James Joyce and the Characteristics of Autistic Fiction


Originally Published in Farrago Edition Six (2022). 

This year marks the centenary of the publication of James Joyce's modernist masterpiece Ulysses. This lengthy book, taking place over a 24-hour period, is in some ways the definitive text of the modernist movement. It also reflects several characteristics of what I will call "autistic fiction" fiction created by autistic (or speculated autistic) authors.

Lest any readers misunderstand me, autistic fiction, like any fiction characterised by its author's minority status (e.g. queer fiction), is not a concrete set of characteristics, but changes according to the work in question. However, many of these artists seem to approach writing in a way that I find sympathetic to an autistic way of seeing the world and experiencing art.

To return to Joyce with some specific examples, some scholars have commented on the musicality of Joyce's prose. Indeed, Ulysses, and to an even greater extent its follow-up Finnegans Wake, shows a fascination with language for its own sake, rather than as a means to tell a story. Ulysses also shows a keen understanding of the internal life of the characters to an unusually sensitive degree. For myself, at least, I have found my appreciation of art to be strengthened by an attention to abstract, sensual qualities rather than the story being told: in film, striking images; in literature, beautiful use of language; in music, a great melody or interesting chord change. Even more so, rhythm as an abstract quality, that is, the editing of images, the flow of a sentence or a paragraph, and so on. Joyce's attention to these qualities of his writing seems, then, to give some indication of an autistic approach to his art. As Joyce has been speculated to be on the spectrum, this could corroborate that notion.

Joyce's contemporary, Virginia Woolf, displays some similar characteristics in her own work. As with Joyce, details of Woolfs biography have led commentators to speculate that she was autistic. However, the point of this article is not to analyse those profiles but to simply examine the writing. Woolf's work is once again sensitive to the internal lives of its characters. Her novel To the Lighthouse opens with an intense description of a young boys relationship with his mother; the mother in question is also shown to have an intense, vibrant inner life. In fact, this is true of all the characters--which brings me to another point about Woolf's work. Her fiction is known for a sort of narrative
polyphony where multiple voices of various characters speak at once. This again echoes the experience of an autistic mind. Of course, we are not mind-readers, so this is not a one-to-one analogy. However, the world often feels more intense for those with autism, and they are not always able to separate sensations out from one another and end up overwhelmed by stimuli. Additionally. many (though, again, not all) people on the spectrum are sensitive to the feelings of others: they have strong affective empathy, if not always cognitive empathy. While they often struggle to express this empathy, it is there nonetheless, and, in my experience, Woolf's style emulates this feeling of mass stimuli being transmitted at once from multiple directions, as well as the feeling of over-empathising with those around us.

Going back in time and across the Atlantic, we arrive at the poet Emily Dickinson, another writer often speculated as being on the spectrum. There is great precision at work in Dickinson's poetry--in word choice, grammar, syntax and prosody-and despite the ambiguity of meaning present in much of her work, this precision gives a sense of deliberate organisation and craft. This is not in itself a characteristic of autism, in fact, any writer worth their salt will embody this characteristic. However, it is Dickinson's way of seeing the world that feels askew and, therefore, sympathetic with autism. Like Woolf, there is an intensity of emotion kept beneath the surface of her poems, sometimes erupting
forth into stark clarity, as in her 'Poem #919', also known by its first line, "If I can stop one heart from breaking". This poem is a statement of life's purpose and betrays a great degree of sensitivity to the plight of all living things, from the "fainting robin" (line 5) to human beings everywhere. It is a poem about deep empathy for suffering and a desire to heal or soothe that suffering. Dickinson's poem, then, shows that same degree of compassion and emotional intensity as Virginia Woolf's and, to a lesser extent, James Joyce's work. There is also a marked attention to the musical qualities of language in Dickinson's work, and this is what I envisioned in my assertion of careful organisation and craft. While this musicality is less unusual in poetry, I believe Dickinson's attention to it is unique in her approach. Each word and piece of punctuation is a note on a staff, carefully selected for the desired emotional effect, creating a melody either dissonant or mellifluous, and a rhythm that is at times jarring and at others flowing.

In these examples, I have probably reiterated several points. I do so to emphasise certain features of these writers' work that makes them resonate with me, particularly the work of Woolf and Dickinson, where the emotional worlds of the characters-or in Dickinson's case, the poet herself-are less mediated by the intellect than in Joyce's work where the writing is made near-impenetrable at times by his preoccupation with linguistic games and modernist experiments.

There are other authors who show an understanding of autism and the worldviews of neurodivergent people For instance, I didn't speak about Jane Austen, whose Mr Darcy is a classic example of an autistic person with his utter disdain for anything fake or performative, and his respect and admiration for authenticity and honesty, no matter how blunt. But unlike the writers I've highlighted, Austen's writing does not communicate an autistic worldview through its style, but rather from a distance through its characters. This does not change the fact that it could belong in a canon of autistic literature; it is simply of a different sort to Joyce, Woolf and Dickinson This conveys what I mentioned at the beginning: there is no one form of autistic fiction; it is not a genre, but changes according to the work in question. All that matters is that it resonates with an autistic audience, and preferably that the writer is autistic themselves, but this is not an absolute must, as many neurotypical writers have produced sensitive, resonant portrayals of autism and other neurodivergences. In a similar shift to that which has produced an interest in Black, queer, feminist and other fiction from non-hegemonic groups in recent years, I hope we will see more autistic fiction in the future. With this shift, we can hopefully begin to understand each other better than before. 

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