Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Defining Edgy

If you've been to a writer's conference in the last ten years, odds are you've heard the word "edgy" used to describe the type of manuscripts editors are seeking. I've also heard "fresh voice" and "characters that leap off the page" but those qualities I can understand. It's that edgy word that leaves me feeling just a bit, for lack of a better word, edgy.

Pressed further, some editors can't really define the quality. They just know it when they read it. And I guess I can understand that too, but as a writer it's frustrating to want to emulate that indefinable something that will make your manuscript stand out. So, in my quest to understand edginess better, I looked the darn word up.

There are three definitions of edgy at, for my purpose, #3 hits the mark.

Edgy: Having a bold, provocative or unconventional quality.

That's a definition I can wrap my mind around. yet it brings more questions. What exactly makes a book edgy? Voice? Plot? In your face realism? I Googled "Edgy YA Fiction" and was lead to the website of the CBCC. (Cooperative Children's Book Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison) I picked two books from their edgy YA list that I was familiar with to do an "edgy" breakdown and comparison.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I suppose this would be considered "old school" edgy. I read this book in freshman lit and was instantly pulled in because it spoke to me. Not with flowery language, or obscure symbolism, but to ME, a teenager. The boys in The Outsiders were not well behaved. They drank, they smoked and they got into lots of fights. And while there were no "Greasers" or "Socs" in my school years, I could easily identify with the introspective Ponyboy and his plight of wanting to be accepted in society.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I was a bit out of my teen years when I read this book, but from page one felt transported back to high school and all its dramas. Again, the story spoke to ME or my inner teen, with the need of wanting to fit in. Melinda Sordino did not sugarcoat the reality she was living through. It was harsh but often humorous and ultimately real. Speak was also a book that was most often cited at conferences I've attended as an example of "edgy".

What both books have in common is a first person, no holds barred, "here's my naked reality" quality to them. Both also contain bleak subject matter and dark crisis points. And both don't have "big red bow" endings but do leave the reader with the hope and understanding that the protagonist does indeed triumph. They each easily fit the definition as having a "bold, provocative or unconventional" quality. But does this help me in my quest to understand edginess? Maybe a little.

I don't think there can be an ultimate "edgy" checklist, nor do I think edginess is a quality a writer can strive to attain. Not all edgy books will be told in first person (Unwind by Neal edgy I cut my fingers while turning the pages). On the other hand, many, if not all, edgy books I've read have at their heart some very grim subject matter. But does a book need to contain dark subject matter to be edgy? I guess, what is comes down to, is that you know "edginess" when you read it.

So how would you define edgy?


  1. Hiya SCBWI crit group New Jersey! I'm Robyn and your Robin posted on our list serve SCBWI Carolinas asking us to have a look at your blog. Might I say that you have a great thing going here. Loved reading it.

    About the edgy thing, I don't put edgy into one category. Dark books to be sure but there are many 'edgy' books that don't have dark elements in them. It could be most YA fiction written today. Things that deal with issues teens are going through daily. Drugs,etc. I write MG fiction but will be starting a YA novel this spring. Anyway,it was nice to talk with y'all. Peace! Robyn

  2. Robyn, Thanks for stopping by! don't be a stranger :)

  3. I interpret edgy as a book that pushes the limits of what is norm--one that deals with rape, such as Speak, or suicide, such as 13 Reasons Why. It could just be one that explores the teen world in a realistic, open way. I'd define Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist as edgy, for example, because of the way it shows teens so openly.

  4. I was also thinking of 13 Reasons Why, maybe because I just read it. I guess I think of edgy as content, also, difficult subjects, some of the challenging issues teens face. Saint Iggy would definitely qualify. I also thought of Graceling, even though it's fantasy, because the female character is so totally unique... she's a killer, she's very aggressive, extremely outspoken and independent. She has all the characters of a fascinating male character but she's a young woman. Is that 'edgy'? Good discussion. I realized at the recent SCBWI NY conference that I'd like someone to define 'literary fiction' to me. Does it just mean as opposed to fantasy, sci-fi, mystery or romance novels? I guess we're all still learning...

  5. I went to a conference where an editor on a panel said she was looking for mss. where the protagonist dies. A dead MC makes for a grim storyline but is it edgy? Or is it the way in which the MC dies--O.D., suicide, etc.--that makes it edgy?

    And as for MG, the MC dies in Bridge to Terabithia. Grim or edgy?

  6. See, I was wondering myself "edgy" seems to be something that could cross all genres...Unwind is certainly sci-fi, but to me it's edgy too. The same with Uglies. Tally is a complete badass, and the book has a lot to say about society today and our obsession with "pretty".

    I loved Thirteen Reasons Why. (Great interview with Jay Asher in CBI this month, btw) Definitely provocative.

    As for literary...I would say a book like The Book Thief would fit that well as being a bit edgy too, lol.

    Thanks for joining in Beth & Con!

  7. As many of you know, I was at a NJ-SCBWI Mentoring Workshop a few weeks ago and the editor I met with said she wanted my historical fiction (15th C London) to be more "edgy". Having mixed emotions about that word, I asked her to define it. She said "dark" -- more inner conflict with the MC and more of the "underbelly of life". That I understand, but I'm not sure I would have defined it as "edgy".

    I guess "edgy" is the new pornography - Like Robin said, You know it when you see it.

  8. The "E" word as the new pornography! Love it!

    I see edgy visually. When the MC is literally pushed to the edge of something-- looking over a cliff deciding which step to take. Metaphorically, that is.

  9. I recently read the original Peter Pan and was surprised at the amount of violence in the "dark" side of the narrative.Is it turn of the century edgy when that crazily jealous Tinkerbell shoots Wendy out of the sky, felling her with an arrow through the heart?

    And just look at some of the Grimm stories. They certainly push the limits of the norm - very dark - edgy? Hasn't this quality always been around?

  10. im always standing on the edge - maybe mine qualify :)

  11. Gale, you're right! I think some toning things down for kids is a more recent phenomenon. I wonder when it turned around?

    Shelli - Thanks for stopping by!

  12. A tweet led me here..great thoughts.

    My take on edgy stories and editor's on the edge of selecting them is similar to how a bride picks a wedding dress. She has an idea of it in her head. She dreamed and searched for it but won't until she tries it on and says "this is it." I found my dress! And you what, have the time it isn't the one she had in her head after all.

    So, I guess that all makes us potential wedding dresses for editors to try on and skip over until they ulimately find the perfect fit.

    An 'edgy' dress to one bride would be completely hideous to another. That is why we have to be persistent until we all find the right fit (or make a better quality dress).

    Anyway, this is my silly analogy.