Why is Paulo Coelho slamming James Joyce?

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho says of Joyce's book 'Ulysses,' 'There is nothing there.'

Paulo Coelho (l.) says 'Ulysses' by James Joyce (r) harmed literature by valuing form over substance.

Gore Vidal v. Norman Mailer. Norman Mailer v. Tom Wolfe. Salman Rushdie v. John Updike. Ernest Hemingway v. Gertrude Stein. Henry James v. H.G. Wells. Charles Dickens v. William Thackeray. Literary feuds are as old as literature itself. Alternating between PR stunt, outright bullying, vigorous intellectual debate, and exercise in ego-bashing and -boosting, literary feuds are nothing if not pure bibliophilic entertainment. 

The latest literary matchup pits Brazilian modernist novelist Paulo Coelho against Irish novelist James Joyce and his seminal work, the epic “Ulysses.”

“Today writers want to impress other writers,” Coelho told Brazilian newspaper Folha de S Paulo. “One of the books that caused greatest harm was James Joyce’s 'Ulysses,' which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, 'Ulysses' is a twit.”

Fighting words from the usually eloquent Coelho.

Joyce, of course, is well positioned for a literary attack. (The first rule of literary feuding: aim to knock down the king, not the servant. The more celebrated, well-known, and esteemed the author, the better the feud.) The great James Joyce is widely considered one of the most influential modernist avant-garde work writers of the 20th century and “Ulysses” a landmark that has been heralded as the epitome of modernist literature.

And as the Guardian writes, “Ulysses has topped poll after poll to be named the greatest novel of the 20th century.” (Modern Library ranked it No. 1 in its list of “100 Best Novels." Interestingly, another Joyce masterpiece, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” was No. 3.)

No matter, Coelho says. “[W]riters fell into disgrace when they sought recognition through form, not content,” writes Folha, echoing Coelho’s words. “Ulysses,” Coelho opines, failed because it focuses on form over substance – one of the first novels to start this damaging trend.

Coelho was speaking with the Brazilian newspaper about the publication of his 22nd novel, “Manuscrito Encontrado em Accra,” a historical spiritual work set in 1099 Jerusalem as the Crusaders prepared to attack Muslims. “Manuscrito” has sold more than 115 million copies in 160 countries.

Coelho told the newspaper he credits his own popularity to the fact that he is a modern writer, “despite what the critics say.”

“I’m modern because I make the difficult seem easy, and so I can communicate with the whole world.”

“Ulysses,” which was published with a print run of 1,000 copies in 1922, tells the tale of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom as he passes through an ordinary day in Dublin. The novel alludes to Odysseus of Homer’s “Odyssey,” and Joyce established a series of parallels between characters and events in the epic poem and his own novel. “Ulysses” weighs in at 265,000 words, with an impressive lexicon of 30,030 words. Today, the novel is read around the world and has been adapted for theater, film, and television.

All that, of course, only sets Joyce up for attack – and Coelho isn’t the first to go after the celebrated author. In 2004, Irish novelist Roddy Doyle said “Ulysses” “could have done with a good editor” and said he doubted judges ranking it in a list of top 10 books ever written “were really moved by it.”

Too bad Joyce isn’t around to counter. If his fluency in writing is any indication, we think he’d make a fine debater.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.