By Christine McCue
Wrought with inventive vocabulary, tricky stylistic nuances, and often obscure references, the writing of James Joyce has been long considered the world’s toughest and most rewarding literature. Those who dare to tackle his works find within the text a palpable world in which Joyce explores human nature in a way few writers ever could. Although he was born in the nineteenth century, Joyce is often considered to be the greatest writer of the twentieth century, a rightful honor that is believed to stem from his fearlessness of experimentation and profound understanding of what motivates us as people.
Undoubtedly, the most essential, constant theme in Joyce’s writing is truth. The reader experiences it in the descriptions of Joyce’s Dublin, the earnestness of the quest to find himself in his art, and in the many epiphanies that sprinkle the lives of his characters. Ordinary people may be just that, but the lives they lead are truly so complex. For years, readers have enjoyed Joyce’s works because they see remembrances of their youth in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or snapshots of their lives in Dubliners. Simply, your average person enjoys reading works by authors who understand what makes him tick; most will pay particularly close attention to those writers who identify with their readership’s struggles, fears, and desires. Accordingly, the core themes of Joyce’s Modernist prose (Irish political and cultural independence, organized religion’s effect on the soul, self-determinism, and cultural and moral decay in the face of industrialization, for example) have long been considered unique in the way they have resonated with readers, cementing Joyce’s novels as required reading for any aspiring writer.
Just as society took a leading role in shaping Joyce’s life and work, it continues to determine the existences of youth today; therefore, we can be sure that among us is the greatest writer of the twenty-first century. For better or for worse, today’s youth are coming of age in a world that seems to be in constant flux. Yet despite the passage of time, teenagers have neither strayed from their inquisitiveness nor their struggles with authority, two qualities that the young Joyce possessed and are certainly mirrored in subsequent generations. It is indeed a daunting feat, but a budding author can take solace that in today’s world, there is no shortage of material or inspiration. Joyce himself was a master of the commonplace, sifting through the mundane details of human life and interaction to unveil hidden purpose; his youthful protégées can learn much from this practice. All too often, young writers chose to focus on the fantastic, the extreme, and maybe even the improbable. For instance, I watched many of my friends struggle through the college admissions process last autumn, penning essay after essay in search of the most unique topic, the one event that was able to set them apart. I find it both inspiring and miraculous that so much of Joyce’s success came from doing the very opposite. If a young author is looking to excel, she must not always follow a guideline or relentlessly search for a topic that has never been touched before. To me, truly brilliant writing is often reflected in the author’s ability to take the most insipid of events and bring life and a new perspective to it, to draw attention to the issue with flagrant details and unique touches. This is often achieved when the writer chooses to explore topics that are close to heart, such as Joyce did in reincarnating himself as Stephen Dedalus. The greatest writer of the twenty-first century will not need to write epic novels or detail the most exhilarating of current events, but rather must stick to what strikes a chord with her, to what has impacted her life in such a way that it may be recreated on paper and offered to the hands of readers.
Alas, simply imitating Joyce is not an option; a truly great author must be distinctive in her approach to storytelling. Joyce has long been hailed as the father of numerous literary innovations, some of which will naturally stimulate the imagination of a young writer. It is my understanding that before Joyce, free written expression was neither well-developed nor entirely well-received; this makes his contributions all the more remarkable. Perhaps Joyce’s most groundbreaking gift to literature was the “stream of consciousness” technique, one that is so definitive of the human mind. Just as we are prone to incoherency and tangents in our personal thoughts, Joyce’s signature style accurately reflects the organic and often irrational flow of contemplation, complete with creative gibberish and incomprehensible allusions.
While such flourishes may pose obstacles to today’s American reader, we certainly live in a high-tech society where teenagers are well-versed in a similarly perplexing medium: the instant message. Abbreviations run rampant as fingers fly across the keyboard, posing problems to those students internalizing the lexicon, or worse yet, to the teachers grading their history papers. Yet, as our society becomes more tolerant of verbal short-cuts, can we expect future literature to follow suit? Although I cannot imagine any enthusiast of the English language publishing “u” in lieu of “you” throughout a piece, timesavers may be used in future literature to evoke the kind of truthful representation of human thought and speech that Joyce pioneered. If I was able to visualize my thoughts as written word, I doubt they would be released as complete, well-tailored grammatical sentences, so why shouldn’t my writing reflect that? Technology has become such an integral element of daily life, it is hard to imagine it not having an impact on future literature. For instance, the sheer availability of personal computers makes composition an efficient and portable activity; long gone are the pen, ink, and typewriter days of Joyce. This may increase literary output, but will that necessarily make the work more enjoyable or profound? Fortunately, this can be combated through the use of other gadgets. A particularly useful feature on the blogging service Livejournal.com allows users to add “voice posts” by simply dialing an automated phone number and chatting away. This kind of universal accessibility to the written word will likely develop the next generation of authors, as there are more opportunities than ever to publish one’s ideas in a public arena.
Although it is too early to tell what the greater part of the twenty-first century and its artists will produce in terms of thematically and stylistically innovative works, there certainly is hope for continued success. The next generation of writers is fortunate to have so many points of reference from last century’s best, as well as considerable creative freedom in the present to carve out our own niche in the scope of world literature; I only hope that my peers are up to the challenge.
By Christine McCue
Briarcliff High School
Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510