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Goodfellas and Third Rails: The Conflict Between an Author’s Self-Interest and Freedom

barryknister [1]Our guest today is Barry Knister [2] who returned to fiction writing after a career of college teaching. His first novel, a gritty thriller titled The Dating Service had been published by Berkley. More recently, he has self-published two novels in a suspense series, The Anything Goes Girl [3], and the just-released Deep North [4]. He has also published Just Bill [5], a short novel for adults about dogs and owners living on a Florida golf course.

Barry served as the past secretary of Detroit Working Writers, one of the country’s oldest writing organizations. For two years, he was also the director of the Cranbrook Summer Writers Conference. More recently, he wrote “Let me get this straight,” a weekly column on language for the Naples (Florida) Daily News. He lives in Michigan with his wife Barbara where they serve as staff for their Aussie/Sheltie rescue, Skyler.

Barry enjoys corresponding with writers and invites you to contact him through his website [2].

Goodfellas and Third Rails: The Conflict Between an Author’s Self-Interest and Freedom

Like other top sites for writers, Writer Unboxed offers inspiration, as well as advice on the Dos and Don’ts of craft and trade. Unlike most other sites, though, WU also lightens the load and amuses—thank you, Tom Bentley, Keith Cronin, Bill Ferris, et al. With few exceptions, the posts at WU are useful to both made writers, and to those working toward becoming made.

I’m using “made” in the Mafia sense. To be a made man in the mob is to be formally accepted into a crime family (“goodfellas” and “wiseguys” also refer to fully fledged gangsters). To achieve made status usually requires the wannabe gangster to carry out a contract killing.

If someone gets whacked for just annoying an unmade gangster (the way so many annoy Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas and Casino), that doesn’t count toward becoming a made man. Murders and maimings that aren’t contracted by higher-ups are viewed as simple fits of pique, and aren’t related to “business.” Case in point? The man living across the street from me. He has a compulsive need to use his leaf blower after dark, a blower powered by an F-16 jet engine. So often at such times I’ve wished Joe Pesci could be with me here on my patio, sharing a glass of wine after dinner…

Sorry, I lost the thread.

How does any of this apply to third rails, and to a conflict between becoming a made writer, and literary freedom?

The third rail is the electrified power rail that runs between subway tracks. Step on it, and you stop being a problem to anyone outside the Sanitation Department. But what are the third rails to be avoided by anyone who wants to be a made writer?

Two are politics, and writing outside your gender.

Yes, you can write about politics—but only if you safely cast your novel in the (preferably dystopian) future, or the past. Or in a galaxy far, far away. If the Mother of Dragons frees slaves (Game of Thrones), or a snowy-haired sadist president played by Donald Sutherland forces spunky teenagers to hunt down and kill each other (The Hunger Games)—fine. You can do that.

Except we’re all political, because what the word refers to is the give-and-take in human relationships. Office politics, sexual politics, family and neighborhood politics—everything we do can be thought of in political terms. Why, then, in a Western democracy should it be professionally dangerous for adult writers to create stories that take up actual political questions, to develop politically motivated characters who live in our own time and place?

True, works of literary fiction sometimes focus on contemporary politics (T.C. Boyle and Philip Roth come to mind). But I’m talking about what most of us at WU concern ourselves with as writers: genre fiction. Why should it be so dangerous for us to introduce politics into our plots and characterizations?

Conventional wisdom argues that our country is too divided politically. Write about actual, real-world political questions, and writers of either sex risk alienating readers who don’t share their point of view. From a dollars-and-cents perspective, goes the argument, it’s imprudent to risk testing that third rail.

But in seeking to make it—to be made—something important gets lost when writers censor themselves by treating political questions as taboo. Aren’t novels supposed to be challenging? Is genre fiction only about killing time and villains? Isn’t it humiliating to stifle a sincerely held political conviction or opinion, out of fear of losing some sales?

If you think about it, genre writers are exactly the ones who stand the greatest chance of stimulating and advancing public discussion on issues of the day. That’s because genre fiction, not the high-priced spread of literary fiction is what’s being read by the great majority of people who still read.

[pullquote]The practical writer will answer that compromise happens in all walks of life. She will say writers must pick their battles wisely, and that pulling one’s punches on political questions—or better yet, avoiding politics altogether—is just common sense.[/pullquote]The practical writer will answer that compromise happens in all walks of life. She will say writers must pick their battles wisely, and that pulling one’s punches on political questions—or better yet, avoiding politics altogether—is just common sense.

As for writing outside your gender, that, too, we’re told, is another third rail for writers. Something like ninety percent of readers of both sexes stick with books written by writers of their own gender.

Yes, you can write for the opposite sex. But for men, is it best to stick with two- or three-handkerchief subjects the way Nicholas Sparks does? For women, is it a good idea to make everyone of either sex in your story equally repellent (Gillian Flynn)? Do that, and you can probably get away with not writing specifically for members of your own sex.

Or: you can mask your gender by using your initials instead of your name.

I confess to having done this. The central character in my just-released suspense novel Deep North is Brenda Contay, a woman journalist. Before the first book in the series came out (The Anything Goes Girl), I bowed to the voices of reason, and cloaked myself in gender anonymity with my initials (they still figure in my website address, it’s too hard to change).

But at some point, the idea of intentionally trying to hoodwink readers into thinking I was a female writer began to seem ridiculous. I asked my cover designer to change my books. Barry Knister was writing my novels, not B.W. Knister, and I wanted that known.

As for writing for only male or female readers, that, too, now strikes me as a form of timidity, of hiding from imagination. In my case, I live with women young and not-so-young. Most of my colleagues and bosses over the years have been women. With all this life experience, am I actually going to limit myself to writing stories drenched in testosterone for only half the reading population? Correction: for just thirty percent, since women buy seventy percent or more of all fiction.

How crazy is that? No, I won’t do it.

So: in the name of truth and beauty, I invite you to consider risking your status as a made writer, or your chance of becoming one. To do this, you will need to forget about political and gender third rails, and write what you actually think matters.

If you are apolitical, that’s a different matter: no one should expect you to reinvent yourself as a sign-waving zealot. But writers read, and they pay attention. I am not easily persuaded that very many of them are unaware of or uninterested in the political issues of our time. If this has any application to you, at least consider the price that’s paid, in intellectual and spiritual terms, when writers bow to conventional wisdom.

Let me borrow—okay, steal—from what others at Writer Unboxed have urged in a different context: find your bliss by facing what you fear. Write what actually matters to you, and dare to use your own name. In other words, make a contract with yourself, and be your own made writer.

Now it’s your turn: What are the third rails you avoid? How do you overcome fear to write about what matters to you?

About Barry Knister [6]

After a career in college teaching, Barry Knister returned to fiction writing. He writes both literary and genre novels, and is published by BHC Press. For several years, he served as secretary for Detroit Working Writers, and for two years he directed the Cranbrook Summer Writers Conference. He is the author of the Brenda Contay suspense series. Earlier this year, BHC re-released Just Bill, his novel of magical realism about dogs and their owners living on a golf course in Naples, Florida. Barry and his wife, Barbara, serve as staff for Skylar, an Aussie shepherd rescue. The three live in Pleasant Ridge, just north of Detroit. Barry looks forward to hearing from you, either through Facebook [7], or his website [8]. Insult comedians are welcome.