Last night, a former Clarion classmate and I were talking about the ultimate blow-off critique: "The writing in this is good." That critique got so ubiquitous at Clarion that the instructors started disallowing it.
That's because people use "the writing is good" to mean "this kind of looks and sounds like a real story, instead of something that an eight year old would write," rather than to mean, "this writing had an emotional effect on me."
Writing isn't good in the abstract. Good writing does something to the reader. That's what makes it good. Personally, I think of good writing as being mostly about observation. Writing is good if it captures the world in a new way. And the best way to do that is to see something no one else has seen or to see it in a way that no one else has seen it.
If writing is judged by the "does this do anything to me" standard, then very little writing is good. And if the writing does do something to you, then there are more important and more specific things to say about it than "the writing is good."
That's why I rarely comment on the writing in any of the books I read. And it's also why I distrust any book recommendation that focuses primarily on the writing. It makes me think that the reviewer is judging the book according to some abstract technical standard rather than according to their own experience.
The ultimate "the writing is good" book has to be Ulysses. People are like, "Oh, the writing is good. And also there are lots of references to...things. And if you get the references, it'll be, like, good and stuff."
Well, I can tell you that I did not get the references. The last time I read The Odyssey was two years ago, and I didn't consciously look for parallel's while reading Joyce's book. And there were some whole pages of the book that referred to events and places that I don't know about. For instance, there's a running sort of gag about Arius, who was an early church heretic who died on the toilet. While I got those, the obscurity made me realize that there must be dozens upon dozens of similar things that I am not getting.
The writing definitely good. But not in the way that I talked about above. There are a few sections (like the third section, when Stephen Dedalus is walking on the beach) that are so beautifully sketched out that you actually see what they're looking at.
But, no, mostly the writing is good in the sense that it is fabulously controlled. For most of the book, we're in the head of Leopold Bloom, who thinks in a very fragmented, scattershot way. And it'd be easy to think that Joyce wrote it in that sort of way too. But when he slips into the heads of other people--Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom, Gertie (a girl on the beach), a random anti-semitic bar patron--you see that he has this incredibly protean voice: he is capable of creating so many different effect.
Ulysses is very different from most novels, but it is still a novel and it does tell a story. It's about people who are trying to find safe harbor. As the book goes on, you understand the characters more and more. Leopold Bloom is fantastically complex. He's not the everyman counterpart to Dedalus' intellectual. No, Bloom is obviously very well-educated and very thoughtful. I think some people confuse Bloom's erudition for Joyce's, but that's obviously not the case: Molly Bloom and Gertie don't have any of the same sort of flights of fancy. So he's a thoughtful guy. But he's also earthy. He's very concerned with sex and shit and food. He's concerned with saving the money to buy a house and whether/how his wife is cuckolding him. When he climbs into bed with Molly at the end of the novel, the last thing he does before falling asleep is, literally, kiss her ass. It's hard to imagine Stephen Dedalus doing something like that.
There's a vitality to Leopold Bloom that's missing from modern-day portraits of educated intellectuals. Even in cases where intellectuals are portrayed as being virile and capable (as in Saul Bellow's novels), there's also an exhausted element to them: a sense that they're not of this world and are incapable of enjoying ordinary things in an ordinary way.
The beauty of Ulysses is that, because of its length and variety, Joyce doesn't need to merely sketch out his characters. Instead, there is at least the illusion of completeness. And so you can see tiny movements within the soul that an ordinary novel would need to leave out. Because Molly Bloom's final soliloquoy is so long, you can see how she both hates and needs sex; hates and needs Bloom. You can feel her disdain and even apathy towards him, and then be swept up by the sense of partnership she feels with him: her knowledge that they are bound together and will go through this world alongside each other.
The downside to Ulysses is not that it's incomprehensible. It's really not. You'll probably understand most of what's going on. And the parts you won't understand aren't really going to affect the heart of the story. No, the downside is that it's a bit tedious. I read it over the course of 45 days, but the bulk of that reading was done over maybe 4-5 days (I read the last 40% while trapped in the Denver airport because my flight was delayed). The reason it took me so long is that I got bogged down in the interminable "Oxen of the Sun" section. In this part, Bloom and Dedalus and a bunch of med students are partying in/next to a hospital while an acquaintance gives birth next door. And every few pages, the style of the voice changes as Joyce gradually works his way through all of English literature (i.e. there's a John Bunyan section and a Defoe section and a Dickens section, etc.) And while I was pretty amused and impressed. I was also bored. If it'd been a paragraph of each, the section would've been a tour-de-force. But, as it is, the joke goes on for way too long. And it's like that with a number of sections.
However, that's okay. Some of my most favorite books have intermittently bored me (Dickens is a particular culprit here).
Oh, on a sidenote, I will say that this book made me appreciate Mrs. Dalloway even more. There's a book that accomplished many of the same aims as Ulysses...but did it in maybe a fourth of the length.