So are we really in the middle of an Irish literary renaissance?

spill-simmer-falter-wither-book-jacket-fJason Arthur, the Publishing Director of a group of Penguin Random House imprints, has described the current Irish literary scene as “experiencing a renaissance”.

Arthur’s comments came amid the announcement that he has secured the UK and Commonwealth rights (apart from Canada) to two Sara Baume novels, including current hit Spill Simmer Falter Wither, published by new kid on the block Dublin independent publisher Tramp Press. Continue reading “So are we really in the middle of an Irish literary renaissance?”

Awards and prizes round-up: How little fiction is becoming big


Anne Enright is a former recipient of the Davy Byrnes Short Story Prize (pic:

I’m easing my way back into things. The past couple of months have seen everything else catch up and overtake me, and it’s only now, with the changing of the clocks and the evenings drawing in, that I’ve had the temerity to tell everything to slow the fuck down and take the time to sit with a book or two.

I started with Donal Ryan’s The Thing About December, added Elske Rahill’s Between Dog And Wolf to the to-read pile and then lost myself in the slow and powerful rhythms of The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, where I have remained for the past few days (I sometimes read novels by non-Irish authors with non-Irish names, too, honest. Plans are afoot to read The Diary of Anne Frank in the next couple of weeks before visiting the Anne Frank & You visual exhibition at Pearse Library, and I’ll re-read A Christmas Carol for the first time in a few years next month, having decided that my four-year-old is probably a year or two too young for the full-version bedtime story treatment. I try to get to Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales most Decembers too. If you’ve any other recommendations for favourite Christmas reads, they will be very gratefully received in the comments below…)

But anyway, back to this month, and when easing one’s way back into regular blogs is the challenge, there’s no more straightforward way than by glancing around the awards and prizes news.

You might say that awards skew public perception, that they inflate the importance of a winning novel while reducing the also-rans to obscurity. You would be right, but to distort what Churchill once said about democracy, it’s the worst possible system of marketing books, except for all the  others.

Prizes, and the attention they attract through longlists and shortlists and winners’ announcements, are great for book marketing. Yes, the judges are the kingmakers, their blessing bestowing sales spikes for the anointed authors and dispelling many of the remainder to, quite literally, a short shelf life. Prizes such as the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award have done well to democratise things, albeit at the expense of timeliness, but the appointment of an expert jury remains the standard format, and that’s the route taken by Davy Byrnes Short Story Award, which returns for its now characteristic (Word of the Day alert!) quinquennial appearance.

Given Alice Munro’s coronation by the Nobel committee, I feel like we’re living through a golden era for the short story. Whether the proliferation of reading devices has had any effect on the return to prominence of shorter fiction, I have no idea, but time may well come to show that the iPad (first launched 2010) revolutionised a lot more than just technology. Notwithstanding Eleanor Catton’s 832-page Booker-winning mammoth The Luminaries and Richard House’s well-received four-books-in-one-with-added-multimedia doorstop The Kills, there is a real appetite for bitesize literature now – Colm Tóibín and Zadie Smith have both released tiny novels recently, and on the evidence of two recent announcements short story prizes are all the rage.

The Davy Byrnes Award opens for entries in December ahead of a February 2014 shortlist announcement with the winner garlanded next June, and if the judges are anything to go by this should be seriously high on quality: Booker and 2004 Davy Byrne award winner Anne Enright (pictured above), IMPAC winner Jon McGregor and Guardian First Book Award/Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award recipient Yiyun Li. (Oh, to be an English-speaking fly on the wall when those three are discussing short stories…). The criteria for entry for the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award are available over here.

The Irish Book Awards includes a new category in the shape of the Short Story of the Year Award. It’s a welcome development for the short story – the Novel of the Year shortlist, which last year bizarrely included three short story collections, is now actually restricted to novels.

While Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies took him to some international renown, it’s fair to say that the six shortlisted stories bring a list of mostly unfamiliar names to the fore. Colin Barrett’s debut collection Young Skins was the subject of a very favourable review by Sinead Gleeson in The Irish Times last weekend; he’s nominated here for “Bait”, while Trisha McKinney, Danielle McLaughlin, Niamh O’Connor (who day-jobs as True Crime Editor of the Sunday World) and Billy O’Callaghan make up the rest of the shortlist. You can read all six shortlisted stories over on here.

Looking briefly to the longer form, the Novel of the Year award is foremost among the Irish Book Awards and Donal Ryan, whose The Spinning Heart was named overall Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year in 2012, is in contention here for The Thing About December. He’s up against some big hitters, though, with Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments sequel The Guts, Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic and the debut novel of outstanding playwright Frank McGuinness (Arimathea) also shortlisted. The sextet is completed by Gavin Corbett (This Is The Way) and Catherine Dunne (The Things We Know Now).

