Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Killer in Me?

While the AWP writing conference Is still fresh in my mind, I want to set down the highlights of the best sessions I attended, one each this week over spring break.

Among the best was a Friday session entitled “Villians, Killers, and Criminals, Oh My: Representing Evildoers in Literary Fiction.” This stellar panel, which included Reese Okyong Kwon, Matt Bell, Eugene Cross, Brian Evenson, and Lauren Groff, stepped up and delivered.

Matt Bell opened up with a short lyric essay with references ranging from Sauron to the Mecha-Hitler in Wolfenstein 3-D. One of his primary concerns was reductive portraits of evil—like turning Hitler, a complex and iconic figure of evil from the last century—into a ridiculous cartoon. Matt Bell also warned against replacing theological explanations of evil (the devil made me do it) with psychological (he had a messed up childhood). Either excuse is reductive and flat. Ultimately , for literature to have power, the antagonist must be relatable. Bell wants us to “set a place at the table for the reader and to do this the portrait of evil must present a blankness” into which the reader can project herself. Ultimately, it’s the devil inside each one of us that is truly frightening.

All the presenters spoke against explanation. Once we try to explain evil, we set up a wall, distance it from ourselves. One presenter reminded the audience of Sartre’s quote: “The line that divides good and evil runs through the human heart.”

They talked about memorable villains. Cormac McCarthy’s The Judge. Flannery O’ Connor’s The Misfit. Shakespeare’s Iago . They talked about the complexity, how the judge compels by being inexplicable. “We don’t understand,” one panelist pointed out, “but he remains interesting.”

Most intriguing to me was the idea that Shakespeare muddled his explanation for what drives Iago. I believe it was Reese Okyong Kwon who pointed out that in an early draft Shakespeare had an easy enough motive for Iago: he could have simply had his desire for Desdemona the driving force for his wickedness. Desire and jealousy. Instead, Shakespeare allows no motive for Iago. Iago just is. His cunning manipulations, his deviousness lead to Othello to destroying what he most loves. Iago is interesting precisely because we can’t explain him.

“Stupidity insists on the desire to conclude,” the panelists reminded us. In the real world, sometimes evil defies explanation and sometimes the same must be true in literature. Perhaps, when it comes to writing villains, this quote from the Misfit sums it up best: "Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life.” ― Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories