The Value of Shock

Jaded people and the risk of getting their attention

As humans, we used to be shocked more easily. The decay of outrage may have been going on for millennia–a natural consequence of social evolution: The younger generation rebels against the strictures of the older generation, and values change and evolve.

But there is something new about the depth and spread of jaded demeanor, certainly  since Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in 1934:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

When you live in an isolated village, shock comes more easily. (She didn’t say hello back!) When you live in a technological age where you instantly know what is going on in Los Angeles, Bangladesh, and Cairo, you are so inundated with the new and the different, your tolerance for it goes way up. (Another snuff video? Please!)

We have devised entertainments specifically to dull our sense of fear and surprise (e.g., roller-coasters, slasher movies, haunted houses). We regularly read friends’ and strangers’ inner thoughts and the intimate details of their lives on social media. As artists and creators, we are forced to keep pushing the envelope of shock just to get noticed.

Yesterday, I went to see a new musical by Dave Malloy, who is staking a claim as a shocking playwright and composer with an a capella musical followup to his 2012 “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” and 2014 “Ghost Quartet.” The premise of “Octet” is eight people meeting in a church basement to programmatically heal their addiction to the Internet. One thing that is somewhat shocking about the production is that there are no musical instruments other than a set of pitch pipes and some occasional percussion. Another is the surprising chords Malloy uses, far outside the tonal standards of traditional Broadway musicals. Another is the intense, honest focus he places on our co-dependence for interactive technology from online games, to online dating, to porn, and to newsfeeds and message threads, to name just a few.

Octet cast

“Glow” from “Octet”

And there are other even more shocking elements within the stories of the eight characters. The most extreme one involves an atheist scientist encountering a manifestation of God (She thinks She is, at least–She’s not sure), who keeps having to perform miracles to try to establish Her identity.

And there is great, quirky humor too. In the above-mentioned tale, the scientist asks God for proof, and She turns his cell phone into a fish. The chorus asks him what kind of fish, and he guesses a trout, and they start arguing with him that a trout would be too big–he couldn’t hold it in one hand.

I look at my own creative output, and I see how I too have been pushing myself further outside my conventions and comfort zone. My first two novels were fairly conventional space operas. I have since then explored characters who were much different from me, like a Muslim teen girl in South Dakota, a Buddhist teen boy in Bhutan, a blind and wheelchair-bound telepath, a trans man captain of a warp highway paving ship, and a sentient fungus.

My operas are also evolving. I started with a magical fantasy called “The Repugnant Tap.” My newest one I’m developing is called “Nine Dead Women,” and it’s not quite as shocking as the title suggests, but that’s intentional. It takes place at the death of Imelda Marcos, during which she is visited by ghosts of eight of her previous contemporaries, including Nancy Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Winnie Mandela, Golda Meir, and Raisa Gorbachev.

With the attempt at presenting something novel and shocking, one always risks being called out for being insensitive. Certainly one of the themes of “Nine Dead Women” (and there are several, of course) is that corruption does not exempt women when they come into power. I’m sure there will be critics who will grind their axes on me simply for being a man criticizing women, whereas a female composer would not. Perhaps my inclusion of the tragic life of Billie Holiday as another of the eight will offset that criticism somewhat.

And that has to be the calculus for evaluating the shock factor. Because the more shocking you are, the smaller your initial audience but the greater attention you might get. Less shocking works may be more generally palatable, but are not as engaging in our increasingly jaded society.


Sometimes, like this, I write about more general topics than writing technique. If you liked this post, you might also find Why do straight parents keep having gay kids?, The Evolution of Language, The Roots of Inspiration, and Novelty and Comfort interesting too.

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