You can vote for the Irish Book Awards over here until November 21st.

Events update: The John Hewitt International Summer School

John Hewitt International Summer SchoolThe 26th John Hewitt International Summer School takes place in Armagh from July 22-26, and the theme this year is “Living Among Strangers: The Lost Meaning of Home”.

The theme is inspired by Hewitt’s poem “The Search”, which includes the lines

It is a hard responsibility to be a stranger;
to hear your speech sounding at odds with your neighbours […]
Often you will regret the voyage,
wakening in the dark night to recall that other place…

Hewitt himself experienced the notion of “the stranger”, both in Ireland and the UK, where he took up residence in the 1960s.

Given the migratory nature of modern life in Ireland – whether by those born in foreign lands who have made their home here (a recent RTÉ documentary which followed children’s television presenter Diana Bunici to her native Moldova springs to mind) or the new generation of young Irish men and women forced to emigrate to every corner of the globe in search of a job first, and prosperity second – the theme is well-chosen.

The blurb for the John Hewitt International Summer School includes lines such as

What is the place, ‘the local’ in the twenty-first century? In a world of globalised entertainment and communication, and increasingly migratory labour, is there room for sentiment about place in our art?

Is the ‘living among strangers’ that allowed separate, mutually opposed cultures to develop here over four hundred years to be the norm for future populations? Will diversity reduce conflict, or increase antagonism between hosts and guests? Can those of different backgrounds and histories share increasingly fragmented spaces?

All of which, added to the list of names on the programme, should whet the appetite for a fine five days in Armagh’s Market Place Theatre the week after next.

The lunchtime reading series alone are worth the trip, with Irish writers Pat McCabe, Anne Enright, Deirdre Madden and Gavin Corbett joining English novelist Salley Vickers over the five days.

There is a poetry reading by Simon Armitage, Medbh McGuckian, James Byrne and Conor O’Callaghan (among others), a creative writing workshop with Carlo Gebler (among others), a fascinating talk entitled “Ulster Through Polish Eyes: Reconsidering the Stereotypes” by Professor Jan Jędrzejewski, several art exhibitions and evening theatre performances.

It all promises to be a great few days.

The full John Hewitt International Summer School programme can be downloaded here.

In search of Irish satirists

a-modest-proposalI’ve been thinking, and yes, that’s a dangerous thing.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this particular subject will become clear here over the next week or so, but for now I’d like to throw the floor open for discussion. The topic:  Irish satire and satirists.

When you think of satire among Irish writers, who springs to mind?

Jonathan Swift, of course, is the grand-daddy of them all, with works such as Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal possessing a reach far greater than the number of people who’ve actually read them. Gulliver the written work is dense and difficult in parts, but Gulliver the movie persona is famous the world over through Ted Danson, Jack Black and others.

Who else? Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen, absolutely, but I’m of a different generation than that which enjoyed a regular diet of Flann O’Brien, Donal Foley’s “Man Bites Dog” columns in the Irish Times and Hall’s Pictorial Weekly on RTÉ.

Later, as satire increasingly found a natural home in radio and TV, the likes of Dermot Morgan, Gerry Stembridge, Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan rose to prominence through the vehicle of satire.

Aprés Match (Barry Murphy, Risteard Cooper and Gary Cooke) is a staple of satirical comedy in Ireland, and Pictorial Weekly was revived by Murphy.

Mario Rosenstock took inspiration from Scrap Saturday and ran with it, and Oliver Callan crested  that wave to become a household name too; no recent satire has been as scathing as that of David McSavage’s The Savage Eye; the Rubberbandits have taken Irish satire to MTV.

But back to where I started.

Is Irish satire now restricted to the airwaves alone?

Or are there practitioners at work in written form too?

Satire, these days if not in the past, must be a little more subtle when it appears in written form. Rosenstock, Callan, McSavage et al can take a baseball bat to the mores of society and it’s a roaring success; the same approach in a short story, say, would be far too heavy-handed.

Kevin Barry is one Irish writer who readily springs to mind (well, this mind at least). His “The Fjord of Killary”, first published in The New Yorker three years ago and subsequently collected in his Dark Lies The Island last year, fitted the pigeon-hole of satire more than anything else; “Supper Club”, the opening story in the recent Silver Threads of Hope charity anthology, was an even more blatantly satirical riff on the excesses of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Barry himself described Gavin Corbett’s recent novel This Is The Way as a satire.

So past or present, who’s your favourite Irish satirical writer? And who might have been overlooked but deserves to stand on the same stage?

Let me know in the comments.


