Why does “Irish Writer” always mean “novelist?”

Books Ireland: November 2016

There was a pleasing exhibition – at the National Gallery in Dublin last year – of favourite paintings chosen by twelve “Irish writers”. This was an engaging idea – to bring a literary eye to a visual medium. But predictably, all these “Irish writers” were novelists – and indeed, fine novelists too. We are in a generation now of outstanding fiction writers, and this dozen included Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan, Mary Costello, Claire Kilroy, Sara Baume, Paul Murray and Eimear McBride. I thought the paintings they chose were a little unsurprising, as an ensemble, but that’s what you get when you assemble the same genre of people together to make a choice: a certain sameness.

And that reflects my general complaint with the category known as “Irish writer”. It always means a novelist – perhaps occasionally a poet is included, although the bard really does have a place of his (or her) own. Traditionally, too, the playwright was honoured. But in the world Irish letters – unlike in France or the United States – there is no inclusion for the essayist, the commentator, the memoirist (though Eimear McBride, for instance, is really writing memoir in novelistic livery), the social historian, the polemicist, the non-fiction writer of biography or serious reportage.

In America, the most famous writer of the early years of this century was an essayist and polemicist – Christopher Hitchens. In France, the list of best-sellers published in the literary magazines always includes the genre known as “essais”, and indeed, those who produce such essays – the fizzling Eric Zammour, the arresting Michel Onfray – are treated to the literary celebrity for which France is known. Their renowned philosophers, who do not write novels, Alain Finkelkraut and Bernard-Henri Levy, are household names.

Last year, too, in 2015, the Nobel Prize for Literature was deservedly given to a “non-fiction prose writer”, the Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich, whose “Chernobyl Prayer” is a gripping, harrowing and deeply humane portrayal of voices from Chernobyl. By heaven, Svetlana Alexievich is every inch a writer, even though what she writes is neither creative nor novelistic: it still transmutes lived life and real experience into great literature. Were she in Ireland, Madame Alexievich would never get to be included in any selection of “Irish writers” on a particular project. She would certainly never get to be “elected” to Aosdana, the Irish Academy of Letters, since only “creative” writers and artists are admitted, and thus all others quite specifically excludes all others. Is it possible that Aosdana appears to be so ineffective and flabby, and has made almost no measureable impact on the intellectual life of the nation – with the exception of Maire Mhac an tSaoi’s controversial complaint about Francis Stuart’s links with Nazi Germany – because it chooses only one type of “writer”? Were a few non-fiction writers – Fintan O’Toole, Kevin Myers, say – added to their number, might it be more robust? Such voices certainly belong to the intellectual life of the nation.

It can hardly be denied that the most typical Irish form of writing has been fiction, and specifically the short story, in which so many Irish writers have excelled – from James Joyce to Edna O’Brien to Frank O’Connor to Maeve Binchy (a much better short story writer, in my view, than novelist) to Clare Boylan. There is a universal love for a story – everything from the New Testament to the Australian soap opera is told as story – and it seems to suit the Irish literary imagination particularly well. But that should not exclude other forms, and besides plays and poetry, there have been Irish writers whose non-fiction prose forms have had a mainstream impact on ideas and life: T.D. Sullivan, Alice Curtayne, Dorothy Macardle, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ulick O’Connor, Tim Pat Coogan, and perhaps the most significant of all, who should certainly be claimed as an Irishman, Edmund Burke, whose glittering prose animates political discourse wherever freedom, politics and community are discussed.

It may be charged that my grouch in this matter is personal: and that must be a contributory factor. I have written journalism, commentary, social history, drama, biography, criticism and essays. But no argument can (or should) be won entirely on personal grounds: I am also offering the objective evidence that in Ireland the non-fiction writer has a dismally low position in the pecking order, and I suggest that this represents a diminution of the arts and public discourse. I perfectly understand that Aosdana was essentially set up by Charlie Haughey to offer a form of moral compensation for the years when Irish novelists suffered from a farcical (because ludicrously over-democratic – a book could be banned because two citizens objected to it) censorship. But that is now, surely, a little outdated: and Aosdana would benefit from the presence of some non-fiction Irish writers.

Fiction writers must focus on their creative work. A novelist will seldom have an overall view of society which draws on fitting together the jigsaw parts of history and anthropology. It was Edna O’Brien who taught me that. I was advancing some thesis-mongering idea about history and society, and she replied that a writer like herself must focus on the specific experience – never on the generalization. But a non-fiction writer must, looking at the evidence, form ideas which may generalise (English society is class-obsessed: French tradition relies heavily on theory) and that is where our contribution can add to the cultural riches of – writing. ENDS