Where James Joyce Fails, Neil Gaiman Prevails

A James Joyce art doll

A James Joyce art doll by MEDIODESCOCIDO. Some rights reserved.

A lot of people are probably going to hate me for this, but let’s have at it anyway:

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

StoriesTo 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.

As Stephen King says in “On Writing” (again):

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.)

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26 thoughts on “Where James Joyce Fails, Neil Gaiman Prevails

  1. You are so right in my book… I was thinking Dubliners while reading how much Joyce left you wanting, and there it was. I liked bits and pieces of that, but Joyce seems to be an expert at not only writing about Irish people, neighborhoods and history of a certain era, but for them also. It’s one of those “classics” any English prof is supposed to have read, and I have turned a few converstions away from that book, since I know nothing nor care to know anything about it. There’s too much to read I do like to suffer. Good idea for a series of posts – books I am supposed to have read, but will not, so fire me.
    Later…

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Scott. Yeah, I think “Dubliners” was meant to be a warmup of some sort, to Joyce’s more… extravagant writing. Good idea, you can explain what the author did wrong and how they failed to entertain you! 🙂

      There is too much to read, I don’t want to waste my time on something I don’t like. Hence this post.

  2. I feel your pain Daniel. I’m actually reading that one now. I’ve been struggling to finish it since April and it usually only takes me a few evenings to read a book that size. I’m on this mission to read the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of all time. I thought I’d see what I could learn from the “masters” in my journey to beome an author…this one has me rethinking my plan, lol.

    • That’s a grand mission, Melissa. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the novels! Maybe you don’t need to rethink your plan. Maybe, like Scott (above), you just have to write about what the author does, that makes you think you want to rethink your plan! 🙂

  3. Thank you for referring to my Haunting Joyce post and our comments on it! Truly appreciate it! 🙂

    You are so right, Joyce does write for people living in Ireland, people who walk the same streets he did, who know all about the very intricate Irish history. Believe me, living in Ireland for +10 years and having been in love with Ireland twice that time, I learned that Irish history has more pitfalls than a bog – sorry, Irish word again 🙂 – and it must be difficult for non-residents to imagine what he writes about. In fact, after having read part of Ulysses before I knew every street in Dublin, I decided to wait with reading it until I knew all about it. For me it’s much easier to read now because I’ve walked those very streets, I’ve seen the buildings he talks about and I know about Irish history and how it’s ingrained in Irish people’s psyche.

    That said, Portrait is the start of Ulysses and if you want to tackle the big one, keep trying with Portrait. Every chapter describes the life of Stephen Dedalus at a different age. Because that’s not explained in the book, it is hard to follow if you don’t know this. And I also agree with it being boring at certain points because, let’s face it, 20+ pages raging about religion in Ireland is boring if that subject doesn’t interest you. The notes are invaluable and I’ve had to flip back to find out what the Latin phrases meant.

    I know that I am biased because of my living here that long, and having had Irish blood in me for twice that time, but I think that Portrait and Ulysses as a whole are brilliant books, I’d even say the best books ever written. I often had to giggle because of his use of words and phrases, and even more so in Ulysses. I had to grow into Ulysses, or the book had to find me itself. Sometimes the time to read a certain book, especially the so-called top novels of all time, need to be read when you feel it’s alright to read it. Don’t push yourself. Also, there are some fantastic links to how to read Ulysses (I know… books on how to read certain books 🙂 ) and if you use them alongside Portrait and Ulysses, you’ll get further in it than you ever thought, like http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/context.html.

    I could keep on talking about Joyce because he’s one of the reasons why I love Dublin so much. Again, I’m quite biased but not enough people read his work. Thank god Ireland does know how to honour its heroes and on June 16, Bloomsday is happening again and I’m quite looking forward to it! 😀

    • Wow— this is a brilliant comment! I love thoughtful and passionate (and long) comments like yours. I’ve read a bit of the SparkNotes on “Portrait” while I was reading it, and they did help my comprehension. I do love the allusions and the depth of Joyce’s writing, but I just can’t seem to enjoy the story in “Portrait”. And to me, that’s the only justification of finishing a book.

      That said, I definitely plan to read “Ulysses” one day, and I’ll heed your advice; I’ll read “Portrait” once more beforehand. I guess I’ll know when I’m ready. 🙂

  4. I find the type of book I am most likely to not finish is the very very long kind….the type that looks like it might make a good doorstop. I don’t know if it is entirely a matter of length, or that books that long just have a tendency to lose steam somewhere, but I find the halfway point to be a very dangerous spot for me in those epic tomes. Twice I tried to read The Mists of Avalon only to get stymied midway and then be away from it so long that I had forgotten what happened in the first half. Another I tried to get through was The Book of Joby. Started so strong for me, but I got a bit exhausted at some point, and now I would have to reread if I was ever going to pick it up again. And yet I will sit and read your average sized book in one marathon sitting very often. So I think you’re right…it must be a lack of “what happened next?”