Update: I asked the question on Twitter earlier and among several interesting responses came these from “anonymous writer/director” ManintheBlackPyjamas:

[tweet 334317608973254656 hide_thread=’true’]

[tweet 334318036196659200 hide_thread=’true’]

[tweet 334319009824649216 hide_thread=’true’]

Four on Friday: Translations, the Kerry Group award, Ulysses liberated and Mike McCarthy on TV

Translation is experiencing something of a rebirth. Half of the shortlist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award announced recently were originally published in a language other than English, while a small outfit such as Peirene Press is forging a solid reputation as a translator of note – Peirene’s canon of novellas (four books and one theme each year) are now available in Chapters Books.

So Rosita Boland’s piece on the art of translation, in the Irish Times culture blog section today, is a timely one.

“Translation is the art of losses, you always have to lose something,” says one translator succinctly; thinking about loss while engaging in the creative process is quite artful in itself.

I particularly like the line from András Imreh, who has translated the work of Seamus Heaney into Hungarian:

I had never been to any bog, because there are none in Hungary. I was taken to one here. I don’t remember any concrete words or individual metaphors that were solved as a result of the visit, but seeing the bog gave me a wall to put my back to.

The shortlist for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year was announced this week, with Lucy Caldwell, Gavin Corbett, Claire Kilroy, Kathleen MacMahon and Thomas O’Malley making the grade.

There are summaries of the novels and extensive quotes from all five shortlisted authors, as well as adjudicator Robert McCrum, over here.

Here’s what O’Malley, nominated for This Magnificent Desolation (Bloomsbury), had to say:

You write in isolation and you have your good days and your bad days and sometimes the sense that anyone will ever read your work let alone understand and appreciate what you’re attempting to do seems very far away indeed, yet it is the hope and faith that some audience out there will connect to your work that, in part, sustains you as you write.

this-magnificent-desolationI’ve yet to read This Magnificent Desolation, but it ranks as the best cover of any Irish book I’ve seen this year (right).

James Joyce must be out of copyright, right? There’s hardly a week that goes by without another Joyce story or treatment or evolution. My favourite this week is on a crowdfunding project to publish a fine print edition of The Works of Master Poldy, undertaken by Irishman Jamie Murphy and American Steve Cole of Liberate Ulysses.

More on the project, the basis of which lies in a line from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, and which aims to find funding through crowd-investment tool Indiegogo, can be found here.

Writes Billy Mills in the Guardian:

There’s something about a well-made physical object with good design, quality materials and fine printing that no digital substitute can match.

Amen to that.

Finally this week, a pointer to the TV3 Player for an interview with acclaimed Mayo writer Mike McCormack on his new edition of Getting It In The Head, amongst other writing related diversions.

Not long before he was signed by Lilliput Press a couple of years ago, he said, he was doing a reading in Dublin when…

one person showed up, and I think she’d just ducked in out of the rain.

A couple of books and TV appearances later, things are a fair bit rosier these days.

Unfortunately the show isn’t broken into segments on the TV3 website so you might have to sit through a full HD streamed ad break and a bit of other fluffy stuff from Sybil and Martin before you get to the Mike McCormack interview. No-one said it had to be easy, but in the interest of saving you from the worst of it, the interview starts at around the 28:30 mark.

The Morning Show, Wednesday, April 17th

Would you like to join the Irish Writing Blog online book club? The April choice is Strumpet City by James Plunkett – more details here.

Kevin on Gavin: One Irish writer reviews another

this-is-the-way-gavin-corbettKevin Barry, one of the rising stars of the Irish literary scene, had his say on another of the younger crop of Irish writers, Gavin Corbett, in the pages of the Guardian this morning.

I’ve always held a slight fascination for writers’ reviews of other writers – the thoughts of a critic might be easily (or perhaps more accurately, more easily) dismissed but those of a fellow writer, especially one you might admire, must be almost impossible to ignore.

This, I imagine, is especially true if you’re not yet on an established footing. The John Banville excoriation of Ian McEwan a few years back, when he described McEwan’s Saturday as “a dismayingly bad book”, springs to mind, but the fact of the matter was that Banville and McEwan – one a Booker Prize winner, the other on his way to the same award a few months after writing that review – were already on solid ground as novelists of renown. While a different hue of light may have shone on them as a result, their reputations were unlikely to suffer catastrophically.

It’s a different story when you’re waiting for the big breakthrough, when a positive or a negative review from a respected contemporary might have make-or-break possibilities for an entire career.

Corbett, then, could be forgiven if he heaved a sigh of relief this morning; Barry’s review of the book – about a Traveller called Anthony Sonaghan told in first person idiosyncratic local dialect – is, on the whole, a positive one.

A sly and lovely humour dominates … The streets of contemporary Dublin, somehow both drab and gaudy, are sketched with great relish and skill … This is memorable work from a gifted writer whose next moves we should await with very keen interest

You can read Kevin Barry’s review of Gavin Corbett’s new novel, This Is The Way, here.

This Is The Way is published by 4th Estate

Update: Gavin Corbett has written about the origins of the narrative voice over on the 4th Estate blog