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Joyce's Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 376-379 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0032

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Once upon a time (and a very bad time it was), the phrase "the Joyce industry" signaled only disparagement: that a single, modern author could occasion, never mind warrant, an entire scholarly community seemed preposterous on the face of it, a classic example of the self-conscious modern spirit that Thomas Carlyle diagnosed (and decried) back in 1831 in his own book review, "Characteristics." (See the Right's snide use of the term "Madonna studies.")

Today, I think it is fair to say, the existence of a Joyce industry is both self-evident (for instance, this journal) and nothing to be ashamed of. Joyce scholars have begun, with increasing sophistication over the past two decades, to study themselves for two supremely practical reasons. The first we might describe as an "in-house" justification: the secondary work on Joyce is now voluminous enough, and his critical history long enough, that enumerative, descriptive, and evaluative work is essential, if only as a housekeeping function. To the degree that Joyce scholarship has performed its work under different critical regimens, it is important for the contemporary critic to be aware of them, so as to be on guard for (if not completely immune to) those elements of the criticism that prove mere passing fancy. If all criticism is ineluctably (good Joycean word, that) ideological, the worst of it is unconscious of its ideology. Joyce criticism is thus gradually beginning to label the forces operating in the texts of Joyce's most influential critics—the ways that secondary work on Joyce, even work of the first order, is run through with critical and political assumptions.

A. Walton Litz, in a judgment Joseph Brooker quotes in Joyce's Critics, believed that by 1961 the critical literature devoted to Joyce's work "had reached appalling proportions" (3). Though I had thought Vivian Mercier responsible for the term "the Joyce industry," Brooker finds it in Frank Kermode's 1959 review of Richard Ellmann's biography (86); but Mercier, in another metaphor for Joyce study's perniciousness, was already referring to a Joyce "cult" in 1948 (196). Kermode made the further point that Joyce himself had foreseen the Joyce industry, even contributed to its establishment; and Oliver St. John Gogarty, the most famous of Joyce's gadflies, declared in 1950 that the United States was "the chief infirmary for Joyceans" (92). Joyce criticism was already a cliché, recognizable enough to justify parody in Vanity Fair in 1934, in a piece called "The People's Joyce." Joyce criticism, we might say, has always already been "too much," a figure of fun.

The second justification for studying the Joyce industry must be that Joyce is one of a handful of the most carefully studied writers in English-language literary history and foremost among writers of the past century. Studying Joyce criticism, then, provides a practical and vibrant case study in the major trends in literary criticism and theory of the past eighty years; this is the "extramural" justification for a book like Brooker's exceptionally insightful new study. Whether by design or no, Brooker addresses both of these potential audiences—explaining Joyceans to themselves while at the same time ascertaining for outsiders just what is paradigmatic about Joyce studies. Further, Brooker suggests, if quietly, that understanding the field of Joyce studies might just be important for those outside literary studies altogether—that studying those who study Joyce is not just a literary, or literary critical, exercise; "to discuss the reading of Joyce is . . . to examine several episodes in cultural history" (6), he writes.

Two chapters stand out, though there is really not a weak spot in the book. The first is the one on the Ellmann-Hugh Kenner rivalry: a Cold-War era battle fought using Cold-War era tactics, and one that I have never seen so carefully, or dispassionately, discussed. The second is Brooker's closing chapter, on Joyce's recent acceptance by the nation and the city that gave him birth. "Joyce Tourism" is a phenomenon at which it is easy to poke fun, and Brooker's book went to press too early for him to have seen the MBNA bank card bearing Joyce's picture, issued for...



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