Sunny Jim

by Kieran Healy on November 26, 2003

While we’re on the subject of literature, Jacob Levy points to a subscriber-only piece in Even the New Republic about the perenially sad state of modern literature. I can’t read it because I’m not a subscriber, but Jacob quotes a chunk. Who’s to blame for the terrible condition of the novel? James Joyce, that’s who.

bq. I will say it once and for all, straight out: it all went wrong with James Joyce. _A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man_ is less a _bildungsroman_ than the chapter-by-chapter unraveling of a talent that, if “The Dead” is any indication, could have been formidable, while _Ulysses_ is nothing more than a hoax upon literature, a joint shenanigan of the writer and the critical establishment predicated on two admirable, even beautiful fallacies that were hopelessly contingent upon the historical circumstances that produced them: William James’s late Victorian metaphor of the stream of consciousness …and T.S. Eliot’s early modern fantasy of a textual stockpile of intellectual history that would form an allusive network of bridges to the cultural triumphs of the ages, a Venice without the smell of sewage, or mustard gas… _Ulysses_ has served since its publication as the ideal for serious writers, and the twentieth century is littered with magnum opuses that have been written under its sway, and that have marked the nadir of their various writers’ careers.

Well, whether you like him or not, I think it’s hard to claim that Joyce realised Eliot’s antiseptic high-Anglican dream of “Venice without the smell of sewage, or mustard gas.” It was the sewage that so revolted many of his contemporaries, and brought out the worst of their snobbery. Virginia Woolf thought it an “illiterate, underbred book … the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are,” nothing more than the work of “a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” (In a letter to Strachey she amended this to “the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges,” Undergraduates presumably being too high-class.) Edith Wharton said it was “a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind).” Shaw thought it a “revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but,” he conceded, “it is a truthful one,” E.M. Forster felt it to be “perhaps the most interesting literary experiment of our day” but still “a dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud.”

And on and on. I’m more inclined to agree with Anthony Burgess (who wrote one of the best introductions to Joyce’s work): “the appearance of difficulty is part of Joyce’s big joke,” and Ulysses is “one of the most humane novels ever written.” I haven’t read the whole of Peck’s article, so I can’t say whom he’d prefer. I note, though, that having ham-fistedly smacked Joyce around he hurriedly tells us he cannot “that other strain, which I can hardly bear to slog through, the realists and the realists and the realists, too many to name, too many to contemplate, their rational, utilitarian platitudes rolling out endlessly like toilet paper off a spindle.” Perhaps a subscriber can tell me who, besides Dale Peck, counts as a great modern novelist.

Update: Thanks to Ogged, Jacob and Patrick for emailing me the full Peck article. I have to say that, after reading it, I am still not much the wiser. Most of the piece is spent in handwaving perfluffery, agonising over having to play the role of The Critic Who Appears Not To Like Anything. “I am leery of telling people what to look for,” he worries, “lest that’s precisely what they find.” Relax, Dale. Criticism is just part of the Big Conversation. Intelligent recommendations are what people pay you for. But he has bigger plans:

bq. I wanted only to hack away the dead wood in order to discover the heart of the novel. That heart is, I believe, still beating, is still strong and vital; it needs a critic’s help not to grow, but only to be seen. Of course the heart in question isn’t a heart at all, but rather a diffuse locus of ideas and ideologies loosely tethered to a set of individual visions and personalities.

It seems he wants to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, to coin a phrase. The problem is, his critique modern literature has rather too many targets:

bq. Because–make no mistake–every writer wants to save the world. … Embedded in every story, every poem, every play is a utopian vision that, if achieved, would make the words irrelevant, redundant, unnecessary. But parody and pastiche have run their course in that effort. … It is time for a literature that opts out of such a limited, dysphonic call-and-response paradigm, and instead offers a real alternative, an imaginative solution that hints at something beyond the juvenile culture that today’s writers spend so much time making fun of in such a juvenile manner.

So are writers saving the world or parodying it? Presenting us with an emancipatory Utopia or parroting juvenile culture? No doubt Peck would say something like “they want to do both, trying to put parody to work in utopia but leaving us with only the toxic antinomy of the modern novel.”

