In the context of writing, risk-taking is about going against the established methods of writing. It’s about trying something new at the risk of falling flat. It’s about the freedom of going your own way with the threat of no return.
Before I spout another platitude not unlike one delivered by Matthew McConaughey at the wheel of a Lincoln Town Car, I want to emphasize that risk-taking in writing may strike some as cliché, but it’s absolutely necessary to change the game of the writing form and create new, useful paradigms for organizing prose. What would fiction look like without Ernest Hemingway, who dared to write more by writing less, thereby advocating the “tip of the iceberg” approach to spare prose? What would the world be like without the writing of Princeton’s own John McPhee, whose meandering nonfiction has opened up an entire field to literary journalists, as well as given us more than enough information on the geologic history of North America in the volumes that make up his Annals of the Former World? Who knows who will follow the poet Anne Carson, who has created her own genre of classical meta-prose poems through works such as Nox and Autobiography of Red?
It takes guts to change the way people think and write about things. While this whole issue is full of essays that strive to do just that, in this special “Risk-Taking” section of Tortoise, we spotlight the pieces that best embody the elements of risk-taking, which in this sense means works of academic writing that engage with the scholarly conversation in unconventional and surprising ways.
In Noah Hastings’s “How intentional anachronism changes identity processing via history in Assassin’s Creed,” the author takes an unconventional approach to the popular video game by interrogating the conflicting imposed cultural identities on the game’s protagonist, Altaïr. Not only does the piece take risks in its analysis of a traditionally nonacademic genre, the video game, Hastings’s analysis of the protagonist’s stereotypically “American” features is compelling as much as it risks stereotyping itself.
On the other hand, Hayley Roth’s journalism feature, “The Classroom Cure: Greece Struggles to Educate a New Generation of Refugees,” takes excellent fieldwork collected in Greece and tells a compelling news story. It does so through the employment of creative nonfiction techniques, which, although going against some of the genre’s conventions, creates a more powerful story, better capable of conveying the gravity of the refugee crisis in Greece.
Next, we feature a critical essay called “Volcanoes and Detectives,” which discusses the techniques of some of my own more off-the-wall essays that I’ve composed over my four years at Princeton. Through a critical reading of some of their components, we can see what aspects of them worked more effectively than others.
Lastly, in “Dead end or Dividend,” editor Myrial Holbrook considers an essay in which she attempted to analyze a passage from Cicero, an effort that fell victim to the intentional fallacy. Again, here is a moment when risks overwhelmed the risk-taker.
So, buckle up and enjoy the ride. In the next few pages, dart across rooftops with Altaïr, witness the sobering scenes of the refugee crisis, and then read about some of my more bizarre (and not very successful) academic essays. It will all be in good fun.