January 10, 2012

Scholars and publishers celebrate the end of the James Joyce estate


Stephen James Joyce

The day that many scholars, publishers, critics, and other lovers of literature have hoped would come at last, has come at last. Yes, as of the 1st of January, the estate of James Joyce has passed over into the public domain.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: That just means greedy publishers don’t have to pay royalties on Joyce’s work anymore, and so they are dancing a dance of preening and repulsive joy, because of course as we all know people who would publish classic literature are dirty no-good bastards making money hand over fist.

All true. But beyond that, there’s a reason lots of literary types other than publishers—o, those bastards!—are celebrating the free-dom of James Joyce. And that reason is that they no longer have to live in fear of the Joyce estate, and in particular Joyce’s grandson Stephen James Joyce, whom, as we’ve reported before, has been known to threaten professors for reading Joyce aloud at seminars. A 2006 New Yorker story by D.T. Max reported that, on the centenary of Bloomsday, Stephen Joyce even “threatened the Irish government with a lawsuit if it staged any Bloomsday readings; the readings were cancelled.”

A new report by Gordon Bowker in The Independent further details how Stephen Joyce …

… outraged a meeting of Joyce scholars in Venice in 1988 by announcing that he had destroyed around a thousand letters to Joyce from his troubled daughter Lucia, as well as some to her from Samuel Beckett, the love of her young life. The following year he forced Brenda Maddox to delete a postscript concerning Lucia from her biography Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom. …

… He announced that for the foreseeable future no permissions would be granted to quote from his grandfather’s work. Court actions were threatened and prosecutions launched. Libraries holding Joyce’s letters were forbidden from showing them without written permission; revised editions, anthologies, re-enactments, and plans to run passages from his work on the net were vetoed.

… He claimed that he was protecting the reputation of his grandfather and the privacy of his family. Perhaps this was why the permission fees demanded were often extortionate.

After decades of such behavior, Stephen Joyce got something of a comeuppance in 2007 when he sued Stanford University scholar Carol Loeb Shloss in an attempt to block her book about Joyce’s troubled daughter Lucia, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake. As we noted in our earlier MobyLives story, the Stanford Law School decided to support its professor and not only did Stephen Joyce lose that case, but after fighting it for two more years, the court forced the Joyce estate to pay Shloss’ litigation costs to the tune of $240,000.

Still, as Shloss says in a Stanford News story from the time, “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.”  So even though the Joyce estate had been tagged, finally, by a costly lawsuit—well, the estate wasn’t exactly known for its logical behavior. It remained a threat.

As we at Melville House can attest. Just last November, a little over a month before Joyce’s copyright ran out in the UK, we got a letter from the Joyce estate informing us that someone in England had bought a copy of our edition of The Dead from Amazon.com. Some of Joyce’s early work such as The Dead was by then public domain in the US, but not in the UK. Amazon was not supposed to sell it outside the US, but they did anyway, because—well hell, who’s gonna yell at Amazon? Not even the Joyce estate. They wrote to us instead demanding their cut of the $9 book.

Well, time is out for what Gordon Bowker calls in the Independent report “one of literature’s most notorious copyright dictatorships.” Which can only mean one thing: the unleashing of a world of new Joyce scholarship, the first biographies able to quote freely from research material, and, yes, endless new editions of Joyce’s (only sometimes endless) fiction.

Oh yes, and lots of new rich publishers.


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