Friday, June 8, 2018

Guest Post: Controversiality by Chris Bauer

Submitted for your approval, a new word: controversiality. Shakespeare invented words all the time. Assassination, cold-blooded, arch-villain, addiction, scuffle. Thousands of them. It might not have been the first time they were used in conversation, but scholars say it was the first time these words were seen in print.

A level set: I am to Shakespeare as Mad Dog 20/20 and Two-Buck Chuck are to Château Mouton-Rothschild.

Controversiality is a literary minefield. A place where under-published genre authors are often told not to tread, by agents, publishers, and other writers. Writing a thriller? A suspense tale? A horror title? Toss in some hotly contested topics, and it could become a literary death wish.

But I like using controversial topics in my stuff, he says. Topics that are original because they’re taboo, or because they utilize discomforting characters or situations, their uniqueness oftentimes coming from the controversial topics themselves. Controversies, and taking risks in the interest of originality, can provide great backbones for plots and character traits.

Examples, you say? Why yes, got a few handy, thanks for asking.

The landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision. It’s a catalyst for the political crime thriller Jane’s Baby by yours truly, about assaults on the Supreme Court both legal and physical. Are the characters pro this, or anti that? Conservative? Liberal? Progressive? Is it right to make them, or their institutions, targets of bad actors? The novel’s heroes and villains have biases; how could they not? Some parallel the author’s. Gotta stir the pot, he says.

Or characters with physical and mental challenges that make readers wince. Like a hero fugitive recovery agent with Tourette syndrome. Or his ride-along who’s a little person, with the hero consistently using that one very derogatory term to describe his ride-along because his subconscious can’t help itself.

Wait, what? And you made these characters recurring, in a series? You’ll be excoriated.

Or gender identity, where a transitioning transgender character with conflicting body parts is mainstreamed as a cold-blooded assassin (thanks, Mr. Shakespeare) fueled more by revenge than environment, and not by his internal wiring. America is a Gun, a thriller work in progress, is an example.

 “But transgender people have enough real-life challenges trying to fit in. Don’t show one as being psychotic and evil. It fuels the hate.” Sorry, but nope. Genre fiction is a great equalizer. It can blast right past the sensitivities. Don’t make the story the character’s struggle in dealing with his/her inner conflict and/or lack of acceptance. Normalize it as just another genre character trait. Give him non-gender identity motivation for why he goes batshit crazy enough to kill people. He’s a genre villain who is transgender, is sympathetic, and not a villain because he’s transgender, also not any batshit crazier because his gender packaging is reversed. Story is king, with the character’s personal conflict simply an accouterment.

Or illegal immigrants and their mistreatment in this country. Poor, frightened, and ripe for exploitation. It’s one of the plot threads for Hiding Among the Dead, the first crime novel in a series about commercial crime scene cleaners. Still working on convincing my agent it should go on submission.

Or the crème de la crème of controversies: guns, and gun control. It’s not simply controversial, it’s radioactive. The aforementioned America is a Gun addresses how characters who live and die by their firearms mimic many of our real-life law and order heroes in that they’re fed up with the proliferation of guns and would gladly accept changes to gun ownership laws, and their own rights too, if it could significantly reduce the real-life bloodshed, so they do something on a grand scale about it. As a novel it dives head-first into the gun lobby mosh pit, but accepts that firearms are ingrained in the civilian pursuits and lifestyle of past generations and present, are so much a part of America’s history, and are here to stay for generations to come.

And here’s where things can get dicey. Why would an author spend time producing material for public consumption that he knows will immediately piss off half, maybe more, his potential audience? Where, when looking for blurbs from acclaimed bestselling authors, she receives kudos for the material, the plot, the pace, the entire story, but the kudos need to be off the record because she flew too close to the sun for the blurber’s brand?

The answer is the other half of the audience is still a helluva lot of potential readers, and this author should be so lucky to write something that appeals to them. But this isn’t the way all publishers and agents feel, unfortunately. Shooting oneself in the foot before one un-holsters a weapon (sorry) can severely stifle a manuscript’s salability, they say.

How is all this working out for me? Only one novel sold so far. Ask me in another five years.

So I’m just going to let this sit out there: Controversiality works if an author can weather the pushback and the rejection. If it adds to the originality of a story, or the voice, or the delivery of a good plot, then hell, go for it. Take the risk. Maybe even embrace it as your brand, or at least one of them.

Paraphrasing Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) in Caddyshack, while Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) lined up his iron shot after Ty’s blindfolded effort landed a few feet from the cup:

“Just be the ball. Be… the ball. You’re not being the ball, Danny.”

Naysayers? Fuck ’em. I’m just gonna be the ball.

*  *  *

Chris' new book is Jane’s Baby, of which Logan Krum, writing for The Northeast Times, says, “The plot is a tightly wound coil ready to spring at any second. Bauer wants to draw no conclusion for the reader -- he just wants them to contemplate their own thoughts.” As a Philly native Chris has had lengthy stops in Michigan and Connecticut, and he thinks Pittsburgh is a great city even though some of his fictional characters do not. He likes the pie more than the turkey. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Shroud Magazine, and 100 Horrors, and has been podcasted by Well Told Tales. He's a member of International Thriller Writers, Pennwriters, and the Horror Writers Association. Chris is not to my knowledge related to the actor Chris Bauer, best known here for playing Frank Sobotka in The Wire. This Chris is a better writer, and that’s what OBAAT is about.

No comments: