This was posted to the spiral-bound mailing list a few days ago (archived articles on the Irish Times web site are subscriber-only):
Irish Times Online edition, Thursday, Febr. 12th, 2004:
How half a truth became a great lie
By Colum McCann
Roddy Doyle has been accused by some papers of "slamming" Ulysses and Joyce. The truth is somewhat different, writes Colum McCann
As a participant in the Joyce symposium organised by New York University last week, I was surprised if not dismayed at the coverage the event received from the Irish and British media. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. One might learn from the title of a Heaney poem: "Whatever you say, say nothing."
Facts, as we know, are mercenary bastards. They are neatly packaged and gussied up and decorated and shipped off to wherever we want them to go. Facts make battles, if we want them to, which is sadly all too evident nowadays. They create their own contexts, especially when taken in isolation, or indeed out of their surroundings.
The symposium, a celebration of Joyce's 122nd birthday, under the auspices of Ireland House, was created as a fireside chat. Roddy Doyle, Frank McCourt and myself were invited along to talk in and around Joyce and about the condition of Irish literature at the moment.
The "truth" that has come out of this is a suggestion that Roddy Doyle set out to destroy one of the great figures of Irish literature, as if he wanted to wield the great iconic axe. This is not the truth, or at least not the truth as I experienced it, which is my only compass.
Doyle had an enormous amount of praise and respect for Joyce and his work, and he mentioned this several times. He talked about Ulysses being one of the finest books of the century. He said he had read it twice and he cited Leopold Bloom as one of the most fascinating characters in world literature.
He went on to examine the notion of Bloom's Jewishness, eventually leading to the political connotations of contemporary Irish immigration: it was a provocative, compelling argument. Later in the conversation he spent an extended period of time praising the short-story collection Dubliners.
At the same time it is true that he said that Ulysses could have used a good editor. He also mentioned that he had no time for Finnegan's Wake. He took a swipe at the cheap Joyce industry, as did we all.
The selective culling of quotes, though, is nothing new.
It doesn't make much news that Doyle had all sorts of praise for Joyce, that much of what he said was in banter, that often his comments were presented with a wry grin, that he was operating with a small audience in mind, and that other topics he confronted were presented with sparkling intelligence.
When Howard Dean recently let out his political howl - or yowl - it was caught on television cameras and the sound isolated by television microphones. The major television stations (more or less all of them are conservative and pro-Bush) went to town on it. When the Dean shout was replayed in the context of the hall, it could hardly be heard: he was reaching out to try and reinvigorate his campaign.
But for fear of letting this matter become the Howard Dean howl of the literary establishment, let's all grow up.
I find it shameful that Doyle is left to the behest of tabloid journalism, the seekers of soundbites. That the comments were further filtered down by the British media which latched on to them with a sow-eating-her-own-farrow mentality is really no surprise. Their reports were a lens filtered through a lens filtered through yet another lens - and the only intention was to cause flame.
You could almost hear the rattle at the news desk: Let's go watch the sport. It's an Irishman - a famous one - stabbing another - a really famous one - in the back. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho.
I find it all rather sad and ridiculous. I'd hope that people would be able to take this sort of thing with a rather large grain of salt.
Henry David Thoreau said that some circumstantial evidence is very strong, especially when you find a trout in the milk. The only flying fish around this week were the cheap shots at Doyle, since he's a convenient and influential target. You'd think from the texture of the reports that he was hanging out of the rafters, swinging a cudgel, like some forgotten extra from Gangs of New York.
For crying out loud - it must have been a slow news week.
Far more troubling to me is the mention of what was said about Senator David Norris. Mr Doyle is quoted as saying that the senator "should be shot".
It was in response to a question from the audience: "Gentlemen, don't you think that Senator Norris should be locked up in the boot of a car on Bloomsday?"
Someone whispered that it depended on what type of car. No, I said, I'd much rather him be sitting in the front seat of the car, but not necessarily driving. Doyle's joke - and it was a joke, though maybe not a good one - gave the audience (especially those who know and revere Senator Norris) a laugh.
I have been, in the past, a full-time newspaper reporter. I understand the economic forces behind report and inquiry, but what I do not understand is the tilting of the moral compass.
Texture is far more interesting and instructive than selected and selective memory. This creates a difficulty when one talks to a newspaper reporter. One tries to give full vent to human loves and disappointments and ends up becoming a smart-ass.
Half a truth can result in quite a large lie.
Finally - and for the sake of us all - Doyle did not say that Jennifer Johnston was a "superior writer" to James Joyce, as has been widely quoted. Most writers know - and Doyle most certainly knows - that we're not competing in some sort of ridiculous literary Olympics. The function and purpose of writing is not to be "better", but to be true, or as true as one can be.
What in fact Doyle said was that Jennifer Johnston deserved the same sort of examination that Joyce does, that she is one of Ireland's finest writers, that he knows of very few who can craft a better sentence, and that it was a crying shame her books were not more widely available in the US. It was meant as a kick in the teeth at a myopic American publishing industry, and nothing else.
By the way, Frank McCourt had lots of interesting things to say also. So, I hope, did I. That won't make page one or page five or any other page - and it damn well doesn't deserve to.
Despite all appearances it takes a lot of volume to fill out the truth.
Colum McCann's most recent novel is Dancer