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.