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

Except we’re all political, because what the word refers to is the give-and-take in human relationships

Our guest today is Barry Knister 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, and the just-released Deep North. He has also published Just Bill, 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.

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…

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?

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.

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?

Office politics, sexual politics, family and neighborhood politics-everything we do can be thought of in political terms

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?