Writing and Reading Evil

After the US presidential election last fall, a conversation circulated among my writing colleagues about the kinds of stories we ought to be writing and reading in the face of that terrible moment in history. The conversation wore a number of faces. "Writing as activism" was an important one, where artists were encouraged to make art that reflected their perspectives on world events. Another pointed to the recent spate of post-apocalyptic novels, which were no longer so far-fetched. Still another presented a more practical question: What do readers want to read now, and what do writers want to write?

At the time, I was so busy with my first semester of university that all I could manage were a couple of poems posted to my blog. But now I'm working on a story for the next installment of the Alphabet Anthologies1, series entitled, ironically enough, E is for Evil. When my editor Rhonda Parrish announced the title to her writers, I asked whether or not she was expecting a stack of allegorical pieces. In the email conversation that ensued, we both agreed that allegory was art, and art comments upon life, so an allegorical anthology would be perfectly all right.

Still, I didn't want to write allegory, and I had recently written a challenging story about evil for the series2. I also found that every time I approached a story about evil and especially about villains who emerged victorious, my creative energy shut all the way down. Nothing I wrote was any good, and I didn't want to write at all. I approached no fewer than three partial drafts of different stories before settling on a new idea about forgiveness and atonement in the face of evil, which I can't describe any further without spoilers. And even then, I wrestled with the story hard, and I'm still wrestling with it.

On the summer reading front, I found myself drawn to re-read a favorite series by Lois McMaster Bujold; the World of the Five Gods, which begins with The Curse of Chalion. It didn't take me long to figure out why. The protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, is a man of integrity in spite of his flaws. It was good to spend time in the company of a person who genuinely cared about the people in his life, who could not be bought, and who placed the well-being of the young women in his charge above his own. When the novel ended, I wanted to be one of the sacred crows of the Zangre, following his life from a safe and anonymous distance. I've started the second novel in the series now, and I'm looking forward to pilgrimage with the Dowager Royina Ista dy Chalion, who I remember fondly from my first reading several years ago.

All this by way of saying that I've answered these writerly and readerly questions for myself. I can't write about the triumph of evil right now; it just breaks me. However, I can write about the emotional consequences of evil both to evildoers and their victims, which I think is a sort of activism. In terms of reading, give me good people who triumph. Let me spend time in the company of characters with integrity. It's all right if that goodness is a bit overblown and that integrity is a little naive. I don't care. I'd rather people try too hard to do the right thing than wink and nudge me into believing that nobody really behaves that way. There's too much of that shit going on in the world right now, and I don't care to voluntarily ingest it.

With one exception. I'm looking forward to reading what my fellow E is for Evil writers do with the theme. I can't help but wonder if their stories will be a reflection of the perilousness of the times as seen through their eyes.

  • 1. An invitation series I've been writing for these last few years.
  • 2. "D is for Duel/One Who Dies as a God Dies" in D is for Dinosaur.