The Irish Writers’ Centre hosted a panel discussion (2nd February) on how the current economic climate is affecting modern Irish writing. Chaired by poet Michael O’ Loughlin, the panel consisted of Nadine O’Regan, books and arts editor of theSunday Business Post; Sean Love, co-founder and director of Fighting Words (formerly of Amnesty Ireland); author Claire Kilroy; and Gerry Smyth, poet and managing editor of the Irish Times. Originally planned for December, the event had to be postponed due to bad weather. Weather was against us again this blustery evening, but the room filled up quickly.
As chairperson, poet Michael O’ Loughlin opened the discussion by quoting from Yeats’ Easter 1916:
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Yeats, he said, was uninspired by the Ireland of the time, the time within the poem. Quite the statement. We could have passed the night happily taking it apart, turning it this way and that – but the night was still young, the hecklers kept their counsel for the moment, the Introduction moved swiftly on – and so should we.
O’ Loughlin next referred to the recently emerging perception of the arts as sole standard-bearer of whatever honour remains to the country.
[It has to be said that we artsy types are a teensy bit ambivalent about this. It’s gratifying to be told how pure we are and all that, but is it lip-service? Is there a bandwagon under the floorboards? And, which artists will be allowed to matter? By whom? In any case, no matter what we might think about it, the arts are being conscripted into ideas of recovery and the worrying concept of Brand Ireland faster than you can say polemic. It’s not that I’m hostile to the idea that the arts can have a positive role in our recovery – I’ve written about it before, in positive terms. But.]
Meanwhile, from the podium, we heard that contemporary Irish writers are not, or have not been, sufficiently critical of the State in their work. Michael O’Loughlin is a bit put out about the sudden bonhomie that’s sprung up between writers and politicians. He wants to know what it means. In his opinion, Irish writers (on the whole) made little or no allusion to the many and varied troubles that simmered below the striped and glossy skin of the Celtic Tiger. Is this a failure on their part? Are the arts implicated in the whole sorry mess, after all?
Argument followed. Well, that’s what we were there for. Nadine O’Regan, books and arts editor of the Sunday Business Post, pointed out that art comes from within, it is not ‘for’ anything. She brought the conversation around to problems facing literary fiction. One interesting question is whether or not literary fiction has been diminished by the proliferation of prizes, with overtones of promotion? She said that it’s increasingly difficult for literary writers to make a living, and it’s a bit much for the writers of literary fiction to be expected, not only to live in poverty, but to take on the government at the same time.
Claire Kilroy spoke with authority and conviction when she said that she couldn’t think of a single writer who is NOT critical of the system in some way. She mentioned Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Kevin Power’s Bad Day at Blackrock as examples. She talked about the length of time it takes for a work to grow, said that the novel as a form is meditative and needs time. Her own interest, she said, is in individual, lonely people. Michael O’Loughlin bemoaned the fact that we don’t have an Irish Jonathan Frantzen, someone who’ll write panoramic, comprehensive novels of recent times, to explain us to ourselves. Claire Kilroy said, with admirable restraint, that when she writes, what happens is between her and the page; she’s not looking at what other writers are doing.
Gerry Smyth agreed that writers can’t be coralled. He’s wary of polemic, but refuted the view that Irish writers don’t engage with public or political issues, citing Seamus Heaney’s recent “Republic of Conscience”, Brian Friel’s “Freedom of the City” and Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field” as examples. Sean Love referred to Roddy Doyle’s Henry Smart trilogy – and other work – as casting considerable light on the underbelly of the State.
When Michael O’Loughlin brought out the familiar complaint that some of our best and most internationally-renowned writers direct a disproprtionate amount of their attention to the past, it was argued that writers often pick up and examine today’s currents through the prism of the past; Gerry Smyth also pointed out that there’s a danger in immediate response to events – any writer wants to produce art, and art takes time.
Sean Love pointed to a range of exciting and diverse work that is being produced away from the mainstream (not least in his own excellent Fighting Words centre), and in new forms. He also reminded us that many writers from a particular generation had deliberately resisted being turned into propagandists for one point of view or another. Advisedly, I think most of us would agree. Later, he said that he admires the independence of a mind that will resist the push to express a viewpoint that we think (now) is right – because that perspective might shift in the future.
The discussion turned to theatre then, because new trends and challenges often surface first in drama. (Mark O’Halloran’s film and television work was also given as an example of critical creative engagement). Again, the proliferation of new forms and new practitioners was raised, disciplines we don’t even know how to recognise yet, let alone have names for. Rather than tie themselves up in efforts to control all this, writers, as much as other artists, are likely to keep working away quietly, forging their own path across this new and shifting terrain, because that’s what writers and artists do.
Then we were back to economics. It was said that the idea of a professional writer didn’t exist in the 70s and 80s, and that literary writers might have to accept a return to the part-time job. Most of us, it has to be said, never moved very far away from it – or not for long. Maybe long enough to finish a draft, if that’s all right. Does that mean that most writers in the future will be, of necessity, middle class?
Novelist Mia Gallagher, who had been invited to join the panel, made the point that there are different stages in making a piece of work: the making of it, then bringing it to the market, and finally going public – when a writer becomes public property in a way and for a time. There can be confusion about what it means to be an artist. Is it a career? A vocation? Does it have to be a social service as well as a creative one?
From here the discussion became more fragmentary. It was late, people were getting tired. Some of us had been listening hard and waiting for the Q & A for a long time. The room was very full, every seat was taken. At last, the discussion opened to the floor. People argued for the merits of this book or that. Things got a little heated, but only briefly. Mary O’Donnell made an excellent point about what she called ‘the elephant in the room’: the fact that throughout the eighties and nineties Irish women, informed by feminist ideas and concerns with human rights, had been writing from a critical position that had gone largely unremarked in mainstream media or in academic discourse. This was dismissed, because ‘it’s changing now’, an observation that misses the point completely, even if it’s true. If a whole swathe of literary fiction is not considered literary enough to be taken seriously in an academic sense, it quickly sinks without trace. An attentive reader of this post will have seen by now that we weren’t exactly overwhelmed by references to women writers other than Paula Meehan, until some (Anne Enright, Emma Donoghue and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne) were referred to by impassioned speakers from the floor.
Claire Kilroy had earlier remarked that before the Big Book comes along, the ‘little’ ones get written. Every writer knows how true this is, whether they’d admit it in public or not. But it’s just as true of a national literature, which is an ongoing conversation and exchange of ideas over time – a conversation not best served by the delivery of opinions, no matter how right-on, from hastily constructed platforms as they creak and list above the heads of a crowd who are, to a man, woman and child, preoccupied with real life worries about rent and food, about joblessness and emigration. Let’s not forget that the crowd includes writers as well as everyone else, worrying with the best of them. Citizens R Us.
The final word should probably go to Yeats, “On Being Asked for a War Poem”:
“I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right …”
(Mary O’Donnell also has a post on this debate. Go to: medea999.WordPress.com)