Thinking about responses (both verbal and online) to the previous post, “Modern Ireland has Nothing to Inspire Modern Writers”, I realised that I had more to say on the topic. Too much, probably, so I’ll confine myself to what seems most pertinent at the minute.
First, as stated in the comments below, it’s not writers who create elites and/or a canon … it’s commentators, reviewers and academics who do that. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget this. So, when people complain about what Irish writers are writing or not writing, the question is: which Irish writers are they talking about?
The second point, related to the first, is that I don’t accept that no interrogative or challenging novels came out in Ireland in the last ten years. I hate to do this, because any list immediately overlooks and excludes things that should have been included, but here is a random, top-of-the head naming of literary novelists and novels that definitely engage with aspects of Tiger Ireland but have NOT been mentioned in recent conversations on this topic (so far as I’m aware):
Dermot Healy: Sudden Times
Mia Gallagher: Hellfire
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: Fox Swallow Scarecrow
Kevin Power: Bad Day at Blackrock
Anne Enright: The Gathering
Molly McCloskey: Protection
Carlo Gebler: A Good Day for a Dog
William Wall: This is the Country
A lot of work is being done in areas that escape the attention of the pundits, either because they’re not interested in a particular genre or because they don’t know what’s happening there. Here’s one illustrative example: Fiacha Fola (Blood Debts), a collection of poetry written in Irish by Celia de Fréine, about the Hepatitis C scandal. I don’t pretend to be able to read poetry in Irish, but I’m lucky enough to have seen these poems in translation and to have heard them read in both languages. They are powerful and measured, and they address a critical, painful issue in our recent history. They’ve won awards, but not the kind of awards that people outside of Ireland pay attention to. News of their existence may not have reached the mainstream yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. [A selection will be published in a forthcoming bilingual Selected Poems.]1
We have a number of promising young writers who can be found in journals (eg The Stinging Fly), and let’s not forget the return of the literary essay in the pages of, for example, The Dublin Review. It’s worth mentioning that for strong writing to emerge and develop, outlets – and editors – of that calibre are required, and we’re not exactly bursting at the seams with either. We have Mark O’Halloran, Charlie McCarthy, Dave Coffey and Eugene O’Brien writing for television – against all the odds that writing for television in this country entails. We have a growing oral scene epitomised by Nighthawks and the Glór sessions and the Flat Lakes Festival. We have group blogs like the Anti-Room. We have the kids who are writing at the Fighting Words centre – who knows what they’ll pull off when they’re older?
Well. I can’t quite believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to quote from Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing. This clever, funny, heart-breaking book was published nearly 30 years ago by the University of Texas Press. I discovered it (and first quoted this passage) in 1990. And look, it’s as relevant as it ever was:
“As in cells and sprouts, growth occurs only at the edges of something. From the peripheries … But even to see the peripheries, it seems, you have to be on them, or by an act of re-vision, place yourself there. Refining and strengthening the judgements you already have will get you nowhere. You must break set. It’s either that or remain at the centre. The dead, dead centre.”
1 some of these poems are available in translation as follows:
in The New Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2004)
in Breaking the Skin (Volume 2) (Black Mountain Press, 2002)
‘ag tástáil, ag tástáil : testing, testing’ was made into a poster by Galway Arts Centre as part of ‘Poems for Patience’
As you say, we could go on and on about this one … I’m glad you picked me up on this, because I never meant to suggest that any of these writers are peripheral. And it would be idiotic to fling yourself into the arms of obscurity for the sake of it. That’s another way of saying ‘Oh, okay. You take the floor, I’ll just go and sulk in this corner over here, and pretend that’s what I wanted all along.’
It’s the act of re-vision that matters. Isn’t that what fiction is? Shining fresh light on the familiar to uncover what we should have known but didn’t; or pointing the light into corners we didn’t know were there, we’re all so busy warming our hands at the fire?
And it might seem obvious, even trite, to say that ‘Refining and strengthening the judgements you already have will get you nowhere’ but don’t we all get a little too cosy with our own world-view, especially if we know, deep down, how right-on, clued-in, kick-ass smart we are?
It’s interesting, reading your comment and looking at the list again, to see how each of the books mentioned (including Fiacha Fola) (especially Fiacha Fola?) tells a story with an offbeat (even experimental) rhythm, from a marginal position, or in a way that casts fresh light on the ordinary, revealing it to be anything but.
Great piece Lia. Can you turn it into a newspaper article and get it published somewhere where it will be seen by an even wider audience? I agree entirely with the point about the manner in which elites are created. However, I may be wrong in my interpretation of this, but it seems that the article, through its end quotation, is suggesting an identification with peripheral growth (referred to in final quotation). In fact, so many of the writers you name are actually central in our artistic culture, just not ‘dead’ central in the negative sense. They are certainly not peripheral or seen to be peripheral either. They are there, simply not populist, and they live in the manner of the majority of artists – not hugely noted or feted – because that’s not what we’re about in the end as artists, but working and working becaue that is what they do. I see no virtue in being on the periphery or in the assumption that this is where the exciting stuff, the radical and transformative stuff occurs. It doesn’t. You’re not saying this, but Joanna Truss’s point is clever and sound-bitey without being quite accurate. Quite often the real life occurs right at the centre and in the hands of skilled and experienced artists. Of course, it goes without saying, there are media ‘darlings’ everywhere, who run the risk of being under-valued by their peers as a result of this (often from sheer envy). I recently read Carlo Gebler’s essay on the writing life in the on-line mag “Some Blind Alleys” and he too, in a way, refers to the writer who is out there, working very hard, but whose vision or voice remains slightly off-centre, slightly under-valued, the writer who is just one of the crowd. But my point is that that is exactly the way in which the majority of good, – no, excellent! – artists live. It is part of their destiny and just because they may not be seen by a coterie of academics to have written significantly about modern Ireland (or whatever the topic du jour happens to be) does not mean they have not fertilised the soil, or that their work has not made a journey. The truth is, it all happens in silence and this is what we have to come to terms with as artists. Ach was, as the Germans say! We could go on and on about this one …!