Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

Every person alive has a story, but some don’t have voices. But there are many ways to tell a story, and stories can be told without words. Still, for the story to emerge, the storyteller must develop some kind of voice, allowing others access to their text – again, even if the text is without words. But some persons with voices remain unaware of their story, even as their story is read or enjoyed or devoured and repeated by others. Still others may be aware of their stories and have voices but choose not to share. Can all these stories be told, and who will tell these stories, using what voice?

I am moved this morning to tell this story as a consequence of a Twitter “interaction”: “Well, about Coelho, what can we say?” For I had re-tweeted a tweet calling attention to a Guardian Books post quoting the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho: “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” The same article refers to a previous Guardian article, an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who said: “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”

I think part of Roddy’s point, in the context of the interview, was to bemoan all the attention Joyce has received over the years, possibly to the neglect of other Irish writers just as deserving of readers’ attention. But both Coelho’s and Doyle’s criticism of Ulysses is grounded in their literary values – they think that for a literary work to have value, the reader should be moved, changed, brought to tears or laughter, that we should leave the theatre wanting to change our lives or somebody else’s life. For a story to be good, the Coelho-Doyle argument goes, the voice must be immediately recognizable, accessible, and force feelings to surface in the audience. And since Ulysses, for most readers, probably doesn’t do that, it’s not a good book, and since it’s nevertheless received so much recognition and so many writers have tried to use Joyce’s voice, it’s been harmful because it’s diminished the development of other voices, voices that might have reached readers and transformed their lives.

I’m reminded of the barbershop on Center Street in El Segundo, where I once dropped in to get a haircut. It was a one chair shop, and someone else was in the chair, so I had to wait, and while I waited, I listened in on what amounted to a lesson in art criticism. The barber had hung on the wall a painting of a mountain lake. “And I have a photograph of that very spot,” the barber said. “And if I hang both of them side by side, I defy you to tell me which one is the photograph and which one is the painting.”

Related Posts: Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo. The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress.


  1. I saw that, and twittered back something like … Don’t want to knock Paulo Coelho’s writing, but he’s got a nerve to knock J J’s form – he himself happily adopted a formula.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thx, Ashen. I missed the tweet, not having a phone to tweet with. I’ve not read Coelho, though The Alchemist has been recommended to me. To some extent, he may be right about Joyce, as Dan below comments of Doyle, but to say Joyce “did harm,” as Coelho said, is silly.

  2. Dan Hennessy says:

    Having no facts at hand about the article you discuss , I think that Roddy Doyle is correct in saying that most readers of Ulysses were not ” moved by it ” . They clearly appreciate it as a great work for other reasons . Another Dublin man , Doyle , remember , is an Irish Right-er ( as you might put it ). I’ve never read the Brazilian man . Good discussion starter of what constitutes literary value .

    1. Joe Linker says:

      I wonder what Coelho would have done had his books not been successful (commercially) as Joyce’s were initially not (he couldn’t even get them published to see if they’d be successful or not). Yet Joyce stuck to his vision, impoverished, exiled (self), writing stuff that was not getting out. Another thing, to Roddy Doyle’s comments, is that Joyce’s Dubliners, the short stories, are moving, particularly The Dead, but several of the others as well, A Little Cloud and Counterparts, realistic, representational, accessible, and certainly “moving,” while Doyle’s own progression, from The Commitments through The Van and into Oh Play That Thing, become more complex, longer, and perhaps slightly less immediately accessible as he grows his own vision, a trajectory that in some way mirrors Joyce’s growth. But Doyle’s comment was limited I guess to Ulysses, and there I agree with you he’s probably Write-on. But yeah, I’m glad you responded to this question of what constitutes literary value. The problem with values is that we sometimes think they are synonymous with “good,” but really they just represent what we want, even if what we want is not particularly good for us. Pass the bowl of mysteries down here, please. No, thank you, I’ll pass tonight on the encyclopedic stuffing.

      1. Joe Linker says:

        …and for dessert, a bowl of sentiments.

  3. Dan Hennessy says:

    Try to get fresh sentiments , not canned .
    A history book you might like is Face of Battle by John Keegan , who just died . It gives the reader a sense of the battlefield soldier . He has other books , but this one is by far the best .
    Meanwhile , don’t over imbibe on literary treats .

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Have some frozen sentiments; don’t take long to thaw. … Don’t know Keegan. Will look up Face of Battle. … Horst Faas died earlier this year:

  4. simulacrum says:

    I think Coelho’s argument is that Ulysses is harmful in that it perpetuates and popularises a trend he sees in literature where style is more important than substance, and where authors write for other authors. The distinction he draws between style and substance, is of course premised on a biased definition of “substance”.

    If Coelho’s saccharine, self-improvement-inspired rubbish is substance, then I’ll take style over it any day. Coelho does one thing well.. he creates airport novels, bubblegum for the brain. He shouldn’t mistake popularity for profundity or think that it entitles him to comment on the greats of literature. Or rather that any one of note is likely to give his opinions on true literature much credence.

    To me the whole thing smells of a case of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    Additionally in this quote “Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” I’m almost certain that what he meant was “tweet”. As in “stripped of it’s “style” the remaining “substance” of the novel could be stated in a tweet.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for reading and the comment. I had wondered about the “twit,” and maybe you are right about that, that he meant “tweet,” that Coelho thinks Ulysses can be reduced to 140 characters, and, well, maybe it can; think of Beckett’s distilleries. But are there not examples where style and substance merge, as in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, equally stylistic and “moving”? But isn’t there room enough for all of it? Which is what I didn’t understand about Coelho’s comment that Ulysses has caused “harm.” Even Coelho it would seem has been influenced by Ulysses?

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