Today is June 16, a day when literary geeks all over the world celebrate the life and work of James Joyce, focusing particularly on his masterpiece, Ulysses, which takes place in a single day, June 16, 1904, and whose hero is Leopold Bloom. On this day, I tip my cap to Joyce, who was a literary genius, a groundbreaker, and whose earlier work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was an enormous influence on me as a teenager, when I was introduced to the book in a high school English class. Back then, I marveled at Joyce’s genius, at the way he utilized religious and philosophical references and images to create incredibly complex stories that suggested a magical element to writing that I wasn’t sure I possessed. As time went on and I acquired more skill and knowledge, I learned that most writers utilized various elements of craft to create themes and motifs and certainly imagery, but that few go to such lengths to weave such complicated tales. Now, after three failed attempts to read Ulysses, I’ve concluded that Joyce was a writer’s writer rather than a reader’s writer, that he (like Faulkner, in his later work) wrote for academics and the highest-minded literary audiences, and sadly (or not), that does not include me. Nor do my own ambitions as a writer aspire to such heights. I’ve come to appreciate the writers who write compelling stories that are accessible to a wider audience, that make reading a pleasure rather than a chore, and so I’ll continue to re-read A Portrait and Dubliners and marvel at Joyce’s genius; I’ll let Ulysses mock me from my bookshelf, and maybe when I retire I’ll tackle it again. Either way, I’ll keep writing and hoping that maybe someday someone will compare me to someone like Richard Ford or Larry McMurtry or Tim O’Brien or Charles Portis or Anne Tyler. But on every June 16, I’ll thank Joyce for his genius, even if some of it plumb evades me.
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