Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Best Stories are Always Edgy

Reading thuRsday

Perhaps because of the conjunction with Banned Book Week or perhaps because the topic arises periodically, I've been involved with several on-line discussion of "edgy" books recently.

We often hear that agents and editors want stories that are "edgy," that "push the envelope," and that talk about how things "really" are.

The edge in question is usually the edge of social acceptability, where the scent of the forbidden entices our voyeuristic impulses. From a business perspective (and without trying to sound too cynical), it's much easier to sell something offering readers a chance to step vicariously outside their constraints.

The topic can easily become contentious. There are readers who feel life is too short to waste on vanilla when the "edgy" offers more exotic flavors. There are others who hear "edgy" and immediately think "uncomfortable," "gratuitous," or even "marketing gimmick."

It's unfortunate that there's a fair amount of ammunition for readers who associate "edgy" with "gimmicky" because there's an important place in the grand conversation for stories about the edges, not of acceptability but of society.

Stories from the social periphery give voice to people and experiences that are minimized or ignored. Going to the edge is certainly important for social justice, but it's even more important as a source of variability and vitality.*

But there's an even deeper point: at a structurally level, the best stories are always edgy in the particular sense that they take the protagonist out to the edge of their known world and then beyond. Whether the journey is actual or emotional, it's only in the unmediated wild beyond the edge of the safe and comfortable where character is revealed and proven.

* Chaos theory, for example, shows that the dynamic equilibrium between order and chaos is the region where the most interesting and complex things happen. The intertidal zone at the shore is a natural example of dynamic equilibrium. Another way to think of it is that the tendency of society to move toward monoculture is offset by the variations and novelties that arise on its periphery.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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