James Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in Dublin and remains an important figure to modernist writing and Irish literary tradition. Here are just some of the many writers who have been influenced by his work and legacy.
1. Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney is not only a huge name in Irish literature right now, but a global celebrity of contemporary fiction. Her most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, features an homage to Joyce’s short story “The Dead” in the form of her character Felix singing “The Lass of Aughrim.” This traditional Irish folk song is famed for its role in the Dubliners short story, and brings a similar kind of depth to character to Rooney’s work as in Joyce’s.
2. Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith, best known for her debut novel White Teeth, takes a lot of stylistic inspiration from Joyce. She regards him as “the ultimate realist because he is trying to convey how experience really feels.” Smith’s 2012 book NW clearly embodies the ambition of Ulysses. Similarly to how each “episode” of Ulysses is written in a different narrative style, the five parts of NW shift between Joycean stream-of-consciousness, screenplay format, first-person, third-person, and more. The New York Times has noted that her work very much feels “guided by James Joyce’s maximalist standard.”
White Teeth also shows off traces of Joyce’s influence. Her portraiture of immigrant life in London is told with similar unsparing detail and refusal to glamorize as Joyce’s portrayal of middle-class working life in Dublin. Smith’s writing is not only evidence of the longevity of Joyce’s influence, but of the fact that his techniques and style continue to help writers chip away to the core of human experience from different perspectives.
3. Don DeLillo
” . . . it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance. Something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words . . .”DON DELILLO FOR THE PARIS REVIEW
Don DeLillo writes with James Joyce-like maximalism, but with a postmodern flair. He won the National Book Award in 1985 for the novel White Noise, which shows off his use of complex and poetic sentence structure.
4. Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín is another major figure of contemporary Irish literature (just recently named the new Irish Fiction Laureate by the Arts Council of Ireland). Tóibín places himself among the lineage of male Irish writers descending from James Joyce. He has said they have a tradition of “mining their childhoods” for inspiration and finding it in things like student life, Catholicism, lively streets of Dublin, cultural tradition, and politics.
The spirit of Joyce’s attention to small, domestic details is present in much of today’s Irish literature and much of Tóibín’s work as well. His novel Brooklyn describes Eilis Lacey’s small town in Ireland with a similar homey sense of place and level of care to the way Joyce captures the feeling of Dublin in Dubliners.
One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” an essay collection commemorating the publication of Joyce’s magnum opus, comes out in June 2022 from the Penn State University Press and is edited by Tóibín. February 2, 2022 marks a century of Ulysses.
5. Virginia Woolf
“Never did I read such tosh,” is how Virginia Woolf summed up her experience of reading Ulysses. Although she was clearly influenced by Joyce, maybe a better way of putting it would be that Woolf was driven to create out of spite for his writing. She famously described Ulysses in her personal diaries as “An illiterate, underbred book . . . the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?” She found the genius of Ulysses to be negated by its crudeness.
Woolf despised the vulgarity of Ulysses (granted, it does contain gratuitous dog pissing, pimple scratching, gas passing, and more). She and her husband rejected an offer to publish it with Hogarth Press for this reason, along with the fact of its nearly 800 page length.
As for Joyce’s direct influence on her work — Woolf’s modernist novel Mrs. Dalloway is often thought to be a response to Ulysses, with its similar complex structure, variety of narrative techniques, and the fact that it is set over the course of one day in June. With Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf took care to write a story much less crass and more “refined” than Ulysses.