At the end he says,

bq. But only after a work of literature has accepted its own failure–has, as it were, elegized its stillborn self–can it begin the complex series of contextual manipulations by which meaning is created and we locate ourselves as surely as the ancient navigators fixed their positions between stars. … Contemporary novels have either counterfeited reality or forfeited it. In their stead we need a new materialism.

I have little idea what it means to elegize one’s stillborn self, or what a “new materialism” would look like. But it certainly sounds grand to say “a piecemeal approach won’t do anymore. The problem is too widespread within the insular literary and publishing world merely to pick at its edges: the entire scab must be ripped off.” I await Dean’s new scab-ripping novel. Maybe by writing it he can get over having to write pieces that read like Tenacious D‘s “Greatest and Best Song in the World … Tribute.”



DJW 11.26.03 at 10:59 pm

Dale Peck is the shock-jock of contemporary literary criticism. He’s certainly capable of some impressive insights from time to time, but wholesale dismissals like this reek of attention-seeking. The breathlessness of the paragraph you didn’t quote (shorter Peck: I’m such a tremendously subversive rebel I frighten even myself!) is a giveaway. I’m just about done bothering with him.


Ayjay 11.27.03 at 3:24 am

Peck certainly has a strong tendency to go over the top — witness a recent review, also in TNR, that began, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation” — but I think in the essay under discussion here he raises a very important question: what if we’ve just been wrong for the past few generations about the lasting value of Joyce (and others)? Why are we so sure that Joyce is the titan we were taught that he is? Joyce was clearly central to the literary cosmos of the first half of the twentieth century, but does that mean he needs to be central to us? After all, writers have fallen from critical favor before — in the lifetime of John Milton it was widely believed that Abraham Cowley was the greatest living poet, and if you ask who that is, you have acknowledged my point. It seems impossible, to me anyway, that Joyce could end up being another Cowley — but do I have legitimate grounds for being confident in Joyce’s continued importance? Maybe I’m just falling into line — one wonders, after all, how many of those people on Modern Library’s board who voted Ulysses the greatest novel of the 20th century had actually read it. Peck, for all his bluster, has performed a service in asking us to think about these matters.


Barry 11.27.03 at 3:37 am

I’ve heard (in a bar in a seedy neighborhood, late at night) that ‘cypherpunk’ might work both as a name and password for The New Republic, and many more sites, such as a certain LA newspaper.


fyreflye 11.27.03 at 4:29 am

If there were no required or even recommended reading lists for any Western language literature courses what would we actually read? If there were no literary critics or book clubs what would we read? If there were no “journals of opinion” what opinions would we have? Would it make any real difference?


No-one special 11.27.03 at 5:23 am

It may or may not be relevant at this stage to point out that Dale Peck is not a very good novelist. If you ask me. Which, of course, you didn’t.


Maynard Handley 11.27.03 at 5:47 am

Or, to put it more bluntly, is literature more than a crossword puzzle or not?
I personally have little patience with the genre of literature as crossword puzzle, just like I have little patience with crossword puzzles.

I appreciate that part of the point of literature is not simply what is said, but how it is said. What I dispute is the idea that the highest ideal of how something is said should be to wrap it up so densely that it is incomprehensible to anyone who does not have five years free to devote to studying it.


gilly 11.27.03 at 9:56 am

Ron Jeremy left his job as a special education teacher (for which he holds a master’s degree), launching a career in pornography which encompasses over 1600 films and directing over 100 others.


Jeffrey Kramer 11.27.03 at 11:17 am

“what if we’ve just been wrong for the past few generations about the lasting value of Joyce (and others)? Why are we so sure that Joyce is the titan we were taught that he is?”

Ayjay, what is the point of worrying about such questions? If enough people over enough years feel strongly enough about there being writers more worth talking about in English Lit classrooms than Joyce, then those writers will displace Joyce in English Lit classrooms. If not, then not.


Hugo 11.27.03 at 11:20 am

I simply don’t believe that the modernism represented by the later Joyce has too much relevance to novel-writing today. Joyce is respected by some, but is not much of an influence to many any more. Dale Peck’s journalism seems to be displaced anger to me and a journey into the mind of Dale Peck rather than any sort of analysis of the novel form. His generalisations are pretty laughable: “very writer wants to save the world”, every work presents us with “a utopian vision” etc. – here, he seems to falling into the modernist trap himself. My first novel was published recently, and I am certainly not trying to “save the world”; my aims are rather humbler and more realistic than that.


