Yesterday I wrote that insofar as writing becomes social, it will become less, not more, adventurous. Here’s why: imagine that James Joyce drafts the first episode of Ulysses and posts it online. What sort of feedback will he receive, especially from people who had read his earlier work? Nothing very commendatory, I assure you. By the time he posts the notoriously impenetrable third episode, with its full immersion in the philosophical meditations of a neurotic hyperintellectual near-Jesuit atheist artist-manqué, the few readers who haven’t jumped ship already will surely be drawing out, and employing, their long knives. Then how will they handle the introduction of Leopold Bloom, and all the attention given to the inner life of this seemingly unremarkably and coarse-minded man? And, much later, the nightmare-fantasia in Nighttown? It doesn’t bear thinking of.
Would Joyce be able to resist the immense pressures from readers to give them something they recognize? Of course he would; he’s James Joyce. He doesn’t give a rip about their incomprehension. (Which is why he wouldn’t post drafts online in the first place, but never mind.) But how many other writers could maintain their commitment to experimentation and innovation amidst a cacophony of voices demanding the familiar? — which is, after all, what the great majority of voices always demand.
I think this is anachronistic, and not a very convincing thought experiment. If Joyce was alive and writing today, he probably wouldn't be writing Ulysses; instead he might probably be interested in a new kind of online narrative. Or whatever — I am not Joyce so my imagination falls far short.
As it happens, I just took my copy of Ulysses down off the shelf and am giving it a go. Not being very good at reading fiction, it's tough sledding to say the least. At best I give myself a 50/50 chance of getting though it (Although I have placed a reward at the other side of completing the book that is so tantalizing, I may end up undertaking another passage just to give myself the quite time I likely need to read it.)
At any rate, before I started my wife and I spent a little time marveling at the publishing history of the book.
My copy is a paperback edition from 1966. The first American edition was round about 1934, after the famous court case. The book itself was first published in 1914.
What struck my wife (who used to work at Simon and Schuster was the long life of the book, noting how today a book has all of about a weekend to make it's mark and then it's gone.
Of course there is more than a little survivorship bias in this observation, but it's not all survivorship bias.
Hammer, nail, etc.
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