Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bouchercon Afterthoughts

Sandra Parshall

Mystery conference panels, unavoidably, recycle the same topics year after year – like mystery plots, there are only so many – but now and then something genuinely absorbing pops up. At Bouchercon in St. Louis, the all-star panel about evil (“Evil Going On: Does evil truly exist or is it just human failing?”) was one of those high points for me.

The able moderator, Reed Farrel Coleman, and panelists John Connolly, Thomas H. Cook, Peter James, Laura Lippman, and Daniel Woodrell might all be expected to declare a firm belief in the existence of pure evil. That’s what they write about, isn’t it? But they were surprisingly, and refreshingly, conflicted in their opinions.

Connolly, an Irish Catholic, seemed to lean toward forgiveness for sins rather than condemnation for hopelessly evil behavior. Tom Cook pointed out that we are better than animals in many respects and certainly no worse. People tend to romanticize animals and claim they kill only for food or territory, but the truth is that some will kill their own kind for the sport and fun of it. Male dogs will gang-rape a female until she literally drops dead. (This sort of mating behavior is well-documented in a number of species.) If humans do things like this, they can expect punishment, meted out through an elaborate criminal justice system created by people for the purpose of suppressing our worst instincts and keeping us safe from one another. Humans do, at least, recognize destructive behavior when we see it. The writers on the panel were inclined to attribute that behavior to circumstances rather than bad genes.

Personally, I believe some people are born without the moral sensibility we define as a soul – and early experience destroys it in others – so I guess I accept the existence of pure evil in humans, although I am totally non-religious. I enjoyed listening to these wonderful writers talk about their own beliefs, though, and I appreciated the struggle some of them seemed to have with the question. Reading their books will be a richer experience for me because I sat in the audience during this panel.

Bouchercon is always an exercise in humility for me – little fish, massive pond and all that – but I’m used to it by now. I know that the Famous Authors I meet in passing won’t remember me next time (even if next time is 30 minutes later). I’m just another gushing fan, and that’s okay. I expect the polite smile, the drift of the FA’s gaze down to my name tag (“Who is this person?”). I keep it brief, because I realize they’ve never heard of me or my books, don’t know I’m also a writer. I go through this every time I see one of my favorite authors, but I still want to tell her how much I enjoyed her latest book. I interviewed her once, years ago, but I doubt she remembers. Publisher Weekly compared my writing favorably with hers, but I doubt she knows. This year the encounter took place on an escalator. The polite smile, the drifting gaze. I don’t care. I love her passion-filled books, love the direction in which she’s taking two of my favorite characters, and I told her so. Next time, she still won’t know who I am, but I’ll still tell her I love her books. I experience a tiny, tiny fraction of the positive interaction with readers that she has, but it always makes me feel good, and I figure she must enjoy hearing praise too.

Bouchercon 2011 was, as always, enormous and noisy and chaotic, a true feast for crime fiction fans. I salute Jon and Ruth Jordan and Judy Bobolik. It's a staggering amount of work, and I don't know how they do it. 


Sheila Connolly said...

I saw the same panel, and it was truly substantial. It seems to me that many of this year's panels took a more serious tone--less a love fest for the big name writers, more an honest conversation about writing or publishing in this rapidly changing industry, from those who are best qualified to judge.

As a counterpoint to this, a panel on forensics touched briefly on current research about the physiological basis for conscience and self-control. If evil is inherent, is it biological?

And I did my fair share of (respectful) idol stalking--John Connolly is definitely on that list. (No relation, alas.)

I came away with much to think about, if I could only find my brain, which is still AWOL.

Sandra Parshall said...

I wasn't crazy about certain "interviews" -- too many jokes, no substance. I walked out of one in disgust. I'm glad everything was recorded, so I can order the ones I missed.

Alan Orloff said...

Sandy, I thought the panel you moderated was one of the best ones I saw. Excellent job moderating and some very interesting and entertaining panelists.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Loved your post. I've been to many Bouchercons, but have kind of given up flying to far-away from California places.

Mary Higgins Clark is far different than your author-idol. I met her years ago at a small mystery con, and years later at an Edgar's party and she acted like she remembered me. I don't think she really did, I do think she remembered the con because it was so odd, but being the gracious lady she is, she certainly made my day.

Sandra Parshall said...

Marilyn, my Famous Author is unfailingly gracious, and I don't expect her to remember each of the hundreds -- or thousands -- of people she meets every year. I'm sure if I ever have a chance to have a real conversation with her, she'll remember me afterward.

Alan is right about the wonderful debut authors on the panel I moderated. Check them out: David Bell, Coco Ihle, Darrell James, Johnny Shaw, and Fred Venturini. A varied bunch, all enormously talented.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this post. I am not religious either, didn't believe in evil until I ran into it head on in a sense & I think you will find it more often in churches. I was late to believing this but now believe it is taught through overly harsh corporal punishment as that is the ONLY thing that explains the Pure Evil one I encountered. Richard Rhodes tackles this -- sociologist's Athens' work in one of his books, Why They Kill, as I recall from the interviews I heard. The Publishers' Weekly review said, "What transforms an ordinary person into a violent criminal? Not genetic inheritance or low self-esteem or coming from a violent subculture, answers Pulitzer PrizeAwinning author Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, etc.), but rather a process of brutalization by parents or peers that usually occurs in childhood. In this provocative study, Rhodes focuses on the work of criminologist Lonnie Athens, who teaches at Seton Hall University in New Jersey." It goes for pathological liars & other types of evil ones too IMHO.

I am happy for those who don't yet believe in it.

Coco Ihle said...

Sandra, I missed the panel on evil and find it interesting that the panelists struggled with the answer. It is certainly food for thought.

As far as feeling anonymous, I've had that experience, too, but like you, it didn't bother me. There are so many fans/readers, how could an author, especially a famous one, possibly remember all their fans. The exciting thing for me is having the opportunity to meet my favorite authors and get to know a little more about them than I knew before. That makes my reading experience of their books even more rich.

Alan's comment was one I heard several times on Friday. You did a marvelous job moderating the "Fresh Blood" panel. As a new author, and one of those panelists, I felt completely at ease. Thank you for making my first panel experience exciting, comfortable and fun!

Leslie Budewitz said...

I enjoyed that panel, too. I thought this year's programming very good, with some variations on recurring themes and some new one.

About evil: "Connolly, an Irish Catholic, seemed to lean toward forgiveness for sins rather than condemnation for hopelessly evil behavior." Ah, but remember, forgiveness requires acknowledgment that one has sinned and a desire for forgiveness--an awareness the "hopelessly evil" will never develop. To me, evil involves an element of choice: knowing something is wrong, knowing an action will deny the essential humanity of another being, and choosing to take the action anyway.

Sheila mentioned the forensics in fiction discussion. I had the pleasure of moderating that panel with Stefanie Pintoff, Jonathan Hayes, Marcia Clark, Doug Starr, and Jan Burke. The hour flew by!