Dreaded Center

Participants Join in Following Pre-Joycean Fellowship’s Playfully Judicious Fervor for Popular, Jaunty Fiction: Narrativity Report Part 2

It’s Saturday, July 13th and I’m eating dinner with new friends at the India Palace in Plymouth, MN. We’re trying to hurry dinner along because we’ve all got to get back to the Crowne Plaza West for the “Pre-Joycean Fellowship Recruitment Panel.” It was the last and only panel for Narrativity’s second evening and it was the only panel in the program without a description.

Rather, it lacks any description beyond a list of its participants: Steven Brust, Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, and, as moderator, Jenphalian, all folks who were involved with conceptualizing and running Narrativity. Noting this, I had assumed this would be a centerpiece for the convention. Besides, “Pre-Joycean” and “Fellowship” are big words. How could it not be important?

A cursory Googling led me to a Wikipedia entry on the fellowship where I learned that Shetterly had coined the term and modeled it on the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” and that Brust had described it as “in large part a joke, and in another large part a way to start literary arguments.”

The Wikipedia page is brief and I don’t really have the literary background to judge the group’s thesis, but, it being at least partially a joke put me in a frame of mind to expect something silly or ironic.

And so the storytellers of Narrativity gathered in front of the panel of speakers to hear the good word of the “PJF.” Will, Emma, and Jenphalian waited patiently to begin. Brust sat in the center wearing a madcap grin.

Emma Bull was tasked with sharing the genesis of the PJF and as she tells it, the Pre-Joycean Fellowship had begun as a response to the extravagances of contemporary literature and this very modern idea that literarture is for the educated and that fiction is for the common folk. It was decided by the founding members at the time that James Joyce was a prominent author during the era in which the division between popular fiction and literary fiction began and so his name was utilized in the expression of the fellowship’s admiration for writing in the style of novels published before this division. (Note: If I understand correctly, I don’t think Joyce is at all blamed for this division. I think his name is used more as a mile marker for the sake of clarity.)

In Part 1 I wrote about how one of the defining features of Narrativity was that its attending body of storytellers was made up of artists of all backgrounds and mediums. So this very academic description of the PJF, which is also self-described as a joke, led to some confusion. A convention that had been grounded and approachable for anyone was now seemingly on the verge of wading out into dense, academic waters. A great many of the Narrativity attendees had voiced their love for contemporary writers. I felt there was some anxiety in the air that perhaps we were about to be told to put down our Ann Leckie, NK Jemisin, and Scott Lynch, and to bury our noses in dense Russian novels where they belonged.

In fact, the dread caused by even discussing literature shows the need to erase the division between academic and popular fiction and the need for the happy manifesto of the PJF.

At some point, concern was voiced that this attitude of holding up the merits of classic literature as a model for contemporary writing was snobbery. I felt a similar concern myself. After all, one of the great joys of the most timeless of stories is that they are universal, and if our stories mimic those stuffy old books won’t they be less accessible and therefore less universal?

Steven made an important distinction here that I think is at the heart of the PJF. The point is not to write your story so that it will be written about by all of the smartest critics in all of the top literary journals. The point is not to write a rip-roaring but disposable story, either.

The point is to try to write something that pleases the casual reader and rewards the close reader. The hypothesis is that what thrills the reader most is a book that excels as entertainment, but also does something more to take advantage of the form in which it exists, whether that’s wordplay, pacing, structure, whatever tool the author uses.

So this love for Pre-Joycean style does not at all exclude our popular contemporaries. John D. MacDonald, author of the hard-boiled Travis McGee novels was brought up as being in line with PJF values.

And so, one could argue, that accessibility should be and is a feature of any successfully Pre-Joycean novel as the entertainment doesn’t happen if the reader has to work too hard to find it. Conversely, a book that might be entertaining might fail to rise to Pre-Joycean standards if it’s so focused on being entertaining that it fails to do anything special.

I find it very hard to disagree with these ideas. Why would an author spend all this time writing a novel if not to create a story that entertains and does something extra to impact the reader? Surely, we can have both just by trying to write the best novel we can.

With this revelation, the whole structure and presentation of Narrativity as a whole sort of clicked for me. This whole gathering was about celebrating really good stories and the acknowledging the continuing effort that we, as writers, must put in to tell our own really good stories. What could be more PJF than that?

So where’s the joke? You might read this post and say, “Joe, you’ve just spent a lot of time describing the literary aspirations of a group that was supposed to be largely a joke and yet all you’ve described is the literary aspirations” and you wouldn’t really be wrong.

I think the joke is in the name of the group. “Pre-Joycean Fellowship” sounds decidedly academic and yet it’s all about creating something that’s inviting to any reader and extra-rewarding to the close reader. Academics enters into it but it’s also sort of egalitarian. And so giving the group this overly-serious name, I think, is a reminder to not take oneself to seriously in the pursuit of the PJF manifesto.

On the Wikipedia page for the PJF, there’s a quote from Tappan King that states “the Pre-Joycean Fellowship exists to poke fun at the excesses of contemporary literature while simultaneously mining it for everything of value.” In this spirit, I can imagine Brust, Bull, or Shetterly flipping through something like Gravity’s Rainbow or The Satanic Verses and rolling their eyes a bit at the try-hard-ness of those works while still finding bits they kind of like and pocketing them for future reference. (They might not like Pynchon or Rushdie at all or love them completely. I’m not sure either were discussed in any detail. Just an example.)

So this having been a recruitment panel for the PJF, how would an interested author go about joining the PJF? Membership is easily granted. To join, an author must simply put the letters “P.J.F.” after their name in the byline or on the title page of something they’ve written.

Like so. (It seems the collected editions of the early Taltos novels unfortunately lack the PJF.)

To be honest, I was kind of hoping a special signet ring or a wax stamp would be the mark of this little fellowship but that’s probably due to the fact that I’ve been reading too many books with secret societies. PJF’s own membership requirements are appropriately modest.

What should one read if they are so inclined to find something Pre-Joycean? Chris Olson, one of the con’s attendant readers and a killer vocalist, suggested Brust’s and Bull’s epistolary novel Freedom & Necessity which uses the elaborate structure of letters written back and forth between the authors as the stories characters to tell their story. Having just finished it, I can confirm that it is both thrilling in its story as well as in its execution of its structure.

Have I joined the PJF?

I’m still thinking about it.

Sincerely,

-Joe Heaney, P.J.F.


P.S. I will never apologize for that brutal title.

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