Who should become the first Laureate for Irish Fiction?
Eimear McBride, Jennifer Johnston and Kevin Barry are some of the names that have been suggested in response to the Arts Council’s call for nominees for its new three-year, €150,000 role. The judges will announce their decision in January
Contenders?: Anne Enright, Eimear McBride and Donal Ryan (top row); and Kevin Barry, Belinda McKeon and Jennifer Johnston (bottom row)
Writers’ incomes made headlines this summer. When the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, a UK organisation that gathers and distributes royalties, asked 2,500 writers about their earnings, the results were grim, if unsurprising to anyone in the industry.
The average annual wage for a full-time writer was £11,000 (€13,800), and since 2005 the number of writers who earned their income solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent to 11.5 per cent. This was not a great advertisement for writing as a dream job.
Here, even though column inches dictate that the recession is ebbing away, the distinct lack of Medici-like patronage means times are tough for those of a creative bent.
With this in mind, the Arts Council has launched a new initiative, the Laureate for Irish Fiction. The role will be awarded to an Irish writer of national and international distinction, and used to promote Irish literature here and abroad while encouraging “the public to engage with high quality Irish fiction”.
Sarah Bannan Keegan, head of literature at the Arts Council, says the new role was inspired by existing equivalents. “We already have an Ireland Professor of Poetry, and Children’s Laureate na nÓg, so in part it was about completing the puzzle. We do this kind of thing well in Ireland, and it helps get people excited about a kind of literature, so this new position will honour that.”
The post, which is also supported by University College Dublin, New York University and The Irish Times, is accompanied by an award of €150,000 over three years. Over the summer, approaches were made to literary and arts organisations, bookshops, libraries and book clubs to suggest candidates for the longlist. Nominations will close on October 3rd.
This longlist will be published and then cut down to a shortlist, which will be examined by a five-strong judging panel. This consists of the poet and playwright Paula Meehan, the novelist (and former Laureate na nÓg) Siobhán Parkinson, the New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, the winner of this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and the British poet and author Blake Morrison. The panel will be chaired by the poet Paul Muldoon, who also has a vote.
Colm Keegan, the writer and poet who is one of the organisers of next month’s Lingo Spoken Word Festival, says the role has possibilities. “If it is awarded to an upcoming writer who really needs it, and can build on it, rather than being used to prop up somebody already established, then the prize is a good thing.”
As with any literary award, deciding on a recipient will be difficult, not least because Ireland is spoiled for choice. Bert Wright, curator at the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival, applauds the idea but is glad not to be on the judging panel.
“Ireland has a close literary community, all of whom know, or know of, each other. There’s a fairly collegiate spirit among writers, but, still, who do you give it to without offending others? Call me old-fashioned, but I would favour a distinguished senior figure with a solid body of work [that has been] internationally recognised; the equivalent of the Nobel-in-waiting Haruki Murakami in Japan. It’s more than a writer-in-residence gig, so it should go to a totemic figure.”
The new laureate will also be required to teach a creative-writing term at NYU and UCD and engage with the reading public in a series of events. This may not suit writers who are not currently based in Ireland or those for whom a three-year commitment might clash with existing teaching work or writing projects.
Similarly, a writer who prefers the solace of the garret and is uncomfortable with being a “smiling public” figure might not relish the visibility the role requires, as Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen of Tramp Press point out.
“The Arts Council gets a lot of flack, but this is a good and bold idea, and the move deserves recognition,” says Davis-Goff. “However, the creation of this position also begs questions concerning the type of talented author who would rather scribble away in a dark room for the three years and who isn’t much of a people person. Isn’t performing the act of being a full-time writer enough to merit a decent living?”
The managing director of Dubray Books, Maria Dickenson, also suggests Donal Ryan as a contender. “The laureate role is intended to provide encouragement and support to emerging writers, and Ryan’s much-noted journey as an author – from slush pile to bespoke Irish publisher to international recognition – is a firm foundation from which to guide those he would encounter through the practicalities, as well as the fine art, of fiction writing.
“His writing reflects that of some of Ireland’s literary greats: the understated lyricism of John McGahern and the eye for small-town sadness of William Trevor, for example, but it is overlain with a very contemporary sensibility.
“This ability to tread a path between Irish literature past and present makes him well placed to represent the changing face of fiction in this country both at home and abroad.”
Given the economic difficulties for writers, a new, upcoming voice who is published but has years of work still ahead might also benefit from the financial security of the role.
Bannan Keegan points out that key public events, “from large-scale events to possibly a reading in someone’s kitchen”, will be part of the role. She also stresses the importance of countrywide events and of video and podcasts, to share the experience for anyone who wants to engage but can’t attend.
“What those events are will depend very much on the writer who is chosen and what kind of person they are. This role is also about nurturing their own creativity while helping the next generation of writers.”
Davis-Goff and Coen are hopeful that, given the malleable nature of inaugural awards, the new laureate will help to shape and define the possibilities of the role.
“The question of ‘who’ is naturally tied to the question of ‘what’: what should the Laureate for Irish Fiction do? Champion and promote Irish fiction, at home and abroad? Lobby for better rights for authors, publishers and editors? Encourage readers, teach and work as an example to up-and-coming writers, and generally work as a massive flashing red finger pointing at Irish fiction shouting, ‘Look! Would you just look?’,” says Coen.
“Luckily we have a load of Irish writers doing this already. The sense of community and camaraderie among Irish writers is supportive, encouraging and inclusive, and thank goodness one of them will get paid semi-decently for this encouragement and support over the next three years.
“It would also be great to see the laureate be given something of a free rein to interpret the role as they like. If I could give the laureate just one job, it would be encouraging people to read. That’s what the industry really needs.”
The new laureate will be announced next January. Susan Tomaselli, the editor of literary journal Gorse, hopes it will be a writer who makes us laugh.
“It’s a mistake to assume that funny books and ‘serious literature’ are mutually exclusive. Nabokov called it ‘laughter in the dark’, and our best practitioner is Kevin Barry. You’ve never been to the bright lights of Atlantic City or Bohane, but you recognise them in spite of Barry’s mangled comic vision.
“Kevin Barry is good for Ireland: he’s kept us laughing through some pretty dark days. He’s good for Irish literature too: he abuses the language beautifully, plus he’s dragged the Irish short story by the scruff of the neck to new, wild, exciting places.”