Title: A new Irish literary boom: the post-crash stars of fiction
Author: Justin Jordan, The Guardian
The Internet, Online, 27/11/2015
Dynamic, radical, often female … Irish fiction is flourishing. Gone is the conservative writing – all nostalgia and sexual repression – of the Celtic Tiger years. The writers of the new wave are original and bold
“Money kills the imagination,” says the narrator of Claire Kilroy’s 2012 novel The Devil I Know, a fiendishly good satire of the moment the Irish boom went bust. “It makes us want the same thing.” The book is set in 2016 and takes the form of one man’s testimony to a tribunal intended to uncover the sleaze and short-termism that enabled a giant property bubble to inflate in the years leading up to the global financial crash of 2008. In the autumn of 2015, we have not yet caught up with Kilroy’s future setting, but as the real-world aftershocks of the Celtic Tiger’s downfall continue, one Irish sector is booming: with the rise of a new wave of writers, from Paul Murray, Kevin Barry and Donal Ryan to first-time authors such as Eimear McBride, Sara Baume, Lisa McInerney and Colin Barrett, there is a palpable energy to Irish fiction.
“There weren’t that many significant debuts during the entirety of the boom,” Kilroy says now. “Back then, by becoming a literary writer, you were pretty much setting yourself in opposition to the dominant ideology of the time, which was to make money, buy property and spend ostentatiously. I would suggest that a large proportion of my generation has been artistically neutered, for the time being at least.”
“It was hard to write in Ireland during the Tiger times – there was a sense of ‘Get with the programme, you’re off message’,” agrees Anne Enright, who was appointed the inaugural laureate for Irish fiction at the beginning of this year. “The boom was also estranging – the whole dance of it.”
Murray’s latest novel, The Mark and the Void, is set in Dublin’s financial district at the moment the whole teetering edifice of derivatives and inter-banking loans came crashing down, and features a bitter failed novelist, also called Paul, whose crippling mortgage on a jerry-built luxury flat drives him towards bank robbery. Writing? “I don’t do that shit any more.”
So what’s happening now? “The glorious old-fashioned thing that you can’t get a job, you might as well write, has always applied in Ireland,” continues Enright, who says the current renaissance has been brewing for a couple of years. “It has something to do with the agility of the small presses and their ability to pick up talent and run with it. Things in the UK feel increasingly corporate – everybody there has amalgamated.” While the wave of Irish novelists who rose to prominence in the early 90s – Enright, Roddy Doyle, Colm Tóibín, Sebastian Barry – tended to be published from London, the current dynamism of Ireland’s publishing scene means that new authors are being picked up there first.
Longstanding literary magazine Stinging Fly, which showcases new Irish and international writing, has had its own publishing imprint for a decade. It is run by Declan Meade – a man who, Enright says, “has never made a mistake. His list of authors is completely impressive” – and brought out the debut collections of Barry (Impac winner), Barrett (Guardian first book award winner) and the Costa-shortlisted Mary Costello. Stinging Fly has been instrumental in, as Julian Gough puts it, “changing the landscape of Irish fiction, issue by issue, book by book”. Short stories, often seen as hard sells by bigger publishers, are its life blood. Its newest title, published last week and slated for UK release in January, is Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets, “not just a book of short stories,” as Enright points out, “but a book of anticipated short stories. Could such a thing exist in England?”
Last year also saw the launch of the energetic new publisher Tramp Press, which picked Baume from the slush pile, while journals such as Gorse and Banshee are springing up all the time. Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, the pair behind Tramp, decided to join forces when their contracts at fellow indie Lilliput Press ran out. They point out that it’s easier to set up a company, to risk losing everything, “if you don’t have anything to lose”. As well as Baume’s novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither, now longlisted for the Guardian first book award, they commissioned a centenary anthology of reworkings of Joyce’s short stories, Dubliners 100. They sum up their manifesto as: “Only publish stuff that’s so exceptionally exciting it makes us want to set ourselves on fire and jump out of a window; be ballsy; never stray too far from the slush pile.”
Illustration of people on fire jumping out of a window.
As with Stinging Fly, this willingness to take the kinds of risks that corporate publishers never would is what makes the books special – but it takes money. Davis-Goff stresses the role of the Irish Arts Council in the current resurgence, whose literary branch is “extremely supportive” of new work. “There are talented writers with excellent publishing opportunities, a little bit of money to go around and a supportive media. And the readers themselves are engaged: they go to launches, they’ve book clubs, they talk to each other, they get to the literary festivals.” Meade agrees that funding is key, “both directly for writers and then also for the general literary infrastructure of festivals, publishers, resource organisations”. Cuts have been made, of course, but there is still an emphasis on funding new writers.
Small presses create possibilities for experimental writers, the most obvious recent example being McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. This year notable debuts have included Caitriona Lally’s whimsically strange Eggshells from Liberties Press, about a Dublin woman who thinks she is a changeling; and the contemplative, insular Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, an English writer who has settled in Galway, published to huge acclaim by Stinging Fly in Ireland earlier this year and Fitzcarraldo in the UK this month. But the experimental strain isn’t confined to the tiny outfits: Gavin Corbett has followed up his extraordinary monologue in the voice of an Irish Traveller, This Is The Way, with the riotously strange Green Glowing Skull for 4th Estate, while Rob Doyle’s second book, out next January from Bloomsbury, will be a series of fragmented pieces hovering between fiction and non-fiction, This Is the Ritual. Hawthorn and Child, an expectation-confounding quasi-crime novel from Dublin author Keith Ridgway, who now lives in London, was one of the literary highlights of 2012.
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