No writer is perfect. Not even James Joyce.
I’ve been struggling to finish Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” for a while now. To be precise, it was the 5th of December, 2012, when my Modernism Professor assigned it as a compulsory read. (I neither finished the course nor obtained a degree in English Literature; I had to get real and find employment.)
It’s not that “Portrait” is extremely difficult, it’s just— incredibly boring. I can never bring myself to care about Stephen Dedalus, let alone what happens to him—there has not been one single event in Joyce’s bildungsroman that triggered my interest to know more. It’s like reading into the life of someone unknown, to whom I have no connection whatsoever.
There’s one other reason I have such a difficult time enjoying the novel: My knowledge of Irish history is like the average Joe’s, which is, I suspect, next to nothing. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself interrupted every few sentences only to flip all the way back to where the endnotes are—without which I couldn’t possibly know who the heck Daniel O’Connell is, or what the heck drisheens are, or where the heck Dunn’s of D’Olier Street is.
On average, there are exactly 119.8 notes per chapter*; if that doesn’t disturb the flow of your reading, I don’t know what does.
Every time I put “Portrait” down, I felt guilty and incompetent; after all, isn’t this supposed to be one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of English literature? It’s not that I can’t enjoy Joyce’s writing, on the contrary—I thoroughly enjoyed “Dubliners”, for example.
After all, Joyce was, indubitably, an infinitely better writer than I’ll ever be—even in my wildest dreams. (Corey Stoll’s Hemingway in Midnight in Paris would probably kill me for saying that.) But beautiful prose does not always equal good storytelling, does it?
The question is: Is the story not more important? I’m ninety-one pages into “Portrait” and I still don’t know where the story is going. Shouldn’t we, as readers, be hooked from the first few pages?
— Stories that force us to turn the page
To accomplish this feat, a novel does not have to be an action-packed page-turner like any of Dan Brown’s novels or Suzanne Collins’s epic “The Hunger Games” trilogy. One of my favorite novels of all time, “Mrs. Dalloway”, is no such novel at all. But it’s definitely more enjoyable than “Portrait”, even though Robert Bruce at 101books finds it “horribly tedious.”
I decided to take a break from “Portrait” and picked up another book: “Stories”—an anthology of diverse, intriguingly dark, and just-creepy-enough short stories—edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. Ironically, where I failed to find any epiphany in Joyce’s novel, two pages into Gaiman’s introduction of “Stories” I had a major one. He writes:
As time passed, I became a more discriminating reader (I remember the first time I realised I did not have to finish reading a book; the first time I realised that the way a story was told was getting in the way of the story). But even as I became more discriminating as a reader I started to feel that the thing that kept me reading, the place the magic occurred, the driving force of narrative was sometimes being overlooked. I would read beautiful prose, and I would simply not care.
It came down to four words.
The ones that show that it’s working, and that pages will be turned:… and then what happened?
The four words that children ask, when you pause telling them a story. The four words you hear at the end of a chapter. The four words, spoken or unspoken, that show you, as a storyteller, that people care.
That’s it! Joyce failed to make me say those four words! I put “Portrait” back on the shelf, never again to be opened unless one day, I’m interested in learning how to write like Joyce. Perhaps I’m simply not ready, in which case I’m perfectly willing to give it another go someday, as Billie from Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis and Me convinced me to do.
So far, “Stories” delivers on Gaiman’s promise—these stories do make me ask “… and then what happened?” and even “What story will I read next?” I don’t think that Joyce, while writing “Portrait”, thought about these questions, or us readers—that all we want are stories that force us to turn the page.
Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages.
— What matters to readers
Sometimes I suspect that these “literary merits” are there only to impress other writers and editors. (Or in the case of James Joyce, perhaps, to impress and satisfy himself.) In the words of Jack Woe, whose remarkably poignant blogpost I apparently keep returning to (Jack, you know you’re awesome):
Readers are not as picky as writers and editors. The average reader doesn’t care about passive vs. active voice, showing vs. telling nor POV hopping. People who are looking for entertainment don’t care how the story is told, as long as the writing is good enough to convey the tale.
What matters to readers is that the detective finds the killer in the murder mystery, the kid survives the monster under the bed and that the heroine finds her prince charming at the end of the story — or in the case of antiheroes, that the supervillain gains world domination.
What do you think? Have you ever read a book that made you feel “the way a story was told was getting in the way of the story”?
* Chapter I has 109 notes, chapter II 82, chapter III 72, chapter IV 63, and chapter V 273. Add them all up to get 599, and then divide them by five to arrive at 119.8. (Penguin Modern Classics edition, 2000, ISBN: 978-0-141-18266-7.)↩