'We want a writer who will be a vehicle for the word," says poet Paul Muldoon, chair of the selection panel for the Laureate for Irish Fiction, who will be announced on January 29. "Their work should be to the fore nationally and internationally, because they will be an ambassador not only for Irish writing in this country, but beyond Ireland too."
The chief responsibility of the laureate, says Muldoon, is to “be the public face for Irish fiction”. Through outreach events and creative writing classes, the initiative is also designed to communicate in a “realistic and pragmatic way the nature of writing to the reader”.
Muldoon says it is a tough brief, and yet there are dozens of Irish writers who spring to mind as potential candidates. Indeed, when the Arts Council invited nominations from various institutions and literary-minded individuals – from libraries and national booksellers to senior poets and playwrights – more than 30 names were put forward for consideration.
The original list was whittled down to a shortlist by the project's partners (The Irish Times, New York University, University College Dublin and the Arts Council), and the decision was then handed over to a panel chaired by Muldoon. The panel had the task of selecting a writer to serve as an official figurehead for Irish fiction for the next three years.
In late November, Muldoon and the five-person selection panel met to make their final judgment. As Muldoon explains, it was particularly difficult because “this inaugural laureate will set a tone and tenor for all the laureates to come, so it seems especially important that the person we chose should be a particularly passionate and energetic spokesperson”.
As each judge makes a considered contribution to the discussion, it becomes clear that each of them would make a fitting advocate for the written word in their respective countries and genres. British writer Blake Morrison has published more than 14 books of poetry and fiction. Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the most recent winner of the Impac award. American Deborah Treisman has worked with the greatest contemporary writers in her role as fiction editor with the New Yorker. Siobhán Parkinson was the inaugural Laureate na nÓg, while Paula Meehan is the current Ireland Professor of Poetry, a three-year post not dissimilar to this new laureateship.
Meehan insists the role of the laureate is “not an ego position”. It offers an opportunity to “focus on an entire tradition of fiction, rather than the work of an individual”. In her work as professor of poetry, she says by way of example: “I have a responsibility to my living colleagues, a whole community and the next generation.”
Parkinson agrees that this “collegial focus” is the most vital aspect of the role. “With other accolades that bring attention to Irish writing, like prizes, the focus is on a particular book, a particular writer, but [the laureateship] is essentially devised to represent all Irish writers and act like a lens on to Irish fiction.”
Their first-hand experience means Meehan and Parkinson are familiar with the potential difficulties of the role. Meehan says: “It is a relentlessly energetic position, a commitment over years, and not all writers have the necessary temperament for such a public role.”
Parkinson points out that the responsibilities inevitably “encroach on your writing and research time. Then there are the energetics of it; not everyone would feel that they have daily energy necessary to be a public persona.”
The laureateship also requires spending half of the year in New York, which, while not quite a hardship, could be difficult for those with existing teaching positions or with children in school.
The members of the panel prepared for the selection process by doing “a lot of reading and rereading”, as Treisman puts it. Vásquez was struck by the “diversity of Irish literature”, while Morrison says it was fascinating to see the common themes that permeated the work of even the most stylistically different writers. “The abuse of children, the boom, the bust, complicated feelings about an older, rural Ireland . . . It is interesting that you can almost define the Irishness of contemporary Irish fiction.”
It is this commonality, the international panellists say, that makes the laureateship an exciting initiative for Ireland and a difficult model to replicate elsewhere.
Treisman says that in the context of the US, which has such a “bigger geographical area than Ireland, the range [of potential candidates] is far more unwieldy. To an outsider anyway,” she says, “Irish fiction seems more finite and defined.” The greater challenge, however, “would be getting Government or public support for this kind of position. I am in awe of the degree of Government subsidy for the arts here, and it is wonderful to see that money being provided free of political requirement.”
Vásquez contextualises this point perfectly by citing examples from the Latin American tradition of fiction. The reason a laureateship would be impossible in Colombia is also political, he says. "The whole 20th century tradition [of fiction in Latin America] is at odds with its governments. Even if writers like Carlos Fuentes in Mexico or Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru or Gabriel García Márquez in Colombia became involuntary ambassadors, they were respected because of a willingness to stay critical and be in opposition until they died."
Of course, that is not to say, Meehan insists, that the laureate for fiction should be “a pet or puppet. One of great things about the laureateship is that it should celebrate resistance and opposition. If you are a story-carrier, you are by your nature carrying stories that might be unpopular.”
"It is important to remember that they are a spokesperson for a genre, not for a country," says Treisman. In England, Morrison says, "poet laureates have a tradition of speaking out against what the state might want, to campaign for or against something that they believe in. Like Ted Hughes [on] environmental policy."
Importance of the artist
Vásquez marvels at the luxury for such freedom of speech, particularly “when you think that so much good writing in Ireland was against the efforts of the State [to suppress it]. It is wonderful to see that situation has changed in such a way that, even when they have something critical to say, the importance of the artist is being recognised officially.”
“This isn’t the easiest time for fiction,” Morrison says. “Publishers are concentrating on the two or three authors, the big names they can push – and the idea of a laureateship that will give the sense of the breadth and possibility and vitality of contemporary fiction is beyond exciting. Ireland has really set a precedent.”
The Laureate for Irish Fiction will be announced on January 29th. On January 31st, the laureate will give a public interview with broadcaster Vincent Woods at 2pm in Longford Library. On February 1st, the laureate will give a reading at 2pm in Charlie Byrne's Bookshop, Galway. Spaces are limited. Book through email@example.com or 01-6180200. artscouncil.ie/laureate/event/