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EUOLogy #6: Steel Cage Death Match: James Joyce vs Stephen King

I just met someone—someone my age—who likes James Joyce.

I was a bit surprised. I mean, Joyce is admittedly a master craftsman, but I’ve never actually MET anyone who actually enjoyed reading his books. Everyone thinks he’s excellent from a technical standpoint, but they don’t honestly enjoy reading it.

This guy does.

Now, maybe you think I’m a bit too surprised by this fact. A lot of people like Joyce, apparently. I’m just not one of them—and I find their type a bit hard to understand. My relationship with James Joyce began in high school, when I was repeatedly forced to read his short story “The Dead” in three successive English classes. I began to form my theories then, and they were quite well reinforced when my senior English class shoved me head-first into Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

About that time, I decided that Joyce pretty much represented everything I hate about ‘literary’ fiction. He was words without life, writing without plot, characters without story, and meaning without enjoyment. He was successful only with an elitist crowd of readers who considered themselves more intelligent—and therefore more valuable—than the average reader.

I decided that Stephen King was a far better writer than Joyce. Why? Not because I enjoyed King’s work, but because he had managed to touch more people than Joyce. If no man’s opinion is more valuable than another’s, then the only true measure of an author’s success is the popularity of one’s book. King, therefore, was the best writer of our time.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized how reductive this opinion is. I believe the nature of popularity—and the nature of what makes a ‘good’ book—is more complex than that. Who is the better writer, really? In one corner, we have James Joyce—touted by English professors and literary scholars as one of the greatest writers of our era. His books just happen to be mind-numbingly boring, and often a bit incoherent. In the other corner, we have Stephen King—the best selling author of the twentieth century, a man who the literary scholars hate, but the masses love. The guy’s so popular that he could scribble his book in crayon, repeating nothing but the phrase “Og Like Milk” a thousand times, and he’d STILL sell more copies than I’ll ever dream of.

In a steel-cage deathmatch of writing prowess, who’d win? I’m actually beginning to think that they’re evenly matched.

Writing is about audience. Success, therefore, is about audience. Now, Stephen does have a larger audience—but does he really reach his INTENDED audience better than Joyce? I’m not sure that he does. Joyce wrote for scholars. Apocryphal lore says that he actually wrote his books with the intention and desire that they be studied for centuries after he died. My own experience proves that this goal has achieved. (If I ever am forced to read Dubliners again. . . .)

On the other hand, what is Stephen’s audience? I’d say the general public, and he writes for them arguably better than anyone else. (Or, at least, he did during the height of his power—the late eighties and mid nineties.) If you look at success this way—not as strict numbers, but as relative popularity within one’s own intended audience—I think you get a more accurate picture of who the ‘better’ writer is.

So, in our death match, I think that both men survive. Or, at least, they both kill each other.

I’d pay to see that.

|   Castellano