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I wanted to write a book about Irish women’s writing. They told me to include men

If anything will embitter you, it is researching and writing a history of Irish women’s writing

Let’s jump ahead in time to consider Sally Rooney as an exemplar of the 'very conservative experimentalist'. Photograph: Kalpesh Lathigra

In 2007, when I presented my first work on modernist afterlives in Irish women’s fiction at a Dublin conference, I was informed by an eminent colleague that there was no such thing as a woman Irish modernist writer, ever. Later, when I began my book Modernism in Irish Women’s Contemporary Writing: The Stubborn Mode, I met roadblocks on the way to publication, of the type I had never encountered before turning my attention to women writers.

Without apology, publishers doubted interest in an academic book on this subject, and I received peculiar editorial suggestions, among them that my study should fold in male writers. Of note, such feedback came after Anne Enright, and then Anna Burns, had won the Booker Prize.

Now this introduction might be dismissed as sulking, which is apt because if anything will embitter you, it is researching and writing a history of Irish women’s writing. However, it’s difficult to take such gatekeeping personally when you’re watching Elizabeth Bowen dismissed by her peers as a “reductio ad absurdum” of Henry James, or seeing Edna O’Brien described as a “whore” for her modernist experiments, or citing Seán Ó Faoláin as he asserts, in 1984, that there is no such genre as the Irish novel, despite the thousands written and published by Irish women across the past two centuries.

Why the hostility towards Irish women’s fiction, particularly when engaged with modernism?


For a small country, Ireland looms especially large in our understanding of modernism because, since its inception as a critical category, Yeats, Joyce and Beckett have been among the movement’s most influential figures. Despite its disproportionate presence in modernist studies, Ireland lacks a “major” woman modernist writer like a Woolf or Stein. Yet modernism surfaces in a surprising array of Irish women’s fiction written from the immediate aftermath of the movement’s early 20th-century prime into the present day, appearing in the work of Kate O’Brien, Maeve Kelly, Evelyn Conlon, Deirdre Madden, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Anna Burns, Anne Enright, Emma Donoghue, Eimear McBride, June Caldwell and Louise O’Neill, to name only a few.

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In spite of its prevalence, Irish women’s writing inflected by modernism has been dismissed as largely peripheral to the narrative of the modern literary tradition for reasons ranging from overt sexism to misunderstandings about the relationship between realist and experimental writing.

Blurring the once clear divides that separated discrete cultural movements, neat generic categories and orderly developmental timelines has allowed us to see Irish women’s modernist experiments and afforded opportunities to imagine a different type of tradition for Irish writing, as well as to make evident how, and to question why, certain critical biases adhere unevenly to particular genres, national traditions and identity categories.

Strikingly, the exclusion of these women from the modernist canon is not entirely the result of the outside imposition of obdurate gender and genre biases. Their marginal status is often a problem of their own making. Throughout the 20th century, many Irish women writers expressed scepticism about the public value of experimental literature, fearing that overt experiments in their fiction might somehow obscure its public impact. In a 1967 interview, for example, Mary Lavin distanced herself from Joyce and Beckett, despite her evident aesthetic commitment to modernism, and described herself as a “very conservative experimentalist”.

Let’s jump ahead in time to consider Sally Rooney as an exemplar of the “very conservative experimentalist”. Set in contemporary Ireland, her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021) focuses on the friendship shared by two young women, university friends now on the cusp of 30. We watch as the novelist Alice begins a relationship with Felix, a warehouse worker whom she met through an online dating app, and as Eileen, an editorial assistant for a Dublin literary magazine, becomes romantically involved with her childhood crush, the left-wing adviser Simon.

Alongside Rooney’s user-friendly depictions of daily life in the present runs a surprising strand of modernism, as when Alice professes her love for Charles Swann, or when Eileen reads The Golden Bowl. It also emerges in resonant forms, themes and narrative devices: the taut prose of the opening chapters suggests the style of Hemingway, an impressionistic account of a dinner party evokes the experiments of Woolf, the polyvocal catalogue of social ills throughout conjures Eliot’s The Waste Land, a performance of The Lass of Aughrim nods to Joyce’s The Dead.

The term ‘mode’, the French word for fashion, usefully invites us to consider this deliberate refashioning of modernism – to ask why writers like Rooney use it, when they use it, how they use it

With its attention to contemporary crises, Beautiful World, Where Are You employs familiar aspects of the modernist tradition to remind readers that, even in what seems at first glance a vastly different historical moment, certain problems remain intransigent. Conflicts arise, inequality prevails, pandemics erupt. To convey such elemental lessons, Rooney uses what I label the stubborn mode of modernism. Stubborn modes are tried-and-true literary tactics that trigger a sense of recognition when readers encounter them, a constellation of traits – including style, tone, forms, content and history – commonly associated with a particular literary movement or school that travels across time.

