies that the novelist approaches the task of writing a novel with no real certainty about how his novel is likely to turn out, or how his decisions are likely to be reflected in the artistic merit of the final work. In management theory, a lot of the effort in risk avoidance is to reduce uncertainties, by research, analysis, training etc. Perhaps the novelist could do the same by, I don’t know, reading and contemplating life, language and art – that sort of thing. Because it would surely be better, rather than “taking risks”, to have an idea what you were about when writing a novel.

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6 thoughts on “Literary Risk-Taking

  1. I had given this no thought, but you are right, it is sillier than it looks. What risk was George Saunders taking with a collection of stories much in the line of his other collections? What risk was Jane Gardam taking by finishing her trilogy?

    Come to think of it, what risk was Sergio de la Pava taking – he knew damn well his book was unpublishable, and he was almost right.

    They specify why the Kushner novel is risky – “It’s about motorbikes.”

    I hope de la Pava wins. That is the only one of the bunch I have read.

  2. I suppose there is another category of risk, ie the commercial, which is probably more susceptible of the “managed” approach you suggest. Will my audience accept this character / material / plot point? How do I build a big audience in the first place? How do I avoid or bypass snotty critics? Where do I get the information to pad out my scenario / historical setting / imagined world? What elements can I include to ensure all commercial opportunities (eg cinema adaptations) are fully exploited?

    The use of this approach to “risk” would have produced a somewhat different Folio shortlist – but one defined by “metrics” (ie sales / revenue) rather than the purely subjective choice of a number of however well-qualified judges.

    Per Tom’s point, a real risk would be something like Catton having written an actual Victorian doorstop, rather than a long book equipped with various apparatuses designed to emphasise its supposed subversion of the Victorian doorstop.

  3. I think the “risk” the Folio prize is talking about is, basically, commercial risk although certainly I’ve heard of all of these books. There’s nothing wrong with the stated purpose of the prize, “to reward serious literary endeavour and those writers who are innovative in their use of language.” I have no idea if any of the books on the short list are “serious literary endeavours” or are “innovative in their use of language.” I’m not sure what innovation would even mean these days. Usually “pyrotechnic” means “like Rushdie in Midnight’s Children” and “transgressive” means “loads of rough sex.” Which are all cliches in the “serious lit” world by now. But I will say that the Man Booker seems to celebrate a narrowly-defined sort of polished novel with probably broad commercial appeal, and it’s nice to see someone pointing in a slightly different direction.

    As a writer, I know when I’m taking risks, and usually those risks don’t involve any danger of bodily harm, no. Nothing is at stake in writing a novel at all. The world doesn’t need more novels anyway. But to risks, I guess the writers I know and I tend to mean that we’re attempting things that might not work, that might not be understood by anyone other than the writer, writing in a manner unlike the writing we already know. Many writers lack depth in their reading, so they don’t know that when they write stream-of-consciousness (or whatever), that it’s been done done done before. Many readers also lack depth in their reading, and are impressed by stuff they’ve never seen. It’s been hard to surprise a reader since Sterne’s day, you know. None of this is meant as an apology for the Folio Prize, about which I knew nothing until I stumbled across this blog post. You may blame Amateur Reader for that stumbling.

    Also, I like your thumbnail descriptions of novels you’ve read. They are very fine.

  4. I keep meaning to reply to all this, but then thoughts get in the way of my ever saying anything.

    The commercial basis of risk is, of course, the more usual basis in management theory; and I guess if you’re setting out to write a book purely for financial gain, then you are likely – more likely – to take a programmatic attitude towards risk; again, not take risks, but mitigate them.

    As a writer, I think an appreciation of the intelligibility of what you are writing is an invaluable attribute; and although sometimes it’s hard to judge your own work, I don’t think it’s that difficult in truth (or I don’t find it so – though, of course, you’re all free to judge on that when I eventually make anything available). A writer has to have an understanding of the consequence of any effect he is creating, even if that understanding is instinctual, otherwise I don’t think he will be a very successful writer.

    To me, risk is just the wrong term. It does imply, in the way we are most likely to choose to understand it, a pushing of the boundaries; but it irks me that a pushing of the boundaries should be considered a meritable thing in itself. I’m not the least convinced that art has anything to do with pushing the boundaries – not of form, of content, of language.

    Would I like the Folio books more than the Booker? Frankly, I’m not convinced I’d be able to tell the difference.

    I am quite pleased with my upcoming 10-word Moby Dick review.

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