In praise of the ordinary…

This week’s research reading unearthed a quote from James Joyce that I reacted to strongly in positive and negative ways.

I dislike the opposition it sets up. Joyce apparently did not accord much respect to journalists, and it’s clear here that he had an elitist view of who and what ‘writers’ were and were not.

Also, it’s a lofty, arrogant piece of ‘advice’—perhaps no surprise that Joyce was giving it to a female writer, Djuna Barnes. It made me wonder about who Joyce’s cosy little of club of ‘writers’ might actually be. I suspect that it would not include too many women.

And yet, and yet…Joyce’s words express something I believe about fiction, although not in the absolute and exclusive way Joyce seems to have intended it. They acknowledge the unremarkable, the quotidian, the minutiae of life as fundamental subjects of fiction.

A writer must never write about the extraordinary. That is for the journalist.

8 Comments

Filed under Writing

8 responses to “In praise of the ordinary…

  1. Glen Hunting

    Without getting into whatever gendered agenda Joyce might have had, I think he was warning against blatant sensationalism in fiction. Though my terminology may be inadequate, I would counter by saying that all writing (and particularly creative writing) aims to deliver that which is notable and noteworthy, regardless of whether the things it deals with started out as ordinary or extraordinary. That’s the opportunity and the challenge. In storytelling, poetry, and even drama, we are engaged in the task of finding ever more individual and particular ways of rendering the Universal, and delivering it with new and expanded emphases and nuances.

    • Good points, Glen, and thanks for reading. What appealed to me is the inherent claim for the value of the ordinary as subject for fiction; that the term ordinary is almost a contradiction, because the context for every individual ‘ordinary’ makes it other than that, and therefore worthy of a writer’s (any writer’s) attention.
      A gendered agenda? What I’m perceiving here (and it’s subjective) would have been too unconsciously entrenched to have been an agenda (and the product of an ego of oceanic proportions)!

      • Glen Hunting

        Yes, Joyce’s advice might have been ‘gendered’ but he might never have been able to realise it was so, even if it had been pointed out to him.
        Your explanation of the value of the ‘ordinary’ in any individual’s perspective, as articulated via their writing and in their own unique voice, is particularly apt.

  2. Just taking it as is, without knowing any of the context, I love that quote! What I take from it is that he’s saying make your novel about the characters, not about the events. A novel about the Vietnam War, for example, or a boat sinking, is just journalism if you don’t care about the characters. Yet if you create a good character and set them in the Vietnam War or on a sinking boat, it becomes a good novel. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s what I think he’s meaning. What’s more, I think he’s right! 🙂

  3. I love James Joyce’s writing, and I love the way he made the ordinary into something extraordinary with the power of his words.
    But…
    I don’t agree with him. I need authors to write about extraordinary things too. I can’t imagine a library without War and Peace, or Beauty is a Wound, or Train to Pakistan or Zola’s The Debacle. I want a novel that unpicks how Australia was torn apart by the politics of the Vietnam War and the Conscription Referendum in WW1, I want one that explores asbestosis and who’s responsible for it, and I want one about how ordinary people were impacted by Black Saturday and the Newcastle earthquake and the one in Christchurch too. These are our stories and they have a big picture significance to us which only the novel can explore.

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