Not the “or” but the “and,” David Mitchell said last night. We shouldn’t have to choose between literary and genre fiction, high and low—and of course there was more than a little transgender subtext to the whole thing, since he was in conversation with Lana Wachowski. Then he closed the evening talking about the difficulty of crafting compelling villains: “The problem of evil is really tricky.” I wish I could capture how he elaborated on that statement, but the gist of my understanding was that there is no way to write a compelling villain without understanding how that villain thinks they are acting with good in mind. And finally, Mitchell closed the conversation with this quotation from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“…the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart…”
And when he said that, I sighed in recognition. The passage continues:
“…and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.
…. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Writers aim not to destroy, but to draw out our contradictions and complexities. And now we’re back to Ian KcEwan’s “Only Love and oblivion”: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”
The kindness and imagination of “and.” I’ll be thinking about this for some time, particularly as it concerns Francophone writing as a social and political choice—and the disciplinary divide between creative writing and, well, every other academic discipline.