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This item is taken from PN Review 161, Volume 31 Number 3, January - February 2005.

In Norman Douglas's South Wind (1917) Mr Heard declares: 'We are rearing up a brood of crafty egoists, a generation whose earliest recollections are those of getting something for nothing from the state.' Theirs became a widening culture of contempt for all things that required effort to create and that made demands upon the understanding. They dismissed hard books and long books, declaring Pound a caricature American, Kipling a mere imperialist, Wilde a pansy.

That generation has not perished. Joyce's Ulysses , we read, is 'grossly over-rated'. 'Ulysses could have done with a good editor,' Roddy Doyle told a pre-Bloomsday audience in New York in 2004. 'You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top ten books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.' Discredit the work and those who purport to enjoy it... The best Irish writer, Doyle informs us, is not Joyce but Jennifer Johnston, author of The Captains and the Kings .

The Joyce industry might make anyone impatient. On the centenary of Bloomsday in 2004 the Irish government, having supported half a year of festivities, contributed to a culminating feast, 'Bloom's breakfast'. Ten thousand people were to convene in O'Connell Street to consume 'fried offal and mutton kidneys washed down with Guinness'. Another sponsor of the feast was Dennys Sausages, advertised by Joyce in his book. A breakfast laid on by Guinness was held across town. Leopold certainly was partial to offal, but such civic literalisations might stick in some craws. 'I declare to god, if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob,' an exasperated Flann O'Brien exclaimed, at a time when the Joyce industry was far less vigorous than it is today. O'Brien, shaped and distorted by Joyce's presence, depicts in his novel Dalkey Archive an aging author who never actually wrote any of his books. Yet O'Brien could not cast off his antecedent, a kind of devil requiring devil worship.

O'Brien's resistance is informed and imaginative; Doyle's is commercial, spoken by a modern market leader. The newspaper article reporting his New York lecture concludes with a pair of statistics: 'Online bookseller has sold 97,107 copies of Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke and 2,374 copies of James Joyce's Ulysses .' Ha Ha Ha . What more proof does a crafty egoist need?

We cannot answer a culture of contempt with a contemptuous reflex: if the king is naked, a child should point and say. But when the king is clad and the child points, it's best to try reason with him. He should, first, be assured that a reader can get pleasure from Joyce's Ulysses . We learn to read with ears as well as eyes and gradually draw sense in all its diversity from the book. The word Doyle would balk at is 'gradually', as though he has better things to do with his time, or better ways of wasting it.

Readers, book by book, build up for themselves a culture, the way a poet or novel writer does. Reading is cumulative, acquiring skills as it goes. To become a 'good reader' is to give oneself over to a regime of concentrated pleasure. In pre-Modernist times new writing, the kind that made a difference and effected changes in taste and reading habits, rose like a tide and covered older landmarks, then withdrew and they emerged again, changed and enhanced. Now it can seem that the waves burst like tsunamis over what was there before and wash it away. The urgent demand for 'originality', not so much of form as of story and teller; the violence of accolades and of scrutinies; and the speed with which new readers are allowed, or empowered, or compelled to forget the informing tradition (as if ignorant originality was possible) are features of an economy with in-built obsolescence in the arts as in white goods. The modern literary industry is an industry. Front list and the market matter.

Celebrating a recent Bloodaxe anthology in the Observer , a Bloodaxe poet who is also a university teacher has gone to the trouble of establishing the anthology's sales, something critics generally leave out of the equation when assessing literary quality: 'The record sales of Neil Astley's anthologies have prompted snobbery from some quarters, such as the outgoing co-editors of Poetry Review , who alienated many writers and readers at the expense of wooing a readership of theorists.' At the time of going to press, the fate of the innovative editors of the Poetry Review has not been announced. The reviewer has access to privileged information. There is no arguing with her commercial triumphalism: 'In a climate where a first collection of poetry does well to sell more than 1,000 copies, Being Alive has already sold 11,000 copies since its launch last month, while Staying Alive has sold 47,000 copies.' So there.

Sounding like David Attenborough in a jungle, she declares: 'These poems are the swansongs, mating calls and alarm cries of our species, which affect our neural networks. Being Alive pulses with the lifeblood of mainstream poetry [...] The premise of Being Alive is that poems display expression, meaning, intention and communication...' It is hard to say what this statement displays or how it might be exceptionable; yet in her view it challenges a nebulous constituency hostile to poetry and marked out by parti pris : the Being Alive 'premise' 'clashes with the interests of certain academic factions who need to preserve mystery and undecidedness to explain them'. (Them?) 'They reject the idea that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity and prefer poetry that is abstraction desiccated in a coterie, taking potshots at clay targets, while poets get on with making language fly.'

Wordsworth did not say that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity, but never mind: the first part of a sentence can stand for the whole, even if it makes commonplace nonsense of it. To quibble about accuracy is merely academic. Wordsworth, incidentally, refused to allow his work to be included in certain contemporary anthologies, referring to them as 'greedy receptacles of trash, those Bladders upon which the Boys of Poetry try to swim'. Here is a bladder for the Boys and Girls of Poetry, and see how they swim.

This item is taken from PN Review 161, Volume 31 Number 3, January - February 2005.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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