Thomas Dent 11.27.03 at 11:59 am

Was that toxic antimony (a metallic element occupying the lower reaches of the Periodic Table) or antinomy (opposition to the rule of law)?

Peck sounds like the 19th-century German music critic Edouard Hanslick on Richard Wagner: although acknowledging Wagner’s genius and talent he continually accuses him of misusing it and (worst of all) being an inspiration to hordes of other composers’ pseudo-Wagnerian extravaganzas.

At the back of Hanslick’s mind, he’d rather such incendiary geniuses didn’t exist if they’re going to lead the impressionable youth off the narrow way of Schumannian classic-romantic purity.

He might have been right in a way, since it took decades for most of the musical world to get over either imitating or reacting against Wagner, with regrettable results. Having said which, Verdi, Bruckner, Dvorak, Franck, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Mahler etc. got over it remarkably quickly.

Without any Wagnerian stimulus, the alternative for the Austro-German tradition was an eternal twilight of neoclassical dullness.

Returning to the novel (although Joyce and music aren’t far removed), Joyce’s sin was merely to be both ridiculously ambitious and surprisingly successful. I don’t think any geniuses were prevented from writing great novels because of Ulysses. The non-geniuses, as usual, imitated or reacted.

Did Joyce’s influence led to a greater proportion of bad novels? Or were the bad novels just bad in a different way? I go for the latter.


Vance Maverick 11.27.03 at 12:13 pm

I’d like to take a moment to note that Ulysses is extremely good. For example, it gives great pleasure across many readings. (This is of course not the only criterion! Burgess’s comment on its humaneness is praise under another.)

Whether it’s relevant to novel-writing today, or central to us, are different questions.

When people like Peck complain about the baleful influence of Joyce, they mainly seem to forget how wonderful the book is. Or maybe they really don’t find it wonderful. Either way, I have trouble taking their conclusions seriously.


Jeffrey Kramer 11.27.03 at 12:52 pm

Following up on Thomas Dent’s comments: Shaw similarly argued that Shakespeare ruined English drama (until Shaw’s own advent, of course) by “inspiring” so many fustian blank verse imitations.


raj 11.27.03 at 1:57 pm

Oh, jeez, give me a break. Those who are responsible for the sorry state of the novel are Barbara Cartland, Tom Clancy, and those who figured out how to publish books cheeply (misspelling intentional).


drapetomaniac 11.27.03 at 6:29 pm

Perhaps a subscriber can tell me who, besides Dale Peck, counts as a great modern novelist.

His answer is Virginia Woolf, I believe.

From what I read in Prof. Levy’s post, it seems to me Peck is making a quite common argument that modernism and post-modernism (Joyce, Gaddis, Nabokov, etc) ruined everything by focusing so much on prose style at the expense of other values….. hence the difficulty in mentioning Woolf, perhaps.

I must add that Portrait of the Artist is one of the worst books I was ever set in school, and I am ergo prima facie sympathetic to blaming anything on Joyce.


msg 11.27.03 at 9:13 pm

Oh, the grey dull day! It seemed a limbo of painless patient consciousness through which souls of mathematicians might wander, projecting long slender fabrics from plane to plane of ever rarer and paler twilight, radiating swift eddies to the last verges of a universe ever vaster, farther and more impalpable.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


Mikhel 11.28.03 at 4:41 am

Literary types hate Joyce because they read him and think, I could have written this rotten drivel! Upon closer inspection, they realize this probably isn’t true.

Did Joyce ruin the novel? Of course not, and indeed, I would argue that the novel is doing far better these days than its languishing sibling, the Poem.

Peck just realizes he hasn’t hit anything lately, and so took a swing at the biggest thing he could see.


John Isbell 11.29.03 at 6:15 pm

I used to have more patience for the kind of drivel Peck offers here as argument, what with the heart of the novel still being alive and the oy! and the farfelgnugen, but these days I mostly just throw up my metaphorical hands and walk away to fresh fields and pastures new. OTOH, I did get the pleasure of learning about the best song in the world.

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