Friday, 3 June 2016

Shakespeare would never work for Google

There's a commonplace view that runs like this: If [insert name of great artist from the past] were alive to day he or she would be [insert some contemporary occupation]. Thus, to choose the most frequently recycled version of the trope, if Shakespeare were alive today he'd be writing scripts for telly soap operas (and this usefully implies that today's soapwriters could punch their weight against any Elizabethan playwright. As if.). 

A variant on this was the headline to a Guardian essay by the novelist Tom McCarthy in March 2015, which ran thus:

McCarthy doesn't actually say this in the article so we can assume this is click-bait added by a lazy sub-editor. What McCarthy actually says is this:

If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce, they’re probably working for Google, and if there isn’t, it doesn’t matter since the operations of that genius and vision are being developed and performed collectively by operators on the payroll of that company, or of one like it.

Joyce was virtually unemployable, despite a lengthy stint as an English language teacher in Italy at the Berlitz school (a shadowy profession that's a bolt-hole for the disengaged). He brieflyand unsuccessfully  managed a Dublin cinema and dabbled in various madcap commercial schemes that never got off the ground - exporting tweeds, editing The Irish Bee-keeper and so on. No, if Joyce were alive today he'd be a writer, and a great one, and in all likelihood published by some tiny independent press in Dublin or London or Paris. He'd be admired by a handful of discerning readers and critics. He would be influential, part of the current rebooting of modernism by writers under forty. 

James Joyce would not be working for Google although he colonises a substantial part of their search engine. Here's an experiment you can try at home (or at the office): type in the name 'James Joyce' then add any word you like (nouns are best). You;ll get something every time.

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