Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ben Hale's Faustian 'Dilemma'?

Pulitzer Prize
Ungiven in 2012

Regular readers will already have met Ben Hale from my blogging on the man -- first son of one of my boyhood Ozark friends, Pete Hale -- and as readers will therefore know from my blogging, Ben is a literary phenomenon, with a great work of literature as his first novel (The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Twelve, 2011) . . . though who am I to judge, not being one of the 20 judges on the Pulitzer committee? But for that matter, who are they to judge since they failed to decide on any book as recipient of the prize this year?

Ben also distrusts the literary choices agreed upon by committees, and in "A Passion for Immortality: On the Missing Pulitzer and the Problem with Prizes" (The Millions, May 29, 2012), he explains why, based in part on his experience as judge on a committee of critics choosing which stories to select for publication in a literary journal. But that's not the most interesting part of his article, at least not for me, though I've been on similar literary committees. I rather more enjoyed a 'dilemma' that he set up for us readers near the end:
Here's a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says -- and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw -- your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You're heralded as a genius. You're interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won't stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! -- and the vision vanishes -- know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two . . . The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! -- in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination.

Dear Reader -- and possible Writer -- which would you choose? I know which I'd choose!

Actually, I don't. Not as the choice is set up. I need to know one more thing. Am I a great writer? If I'm not great, but only mediocre, I'd choose the first fate, for I'd not only enjoy a successful life now, I wouldn't suffer in hell for inflicting my mediocrity forever upon the literary world, as I'd soon enough be utterly forgotten. I'd suffer in hell, of course, for making a Faustian bargain with the devil -- and getting out of that sort of contract is damned difficult without a great lawyer like Daniel Webster -- but I at least wouldn't have the greater sin upon my guilty conscience!

But if I were a great writer . . . which fate to choose? While I ponder this dilemma, let's peek ahead at Ben's answer:
Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates . . . . But I'd like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I'm not too humble to say so. It's the first option, not the second, that's the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert.

Okay, that's Ben's answer, and it's a noble one -- assuming that one is assured of one's genuine literary greatness and that one is forced to choose one or the other of the dilemma's two horns.

But I think I have a third choice -- for one is never forced to make deals with the devil -- and that choice is to reject the dilemma, tell Satan that I don't want either fate, but prefer instead that my literary life and literary afterlife both be determined by the choices of readers, "and fit audience find, though few."

We'll see how that turns out . . .

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