Undoubtedly there have been times where we’ve walked out of a movie, put down a book, or finished a TV series thinking “Well damn, what a waste of my time.” The phrase comes from a longing unfulfilled—a perceived lacking in said film, book, or show—which leads us to the conclusion that our time has been wasted.
And just as inevitable as the experience of “time-wasting” art, is the approaching critic who says “No, see… That art is genius because it’s like REAL LIFE.”
One of the most stand-out examples of this comes from James Joyce—defending his book Ulysses from the onslaught of criticism once it was published.
“If ‘Ulysses’ isn’t worth reading, then life isn’t worth living.”
And here we are: feeling our time has been wasted, and what can amount to “You didn’t like this? Well you didn’t like LIFE!” condescendingly tossed back—which would be a flawless argument, if only the purpose of art weren’t subjective.
Ulysses, from an entertainment standpoint, is fucking boring in my opinion. The experience of reading it is comparable to reading the broken scribblings of Beethoven’s symphonies—having only taken one class in music notation. No, it’s not impossible to read. No, it’s not so complex and cerebral that it takes an IQ of 175 to understand. Believe it or not, there are other human beings who have found enjoyment in Ulysses, in the same way others have enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye (another rant for another day.) But the point is, reading it felt like a chore. You can talk about “tempo” and “style” all you want, but really, where is the substance?
To nail this down, let’s take the opposing argument to the extreme. If real life is where it’s at, and creative works should seek to imitate real life as closely and accurately as possible, let’s try to write some quality literature…
I faded into consciousness—my eyes suddenly aware of the darkness under their lids, but still too groggy and fatigued to insist they be opened. They retreated momentarily to reveal a flash of blurry bedroom. My bedroom. No quicker than the flash of my lids was the onset of the urgency to take a piss. The morning always brings the feelings of piss—especially after long nights of drinking trying to get through Ulysses for a scholarly meeting. I am not a scholar, and I do not attend meetings, but I feel my presence in these events is imperative. I have an IQ of over 200, which science says may not be possible, but even so I wake up each morning having to piss. My mind lingers on inevitable death, and the utter pointlessness of it all as I slide my legs off of my bed. Barely having the strength from all my hours reading Ulysses, I manage to contract my leg muscles with the bare minimum amount of energy to remove my derrière from the mattress—covered in sheets with over 750 thread count, which is vital for you to know for the end of this story makes sense. My derrière excused from allowing me to sit means I am now standing. I take one step, then another—feeling drunk still despite over ten hours of lost time. Ten hours I added up in my conscious brain after adjusting my neck muscles to look right over at my standard digital alarm clock which reads 3:27 PM. I take still another step, and another as I walk forward on my legs which tremble and shake. I fear pissing my pants, and the fear only grows worse as I realize I have closed my eyelids again, and based on my last estimation, the shitter is still at least eight steps away…
I could go on, but that’s probably more than exhausted my point. See, even in that whole nightmare of a paragraph, I couldn’t avoid the use of satirical and toilet humor. Without that, it’s only what it very literally depicts: someone waking up to urinate. Should I have been sadistic enough to continue writing that, our narrator would have detailed his bathroom experience, his extensive routine making coffee and breakfast, and driving out to pick up his mail, pay his bills, walk his dog, and other displays of banal existence.
Use of humor aside, it would be very accurate to real life. It would be often mundane, boring, uninteresting, etc. That isn’t to say that all of life is boring; that would be untrue. But life one-hundred percent unfiltered doesn’t result in quality work. I absolutely believe that the best fiction is true: true in the way people act specifically. True to the flaws in ourselves and others we meet.
But let’s be real here: if life were so damn great on its own, why the hell would we be so interested in stories? Why don’t we just live and learn in life rather than try to escape it?
What we have to remember is that art does need a sense of truth—reality you could say—to allow us to connect with the art. From all I’ve experienced, the stories we enjoy most are the ones with characters we can easily step inside. But even so, the purpose of art is not to perfectly represent the real world. We have to filter things—exclude inconsequential details. We have to ask big questions and distort aspects of the world to explore new ideas. Ideally you would do so in an entertaining way.
You could say Ulysses is a very good reflection of real life through a fictional story. You could say it has all kinds of stylistic experimentation, and contains encyclopedic knowledge of its setting.
Despite all of this, I’ve seen documentaries that are more interesting. I’ve read history books more interesting. I’ve seen lectures containing extensive details that didn’t bore me to death. And as far as anyone should be concerned, something that lacks engagement, entertainment, immersion, and truth is poor art. Ulysses may succeed in the latter regard, but does so in one of the most indigestible, uninteresting ways possible. You can make just about anything interesting with how you tell a story, which leads me to the conclusion that the ultimate sin in creative work is inflicting boredom.
That being said, if you need a convenient way to justify a subpar or lackluster work, just say it’s true to life. Point out all the parallels and wave the flag of human experience. But do keep this in mind: a novel about someone’s bowel movement, true to life as it may be, is not inherently enjoyable. Writing something like that would require effort (to make it worth reading.)
Otherwise, I’d give Ulysses a five-star rating. It makes an excellent doorstop, paperweight, or a nice well of snob points should you dare to crack the pages open. In emergency scenarios, it’s also a nice piece of confirmation that life truly isn’t worth living.
Thank you for checking out this post. If you want to see more like this, then subscribe to my email list for free ebooks, crazy stories, and new content you won’t find anywhere else. As always, have a great rest of the day, and I’ll see you in the next post.
May your books be entertaining as ever.