The Fans of Ulysses

I have been thinking recently about the list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century published by the advisory board of the Modern Library in 1999. (Why I have been thinking about this I am not at all sure but I believe one should not minimise the significance of random thoughts any more than one should underestimate the importance of random events.)

The list caused quite a bit of controversy and spawned two rival selections: one from Modern Library readers and another from the Radcliffe Publishing Course, one of the most prestigious training establishments for aspiring publishers. The board's list and the Radcliffe list had many books in common, although the order was very different and the Radcliffe list had more American titles. (All lists, incidentally, were notable for the absence of any books not originally published in English - unless one counts Finnegan's Wake.) The readers' list shared a number of books with the other two but also had some notable differences.

Here is the board's top ten with, in brackets, the places where those books came on the Radcliffe list.

  1. Ulysses James Joyce (6)
  2. The Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald (1)
  3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (14)
  4. Lolita Valdimir Nabokov (11)
  5. Brave New World Aldous Huxley (0)
  6. The Sound and the Fury (10)
  7. Catch 22 Joseph Heller (15)
  8. Darkness at Noon Arthur Koestler (0)
  9. Sons and Lovers D H Lawrence (64)
  10. The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck (3)

The reader's choice list showed quite a strong ideological bias and, perhaps, some evidence of block voting. Four of the top ten were by Ayn Rand and another three by L Ron Hubbard. The libertarians and the scientologists were out in force, apparently. Only one of these seven appeared on the Radcliffe list (Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged at 92) and none on the board's. If we leave aside these oddities, the top ten readers' choices (again with their comparable Radcliffe places) were:

  1. The Lord of the Rings J R R Tolkein (0)
  2. To Kill a Mocking Bird Harper Lee (4)
  3. 1984 George Orwell (9)
  4. Ulysses James Joyce (6)
  5. Catch 22 Joseph Heller (15)
  6. The Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald (1)
  7. Dune Frank Herbert (0)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Robert Heinlein (0)
  9. A Town Like Alice Neville Shute (0)
  10. Brave New World Aldous Huxley (0)

All this is as one might expect. The board consists of a distinguished quasi-international panel of literatti, intellectuals and academics - a group with the most refined literary taste, one supposes. The Radcliffe course is made up of well-read (youngish?) Americans with a professional interest in books. The readers, all 275,520 of them, are defined only by the fact that they were the sort of people who would notice the board's list in whatever media it appeared (American, most likely, and literate: not, for example, your average beer-swilling, hamburger chewing Texas red-neck). The lists themselves show a comparable spread from the kinds of books one might find in college literature courses at the board end of the spectrum to the stronger emphasis on fantasy and science fiction at the the reader end, with Radcliffe somewhere between.

Perhaps the one curious thing about the whole thing (other than the disturbing devotion to Ayn Rand) is the consistently high placings for Ulysses. Only The Great Gatsby generated comparable enthusiasm and this, after all, is a generally approachable work and is described by no other authority than Wikipaedia as 'the paradigm of the Great American Novel'. Ulysses though? It contains over 200,000 words of carefully crafted prose, large chunks of which are unintelligible, and it describes the minutiae of a humdrum day in Dublin in an era that is so far from our own as to be scarcely relevant anymore. It seems so far removed from the work of Orwell or Heller, let alone Tolkein or Frank Herbert, that it might as well be a different art form from another age altogether. Note, too, that Ulysses is rarely studied in universities, at least not at undergraduate levels - presumably because it is too 'difficult'.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of the book. It is one of the few I return to, although these days I tend to dip into it, as I do with a good collection of collected poems, rather than reading it from cover to cover. Most people of my acquaintance, though, haven't read it and of those few who have tried even fewer have finished it. A fair number of my friends are very literate, not to say literary people, and most of them would be at least as well read as any member of the Radcliffe publishing course. What gives then?

One possibility is that people voted for Ulysses despite not having read it - basing their decision entirely on its reputation. Another is that of the relatively small number of people who had read it a very large proportion decided it was the best book. Let's assume that both these alternatives have some validity and that the high praise for the book is based on a combination of reputation and the enthusiastic response of a group of dedicated fans. The question then remains, where does the reputation come from? There are a number of possible sources but I think that most of them would boil down, in the end, to the enthusiasm of those fans who have been talking about the book since it was first published ninety years ago. Of course, these are not just any old fans. They are the kind of people that other people take notice of (hence the reputation). They are people like the board of the Modern Library, which includes the likes of Gore Vidal, A S Byatt, Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, Oliver Sacks and Elaine Pagels.

The readers list shows evidence of several such groups. There are the Ayn Rand fans and the L Ron Hubbard fans. There are the science fiction enthusiasts. There are the devotees of Neville Shute, who has three novels in the top 100, and Charles de Lindt, with seven. One can't imagine many people belonging to more than one or two of these groups. One can't imagine many of the members of these groups voting for Ulysses. None of these groups have the same kind of cultural authority as the board, though. The fans of Ulysses have a different status.

Curiously, though, if what I said earlier about reputation is correct, there is not one group of people here but two. There is a group who genuinely enjoy the book and a second group who want to belong to the group who genuinely enjoy the book because it contains the likes of Salman Rushdie and A S Byatt. The members of the first group probably don't see themselves as belonging to a group at all. The elite exists only for the outsider and the parvenu. The insiders are merely doing what the rest of us do, indulging their taste. To the outsiders, though, the elite forms a desirable milieu, one that they would lie to appear to belong to.

And is Ulysses the greatest novel of the twentieth century? I'm saying nothing. Amanda might read this.

5 November 2008


© Chris Else 2008