The term “mode”, the French word for fashion, usefully invites us to consider this deliberate refashioning of modernism – to ask why writers like Rooney use it, when they use it, how they use it. Such a legible modernism, of the type one might find trotted out in an open-source encyclopedia entry or an undergraduate lecture on high modernism, gives recognisable shape in Beautiful World, Where Are You to nebulous aspects of contemporary experience.

For instance, as The Lass of Aughrim trills through a party in Rooney’s novel, we witness the progress evident in Alice’s substantial economic and cultural authority, power once held in Joyce’s world almost exclusively by men. But we are also reminded that Rooney’s characters living in the present day, like those in The Dead from more than a century before, remain baffled and stymied by the interior lives of themselves and others.

In a surprising amount of Irish women’s contemporary fiction, the modernist mode generates a kind of interpretive friction for readers familiar with its norms, one that helps to uncover certain cultural fault lines, particularly those problems that persist into the present day. The mode embodies a pliable and portable set of features readily and broadly identified as “modernist” by readers that can move among not only historical periods, but also genres, media, national traditions, settings and audiences. Amid these travels, the mode remains recognisable because it adheres to its original conventions. But it also is adaptive and may resist or exceed those conventions.

But if the mode has already been defined by its durability and portability, by its detectable appearance in different moments and venues, why add the descriptor “stubborn” when thinking about modernism in contemporary fiction by Irish women? To be stubborn, the dictionary tells us, is to refuse to change one’s position or attitude, to be likened to a mule or an unreasonable child. It is a strategy of repetition and adamancy, of overstaying your welcome, of demanding to be acknowledged.

Often gendered, such behaviour undergirds disparaging tropes like the nagging wife, mutton dressed as lamb, the aggressive career woman, and the entitled Karen. Such stubbornness, for many woman protagonists in Irish women’s writing, has real costs.

A public and political stubbornness also represents for oft-silenced women a means of advocating and forging necessary if unwelcome change. A deliberate recalcitrance imagined as productive public intervention, for example, characterises the position of the speaker in Eavan Boland’s poem Mise Éire, who insists “I won’t go back to it–” and refuses to recapitulate the feminine tropes used to justify and promote the Irish national project, and the efforts of the real-life historian Catherine Corless celebrated for her relentless investigation of the records of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam.

Irish women writers using the modernist mode are among this cohort. Modernism in Irish Women’s Contemporary Writing identifies and considers the peregrinations of early modernist themes and formal tactics across the later 20th Century and early 21st century to showcase the important ways that Irish women writers have self-consciously engaged the modernist tradition as a tradition, as a set of conventions embedded in the past. This approach allows us to see past the accepted narratives of modernist literary authority, to regard those long-standing assessments as the artefacts that they are so that we do not continue to replicate their limitations.

If the history of the stubborn mode teaches us little else, it is that such advancements for women writers are vulnerable, and that to sustain them, we must remain vigilant, remembering the history that preceded this ‘sudden’ success

The stubborn mode helps to remind readers of the sweep of history, using literary form and content to accentuate certain ongoing cultural problems, as well as to spotlight remedies previously imagined for such stubborn problems, whether the outcomes of those interventions have proven to be successful, unsuccessful or (more likely) a measure of both. Irish women writers employing the modernist mode do not eschew or evade the pre-packaged quality of high modernism; they neither disavow their complicity in the literary marketplace, nor perform the calculated irony often associated with postmodernism. Instead, they call to attention the aesthetic and social potential of a commodified and popularised modernism, laying bare the deep work the movement’s tenacious surface gestures might provoke in the present day.

Through the lens of the stubborn mode, it becomes evident that throughout the past century Irish women writers have faced a seemingly implacable triple-bind: if they are too vividly Irish, they are parochial; if they are too modernist, they are derivative; if they are too commercially appealing, they are apolitical or incorrectly political. Today, those binds seemed loosened, and their fiction increasingly has been celebrated, both critically and commercially, across the globe.

Problem solved, it appears.

But I end with a caution. If the history of the stubborn mode teaches us little else, it is that such advancements for women writers are vulnerable, and that to sustain them, we must remain vigilant, remembering the history that preceded this “sudden” success. The logic for dismissing women’s writing is highly familiar, but still potent. Today, for example, Rooney’s fictional portraits of millennial life have been denigrated by certain critics due to her class and racial privilege and her seemingly shallow Marxist politics. But how different is this from the mid-20th Century sidelining of Bowen as the patrician author of “peculiarly dated and blinkered” short stories, a strategy documented by the scholar Elke D’hoker?

Tracking the modernist mode reminds us that any forward movement in the appreciation and recognition of women’s writing, in Ireland and elsewhere, often has been characterised by backlash and relapse, a pattern that underscores the ongoing importance of the familiar project of women’s literary history. By closely examining a neglected literary tradition, I seek to address one stubborn problem by sharpening our understanding of the force of women’s writing across decades, as well as rescuing that writing from a reinvented form of polite marginalisation.

Modernism in Irish Women’s Contemporary Writing: The Stubborn Mode by Paige Reynolds is published by Oxford University Press