    • You said it: “I got a bit exhausted at some point.” I think the only justification of finishing a book is the story. Does it make you intrigued enough to genuinely want to know where it ends?

      I envy people who can read a book in ‘one marathon sitting.’ I can never do that; maybe it’s lack of focus, or I read too slow, or lack of time… So far, the only books I’ve found close to be literally “unputdownable” were all of Haruki Murakami’s novels and (I’m ashamed to say) the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games trilogy, and Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” and “The Da Vinci Code”.

  5. Many years since I read Joyce – there seemed to be so much more time way back then! I don’t know as if I’d have the resolve to tackle him again. Billie ^^ is so right in that you really need some immersion in Irish culture and history to ‘get’ many of the references.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Roy. I know what you mean. To me, it’s not a matter of resolve per se. After the arrival of the smartphone, my attention span went from bad to worse. Reading an interesting piece of literature (or interesting news, for that matter) is difficult enough already.

      My problem is exactly the lack of— empathy? with the Irish, back in that period or otherwise. I can imagine an Irishman reading “Portrait”, and he would perhaps feel anger; he would probably have strong opinions on religion, which is a recurring theme in the novel; he would either cheer for or ridicule Parnell— I don’t know. I don’t feel any of these things, so I feel disconnected from where I think Joyce wanted me to be. (Of course, presuming he wrote this thinking about his potential audience at all, which happens to consist of non-Irish readers as well.)

      You lived in Ireland yourself before you went to Jersey, right Roy? Did you feel a ‘disconnect’ at all? Or did you read Joyce before you went to Ireland? Sorry, I don’t really know your story.

  6. I recently put down a book who had too many explanations; seemingly irrelevant character background and then too much self doubt of the protagonist. I was asking myself: why am I reading this crap and where is the story?

    I may return to this book later, but I have no actual plans to do so. It’s written by a popular writer in this genre, science fiction, but I can’t force myself to care about what happens.

    So yes, the way the story was told definitely got in my way of enjoying it.

    Stories don’t have to force us to turn the pages as fast as we can, but we really do have to care about what’s happening.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up, and the reference,

    Jack

    • Thanks for reading. I usually think something along the lines of Give me the X hours of my life back that I wasted reading this crap.

      You’re welcome, and I don’t think the topic has been exhausted yet. 😉

  7. Oh yes. Some I finish just to see if the way the novel was presented ended up being meaningful to the story being told. If the answer is no, I don’t go back to that writer again.

    There are writers who give me the impression of just trying to sound educated and well-read. In the last year I have developed a pet-peeve for any writer who quotes Shakespeare or any other well-known writer in their books. Yes, yes, the Bard is fantastic. I just see too many references that feel forced or add nothing to the story other than the opportunity for the writer to flaunt their knowledge.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Kira. Two things. First, if you don’t go back to the writer again, how do you know you’re not missing out on something brilliant? OK, there’s too much to read, by which I’m probably answering my own question.

      Second, I know what you mean. I sometimes fall into the trap of including too many quotes or too many allusions. Especially difficult to resist when I just finished reading T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. But (I think) I always try to blend them with the story and not just casually dropping them everywhere. What I want to be able to do is to elegantly use quotes of Shakespeare the way Virginia Woolf did in “Mrs. Dalloway”. 🙂

      • Well, that is a risk I take. If I keep hearing good things about other books by that author, I may give them another shot.

        Yes, sometimes the quotes really do work. I’ve just noticed some authors using them the way social climbers name drop. I’m not issuing a moratorium on quoting the Bard, just advising caution.

        I AM issuing a moratorium on using “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” in anything paranormal related, though. I could grocery shop for two weeks if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen that one quoted.

  8. Wow. What’s ironic is that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the only book by Joyce that I actually finished and liked. But I see what you mean. A friend wrote a post on a similar subject (http://ingridsnotes.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/literary-talent-vs-story-talent/), which got me to thinking about the issue. I agree that some stories resonate with me more than others. Neil Gaiman’s books always hit the spot. He writes beautifully also. But I can’t say I relate to some of the books considered highly “literary”—whatever that means. Stylistically they might be brilliant, but they leave me cold.

    • I definitely have to read more to prove your claim—which is my suspicion also—that most of the highly “literary” writing is more difficult to relate to, because so far I can relate to what Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield wrote. (And they are “literary,” right?) Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out! 🙂

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  11. I haven’t had homework in years, but it took a while for me to get over that sense of obligation that I was supposed to read something b/c it was a “classic.” I tried to read D. H. Lawrence about 2 years ago, until my mind protested: “Why in the hell are you reading this? Go get online and watch videos of cute kittens. Anything but this!”

    • Hahaha I never get the appeal of kittens.. Yes, I totally agree; classics can give you so much that can be beneficial to your writing, but a lot of them are just not enjoyable–at all. I gave up on Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter after a few pages. Is that wrong?

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