10 Feb 2004
Roddy Doyle (who wouldn’t have become a writer if it weren’t for my old primary school principal Noel Kennedy) has courted controversy for his alleged confession at a birthday celebration for James Joyce in New York that he “can’t be bothered” with the work of Ireland’s most fêted literary paragon. Adding insult to injury, this comes in the year of the centenary of Bloomsday, the day on which the events in Ulysses take place. Unsurprisingly, his comments immediately raised the ire of everyone’s favourite Joycean scholar, David Norris:
> “A lot of people now try to make a reputation by attacking Joyce … These are people of medium talent who feel they can attack and challenge a global reputation. A lot of Irish writers of talent have felt threatened by Joyce. I think that’s part of it.”
Obviously Doyle is not the first to have voiced such criticism, even in such a blatantly controversialist manner. (Then again, _any_ criticism of this sort, constructive or not, is usually seen in the negative.) Joyce is after all notoriously difficult to read — though ultimately rewarding for me, I cannot say that Ulysses wasn’t a chore — and because of it he has always had his detractors:
> Begrudgery was nothing new to Joyce. He fled the city, where his books were effectively banned until the 1960s, because of the viciousness of its barstool critics. He famously wrote in 1909: “How sick, sick, sick I am of Dublin! It is the city of failure, of rancour and of unhappiness, I long to be out of it.”
That’s a fair point to make about this fair city; 95 years on, times really haven’t changed and I, too, long to be out of it.
But I digress. Doyle has a fair point of his own to make:
> “If you’re a writer in Dublin and you write a snatch of dialogue, everyone thinks you lifted it from Joyce. The whole idea that he owns language as it is spoken in Dublin is a nonsense. He didn’t invent the Dublin accent. It’s as if you’re encroaching on his area or it’s a given that he’s on your shoulder. It gets on my nerves.”
I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On one hand, Joyce’s work _is_ better and more rewarding than Doyle gives it credit for (though to be fair, he’s picking on Joycean evangelism and the industry it has encouraged rather than the man himself). On the other, the spectre of Joyce that haunts Irish literature has without doubt put unfair expectations on the shoulders of generations of Irish writers — and Dublin writers in particular — so it’s hard to blame Roddy Doyle for being irked, or irksome, about it. (Even if it was a cheap-shot.)
This leads me to make a proposal from the top of my head: that James Joyce is the Bob Dylan of literature. (I’m sure it’s really vice versa, but for the sake of argument please bear with me.) Joyce, like Dylan, is venerated to such a degree that his fans/worshippers/whatever are often blinded to the existence or worth of anything else, independent of him, in its own right. And some of these people aren’t going to be convinced otherwise, no matter how hard you try.
So in the end of the day, does it really matter? Not really. Joyce will always have his legions of followers, and Doyle, whether he realises it or not, has made his indelible mark on the literary landscape both at home and abroad. Ultimately, all this bother is just passive-aggressive attention seeking, if you ask me.
Whatever the case, if he were alive today, it’s likely that Joyce would be chuckling with glee at the whole spectacle (as viewed from the safe distance of continental Europe, no doubt) and revelling in the plentiful royalties he’d receive by virtue of the massive publicity this year’s events will generate; being respected for your craft is one thing, but you’re kidding yourself if you think there’s nothing more.