Friday, February 26, 2010

Capturing the present

by Lauren

Since reading this Guardian article from earlier this month featuring Julian Gough's criticism of fellow Irish novelists, I've been feeling torn. On the one hand, I do get his point that contemporary Irish novelists tend to be backward-looking, that "reading award-winning Irish literary fiction, you wouldn't know television had been invented." Yet, as a book lover with a Masters in Irish Studies and an on-the-record Colum McCann fanatic, I want to have a strong argument against Gough's claim. While I don't have an exhaustive knowledge of Irish lit by any means, I have studied it and have even worked in an Irish bookstore, where Irish content is generally separate from similar sections, so that Irish fiction gets a separate set of bookcases from fiction, and so on. I feel I should be able to call to mind some great literature that feels present rather than past. Gough doesn't necessarily assert that they aren't writing good novels, merely that they aren't reflecting contemporary culture. Now, no doubt novels set in the past still often reflect the ethos of the time in which they're written, but it does seem unusual for a culture not to directly document the contemporary world in novel form.

So help me out, folks! I'd love to be able to leap to the defense of the subjects of my academic study, even if only in my own head where Gough's objections are lingering.


  1. Ian McDonald's Sacrifice of Fools - a 1996 book that's basically District 9, but smarter and set in Northern Ireland.

    At the more literary end: John Banville's always worth a go.

    A lot of Irish stuff published in London suffers from the problem that literary fiction has come to mean post-colonial angst.

    There's always the problem of definition. As anyone who's been to Boston knows, self-identification as Irish gets louder the further away from Ireland someone is. When I was at university in the UK one of the professors dismissed a new hire, a specialist on Joyce, with 'I've never been a fan of Swiss literature'.

  2. Linda Johnson26/2/10 7:38 PM

    I absolutely loved "Bog Child" by Siobhan Dowd. It seemed to me to be in modern time or at least close enough.
    I acquired quite a new vocabulary from it. I always write down somewhat uncommon words when I come across them in books for future use. I usually collect 6-10 or so from an average book, but from this book I collected a whopping 52 words. Many were cultural Irish words and words like kleenex that are brand names that become common words.
    My favorite is -kerfuffle- which means a fuss or disturbance. How about this sentence, "his gansey was minging." translation, 'his hoodie smelled really bad'
    I love it!

  3. I notice without surprise that 'novelist' appears to mean 'male novelist' as there are plenty of women who write contemporary Irish novels, and they seem to be rather successful in the mainstream, but of course they don't count, because contemporary writing without angry young men isn't literature...

  4. Kevin Power's Bad Day In Blackrock, published by Lilliput press, deals with Ireland in the middle of the Celtic Tiger economy.

    The current global recession makes it feel like a period piece, but that's just because events have moved fast economically over the last year and a half or so.

    It's good. Trust me, I'm Irish :p

  5. Eoin Colfer, Joseph O'Connor and Roddy Doyle spring to mind. Their novels aren't mired in the past.

    Anonymous is right about self-identification. Irish identity is stronger in Boston than it is in Ireland, and many Americans who identify themselves as Irish are shocked by the reality of modern Ireland itself. Perhaps that's helped contribute to the popularity of the nostalgic sort of Irish novel Gough despises?

  6. 'as there are plenty of women who write contemporary Irish novels'

    Lauren's presumably keen to hear their names.

    In the article she links to, women are mentioned as well as men. Off the top of my head, they seem to be just as bad as the men:
    Anne Enright and Jennifer Johnston, for example, fall squarely into the tradition of miserable, quirky dark family secret stories; Claire Keegan doesn't write novels; Maeve Binchy - not in my name.

  7. I think maybe the key to Gough's claim is this: "Reading award-winning Irish literary fiction, you wouldn't know television had been invented. Indeed, they seem apologetic about acknowledging electricity ..."

    I'd agree, Mary that the authors you cite (leaving aside Colfer, as I've not read him so can't speak to that!) aren't necessarily mired in the past(except when writing historical fiction, of course), but I'm not sure I'd say anything of theirs that I've read is terribly rooted in the present either. Maybe that's by design, and maybe it isn't as backward looking (or indeed problematic) as Gough claims. And maybe I've just got to read more!

    But thanks all for the recommendations of authors who defy this claim--even if the claim itself isn't really worthy of as much worry as I might've given it.

    And Green Knight, I'd love to hear the names of the authors you feel are the exceptions! I'm certainly not one to believe that women can't write literary fiction.


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