Why Joyce Can't Hold a Candle to Dickens

Question: Should we rework our notions of the literary canon?

John Irving: I'm not interested in reworking anyone else's notions. You know, I think everyone's entitled to like, to prefer to bless the kind of literature he or she likes best. I'm just someone who says repeatedly, the nineteenth century novel, is and remains the model of the form for me. It was Dickens, it was Hardy, it was Melville, it was Hawthorne. Those were the writers that made me want to be a writer and when I read them as a teenager, what was the first thing in my unsophisticated way I latched onto? It was plot, of course. They wrote plotted novels. Usually about developed characters who were developed over an insignificant passage of time. There was also a kind of dramatic event or series of events at the heart of the storytelling. But the plot was what engaged me. The plot was what made me want to become a writer in the first place.

I certainly like Joyce's early stories. I loved “A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man,” the more internal, intellectually favored stuff, “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake,” frankly underwhelms me. But you have to remember that no one, even when I was a teenager, no one contemporary as a writer much appealed to me. No one even remotely modern much appealed to me. It was those nineteenth century storytellers who wrote those, mostly long, richly-detailed, abundant with visual detail, if you consider Hardy and Dickens especially, but also Melville, it made me want to write plotted, mostly long, and lavishly detailed, textured, visually seeable novels.

I've heard, and this is usually used in a complimentary fashion, I've heard my writing described as cinematic. For someone like myself, who really doesn't like the movies very much, I find that a little strange. What the people who say cinematic, when they describe my writing mean, what they mean is it's very visual. It's very vivid, you can see what's going on. But I didn't get that from the movies, I got that from Dickens, I got that from Hardy, I got that from Melville. I got that from the way those nineteenth century writers composed. There was nothing minimalist about them.

Recorded on: October 30, 2009

With their richly textured characters, intensely visible milieux and wondrous storylines, no novels, says John Irving, have surpassed the splendor and sense of eminence of the nineteenth century novelists.

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