The Author’s Dilemma image

The Author’s Dilemma

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Here's a very thought-provoking analogy from Joe Rigney on the problem of evil, compatibilism and what he calls "the author's dilemma":

Imagine the following conversation between two bookish college sophomores, sitting at a coffee shop just off the university campus ...

“Face it; Suzanne Collins is a monster. All you have to do is skim the chapters. You can’t miss her atrocities. The crippled boy hacked down at the Cornucopia. The little girl with the spear through the chest. One of the “heroes” of the series “finishing off” one of the other contestants. I can’t fathom how Ms. Collins is still walking free in the streets. Have we really reached the point in our society where a woman can brazenly murder children and we just shrug our shoulders, give her a couple million dollars and a movie deal, and call it good?”

“No, your anger’s misplaced. Collins isn’t the evil one. Cato, the trained killer from District 1, he hacked the crippled boy. The boy from District 2 threw the spear (and then caught an arrow in his chest). And Peeta, the ‘star-crossed lover’ from District 12, he put that poor girl out of her misery (it was a mercy-killing, really). If you’re going to blame someone for the evil in Panem, blame the folks who wielded the swords and spears. Blame the Capitol for forcing them to compete. Blame the citizens for complying with the horror. Don’t drag Collins into this. She’s just the author.”

“Just the author? Seriously??? You think the characters just wrote themselves? For Peeta’s sake, the whole story is the product of her mind. Every knife thrust and snapped neck is her handiwork. Who do you think conceived the mutated creatures that tore the kids to shreds? Whose mind gave birth to tracker-jackers and their hallucinogenic stings? And don’t even get me started on the use of the bombs. You know the scene I’m talking about. Completely gratuitous and out of the blue. Pointless evil. Only a sadist could inflict such horrors.”

“No, it’s more complicated than that. She had reasons for why she included those things. The story she wanted to tell, the things she wanted to communicate: the existence of evil in her books served to unveil them. Here, let me try to justify the ways of Collins to man…”

Authors can get away with murder. Literally. And not just murder. All sorts of other atrocities are committed with pen and ink (or computer and word processor). Whether it’s J. K. Rowling and the death of Harry’s parents, or Suzanne Collins and her Death Match for children, or Tolkien unleashing orcs on unsuspecting villages in Rohan, authors spend their days bringing disaster and calamity on their characters.

It’s helpful when they admit it. Author N .D. Wilson cops to his authorial ‘crimes’ when he writes, “I have killed good people. I have orphaned children and have given villains a period of strength” (Notes from the Tilt-A Whirl, 110). Thanks, Nate. Your words will be used against you in a court of law.

Of course, no one is actually going to arrest an author for the evil in his novel, not least because his characters are merely fictions. But what if they weren’t? What if the characters had flesh and bone? What if they bled when pricked? What if their cries and pains and sorrows were as real as, well, you?

Are authors guilty of the evil committed by their characters? They certainly govern the worlds and characters they create, down to the last detail. But it would be odd to accuse Rowling of Voldemort’s evil. We don’t condemn Tolkien because he put Sauron in Middle Earth. The treachery of Saruman doesn’t defile him. He does not share the corruption of the Nazgul. And yet all of these are under his sovereign direction and design.

What if authors and their stories are pictures, images of something greater and grander? What if thinking about the existence of evil in Narnia, Middle Earth, and Panem can give us new eyes to see our own world and the curse that hangs over it, the sin and sorrow that grow like so many thorns and thistles infesting the ground? What if God is an author and this world is his story and we are his characters? Would we see the problem of evil in a different light? Would the problem of evil be solved? Or at least de-fanged? Can reflecting on authors and their stories help us to think more clearly about the Author and His story? I’d like to suggest that it can.

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