Unmoving Literary Works; or, Needs Editing, “Ha Ha Ha”

“Ulysses could have done with a good editor,” Roddy Doyle said, fed up with all the attention Joyce gets to the neglect of other Irish writers. “I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it [Ulysses],” Doyle said. Roddy was just stirring up the stew, tossing in some new ingredients, and no need to cook it so long over an open fire. Let’s eat; I’m hungry. But what of Paul Coelho; what’s his beef with Joyce? “Ulysses is pure style. There is nothing there,” Coelho said. We introduced the topic in Monday’s post: must a work “move” the reader to have literary value?

In his On the Sublime, Longinus says, “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification.”

Ha Ha Ha! Take that, Coelho!

Yet Longinus also says, “In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise.” But does the reader despise Joyce’s Ulysses for its “pure style”? Longinus said “that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface.” Is this true of Ulysses? And, if not, would editing help?

Longinus lists “five principal sources of elevated language:…the power of forming great conceptions…vehement and inspired passion…the due formation of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression…noble diction…[and] the fifth cause of elevation…is dignified and elevated composition.”

Can we edit one or more of Longinus’s principal sources of elevated language out of Ulysses and still expect something sublime to emerge?

But what of the idea that for a work of literature to be considered “great” it must “move” the reader? I began thinking of literary works that we might consider great yet don’t move the reader. I selected those works whose design seems to match up to Longinus’s ideas of the sublime and elevated language but also at the same time might, using Doyle’s critical voice as expressed in the Guardian article, have “done with a good editor.” Here’s the list, annotated with wry comments using the “must move to be good” literary critical voice:

1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville: Edit out all that business about whaling, surely included simply to fatten the thing up, so Melville could boast he had written a big book. But the real problem is, can anyone be moved by the killing of a mad sailor by a vengeful whale? What has this to do with the price of a loaf of bread and a bottle of beer at the local grocery?

2. The Trial, by Franz Kafka: Well, it’s a trial reading it. And who was ever moved by a trial, particularly one that had no ending?

3. Three Novels (Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable), by Samuel Beckett: Triple play of boredom, the reader thrown out at every base, a runner that never reaches home plate. The work defines constipation, the antithesis of being moved.

4. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon: Where are those scissors?

Still, there’s something to the topic that invites comment. What is good? Should a work be considered good simply because it achieves its objectives, even if those objectives lack sentiment and fail to move? Or should we keep looking, for those books that are both “pure style” and contain enough sentiment to be considered moving? How about Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?

Related Post: Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

From Longinus’s On the Sublime, Chapter 1: “As I am writing to you, good friend, who are well versed in literary studies, I feel almost absolved from the necessity of premising at any length that sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression, and that it is from no other source than this that the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown. 4. The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification. Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer. Similarly, we see skill in invention, and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.”


  1. Dan Hennessy says:

    Ultimately , Joyce will survive , I think . Ulysses will survive as did the ancient Ulysses when the citizens of Ithaca intended to kill him and the goddess Athena stepped in ( ain’t wikipedia great ! ).
    So , write on , Athena ! You can’t stand the apparent treachery of Roddy Doyle , though , can you ?


    1. Joe Linker says:

      I love Roddy Doyle. He was teaching, you know, when he wrote The Commitments, which he basically self-published, and then it got picked up. I’ve read just about everything he’s written, and I’ve liked it all. I understand, I think, where he’s coming from. It’s no big deal, but Joyce is an easy target, too. Well, he set himself up to be an easy target. And if Joyce is wacko, what about Beckett, Kafka, Borges? Certainly there’s a lot to be said for writing in the vernacular, in accessible lingo. Williams thought so, as did Langston Hughes. But there are different styles, different voices. Why limit the field by prescribing that any given one is the right way to go? It’s like music. Cage, Coltrane, Woody Guthrie…did one do “harm,” as Coelho would have it of Joyce? But I love the Doyle versus Joyce discussion. When I was younger, much, I was a great fan of Kerouac. Read everything. I lost interest. I still appreciate the Beats, though. Anyway, I remember one of my profs at CSDH on this subject, what is good, what will last. And I remember that he said Vonnegut would wind up “a footnote to the 70’s,” while John Barth for his style, his mixture of myth with contemporary themes, would be more influential and longer lasting. And I can hear a lot of readers saying, “John Who?” But I love Vonnegut and Barth. … As for Wiki, several studies have shown Wikipedia to be as accurate, credible, and reliable as other, traditional encyclopedias. You can look them up on Wiki. Just kidding. Well, you can, but it’s also true. So, going to continue this thread about what’s good because I think it’s interesting. Best intro. book to Ulysses by the way is Frank Budgen’s “The Making of Ulysses.” Of course, the reactionary view is that Joyce basically dictated it to Budgen. So what? It’s a good intro. Check it out.


      1. Dan Hennessy says:

        Go , literary man , go !


        1. Joe Linker says:

          It’s interesting that you call me that, a literary man, knowing full well, particularly after the night I gave you that tour of El Segundo, what, close to 40 years ago, my roots. You can edit the plumber out of El Segundo, but you can’t take El Segundo out of the plumber. Or would that be the other way around? Anyway, as Leonard Cohen said, “I am just some Joseph looking for a manger.” But what’s a literary man? Anyone can listen to Leonard Cohen and call up a few memorable lines. I’ve known some academics who’ve thought they were literary men, but they’d never spent any time on the Go . But I’ll tell you about a literary woman: Sister Mary Annette, my 8th grade teacher, who read to us aloud throughout the year: David Copperfield, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Hamlet, A Tale of Two Cities. Here you Go, the 8th grade little literary men.


          1. Dan Hennessy says:

            You are the one who took me to see the odd drunken poet . Charles Bukowski , way back then . I think that you don’t even remember that . Sure , go ahead and blame your appreciation of literature on the nuns ! The nuns didn’t rent space in your head to a hoard of authors , did they ? You should own up to your own actions . You’ve forgotten more literature than most of us will even know , you see levels within works , you take slights on guys like Jimmy Joyce personally , you find myriad connections between works of lit and between WOL and everyday things such as toilet valves . = literary man !


            1. Joe Linker says:

              I’m speechless.


              1. Dan Hennessy says:

                But not sentenceless , I hope .


              2. Joe Linker says:

                Sentencelessness – say that three times. By the way, no, the nuns did not rent space in my head. They bought it – lick, stick, and burial.


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