October 1, 2009

James Joyce's grandson misses something crucial about estate management


Stephen James Joyce

Stephen James Joyce

A Stanford University scholar who wrote a biography on Lucia Joyce, the troubled daughter of James Joyce, has won a years-long battle against the Joyce estate, which had blocked her usage of certain reference material in the book, causing it to be withdrawn from publication. As a report at the Stanford News details, Carol Loeb Shloss had first won the right to republish her book Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake with the expurgated material restored in a 2007 court decision, and now the Joyce estate has finally agreed to pay her litigation costs for that case to the tune of $240,000.

Shloss won her case thanks in part to the support of the Stanford Law School, which Shloss says first got behind her when faculty member (now Harvard professor) Lawrence Lessig heard about the Joyce estate’s forcing her to withdraw the book and said “That’s disgusting.”

As it turns out, the Joyce estate, led by Joyce’s grandson Stephen James Joyce, “had become notorious in scholarly circles for its conflicts with scholars, authors and Joyce enthusiasts,” with a “history of suits and threats of suit ….” In fact, says the Stanford News,

Stephen Joyce has stopped countless public readings of his grandfather’s works and discouraged a generation of research. At one point, he told a prominent Joyce scholar that he was no longer giving permission to quote from any of Joyce’s work. He told one performer, who had simply memorized a portion of Finnegans Wake for an onstage presentation, that he had probably “already infringed” on the estate’s copyright, according to a 2006 New Yorker story. (The performer later discovered that Joyce did not have the right to block his performance.) Shloss herself recalls a conference where a scholar had Joyce’s words projected on a screen rather than risk pronouncing the words in a recorded session.

Lucia Joyce

Lucia Joyce

Which is why Shloss says her victory is “a breakthrough, not just for me but for everybody who has to deal with a literary estate. This has been going on for decades. Scholars are not wealthy people. We don’t have easy access to the legal system to determine and vindicate our rights if someone threatens us with a lawsuit. You just have to give in.” Now, she says, “estates know they can get hurt. They know that scholars have resources now. They just can’t be bullies.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.