Monday, November 22, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Could James Joyce Succeed Today?

“I’m trapped in a hypothetical.”

“What is the hypothesis?”

“People are wondering what I would do if I were to publish my work today. Not today-today, as is the only sense of today that I, James Joyce, would know, but in the today of some people in America in 2010.”

“That is a ways off. These hypothesizers want to know what you would do with your life?”

“Specifically in regards to my fiction. They wonder if I would be able to publish as lucratively as I have today-today.”

“If you were to publish today instead of today?”

“What’s more, it seems I have dramatic influence on the future. I essentially give English literature the tools of the anti-hero and stream of consciousness. Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are highly influential. Even Dead End creates a certain existentialism amongst short story writers.”

“I didn’t think you cared for that sort of infamy.”

“I don’t, but they do, so the James Joyce of their imagining does.”

“I’m a little relieved the short story has survived so long.”

“It survives, though it is in questionable health.”

“So the hypothesizers want to know how successful your works would be if published many years in the future?”


“But in the future, your works have already been published. Are you going to live in a future where your influence has already spread?”

“It would be difficult to market new fiction that had been canon for so many years. I’m not even certain if I transported to the future by some ugly Wellsian means, or if I grow up there, raised in a world unknown.”

“Something a little too clever for Wells to think up, that one.”

“If I were to mature in a world where all my ideas had already spread, I would not be myself, but the product of influences from my-other-self. I’m completely uncertain what I’d produce. I’d be a different James Joyce.”

“Though if you retained your style exactly, and your style is popular, you should be popular.”

“I think style has become exceedingly unpopular, in favor of populist entertainment and plot. The hypothetical is about challenges I’d face where I was a fad that had passed.”

“Well, I’m sorry you don’t have lasting success.”

“But publishing old or new fiction in a world where I’m no longer the same James Joyce, and have an entire different literary establishment to rebut, seem like much greater qualms to me than whether or not I could sell what I’m compelled to write today-today.”

“Oh, selling’s not the thing. You would rise through workshops, lectures, a university scene and fellowships. You would meet the people you need to impress in order to garner publication and doubtless succeed, if not amongst the masses, then in the intellectual niche that’s bound to develop.”

“I detest this hypothetical. Time traveling. A plot flare to distract from dim style.”

“Only one thing worse.”

“And that is?”

“John Wiswell’s attempt to write you.”

“Oh, I sound nothing like that.”


  1. Funny, John. And doubtless correct: we have little way to know what he would sound like in conversation, yes? I was hoping you/he would explore the question of whether and how he would succeed if a total unknown. You did suggest the "rising in the academic" ranks scenario, but how relevant is that to popular literary success? Would Joyce's short stories be "high concept" enough?

    Thanks for the thought provoking piece on one of my favorite writers.

  2. This was actually spawned by a conversation about whether Joyce could succeed as a total unknown. My problems with that are in the above - if he publishes today, then did all his work already exist? If not, what did happen in publishing? Would the same writer be produced today with that different literary history? The whole hypothetical is silly. He had to have been an unknown at some point in his own career, then made connections and a name and so-on.

  3. Yes, and would literature today be different if there had not been a Joyce? - How do you begin to determine that?

    I've been reading Dickens (for the first time). The beginning of A Tale of Two Cities is so incredibly cinematic (what we today call cinematic). It made me think that given the whole existence of film it is proper for fiction to explore areas that can't be reached easily by film. I realize that's an academic observation, but just look at all the fiction writers who go on as if there had never been film (or Joyce, for that matter).

  4. I don't think we writers should avoid things that can be done in cinema just because it can be done there. But am inclined towards the introspection and mental intimacy that isn't almost impossible in visual media.


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