The short answer: as hard as it takes for those boundaries to break.
I’ve said often that if you’re not turning someone off, you’re not turning someone on. You can’t please everyone with creative work. And, in fact, you shouldn’t try. If you do, you’re producing something lukewarm, something mediocre, something everyone has already seen or heard or felt. Which means something forgettable—and nothing special. Nothing that will make an impact on even a single person. In my opinion, that’s the worst fate for a book or any other kind of creative product. Not to mention a huge waste of time.
The caveat is that you can’t push boundaries just for the sake of pushing them. Shock value has very limited value. It’s a cheap and transparent attempt at captivating your audience for a brief moment, and they will immediately recognize it and resent you for it. Instead, every time you push hard at a boundary—whether in a form, subject, or style—it had better be because you’re interested in revealing something new, something worth getting people thinking and talking about.
In literature, my first thought of a creative boundary-pusher is Bret Easton Ellis. Otherwise known as the author of American Psycho, which I’m currently reading. A quick summary: By day, 26-year-old Patrick Bateman is a handsome rich guy who works on Wall Street; by night, a remorseless, ruthless murderer. UGH. It is the most difficult-to-read book I’ve ever experienced. I say experienced for a reason. Told in first-person, present tense point of view, most of the book is cultural satire, a bit tiresomely at times. But the descriptions of the murders—they literally make me feel sick. They terrify me. Last night I had nightmares. No kidding.
Here’s the thing, though—the book isn’t just shock value. Yes, it’s shocking. It’s gruesome and disturbing. But it’s remarkably controlled, with an economy of language that is admirable for the subject matter. And what we’re really meant to think about is the juxtaposition of Bateman’s day-life and his night-life—how one can be a functional, thriving part of an ultimately superficial society while, behind the slicked back hair and designer clothes and tan, concealing a monster. And maybe, in this book, society itself is the monster. So while the novel is genuinely difficult to read (I can’t even promise I’ll finish it), it’s meaningful and important. That’s what we, as creative professionals, must strive for.
Who are some boundary-pushers that you admire? Why?