Telling writers what to write about is a bad idea. The main obligation of literature is to be free and honest and inventive, not to address particular social questions.
But writing always has some relationship to its times, and times in Ireland are hard. Things are tough, not just economically, but spiritually. The slow fall that culminated in the catastrophic crash of September 2008 was a psychic as much as an economic shock. It was the unravelling of a national narrative, the fairytale of the “richest country in the world”.
The crisis of the past five years is therefore not just about banks and bailouts and mortgages and politics. It is also about our sense of ourselves, the stories we tell about who we are.
The whole notion of what it meant to be Irish in the 21st century was heavily invested in a heroic tale of dizzying success. The boom itself – or at least its last five years – was the Great Irish Novel, a series of elaborate fables so seductive that they were easily mistaken for reality. Brilliantly constructed fictions were everywhere – in the prices of houses; in the audited accounts of banks; in the rhetoric of politicians; in the predictions of economists. Creative writers struggled to compete; for the most part, they wrote about versions of Ireland other than the one in which most of us were living.
So how do Ireland’s storytellers imagine the crisis now? Can their narratives tell us something different about what it feels like to be Irish after the crash?
In the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the fateful bank guarantee, The Irish Times is running Legends of the Fall, a series of 10 fictional responses to what has happened to Ireland in those years. We asked some of our best-known writers to tell a story – comic or tragic, surreal or intimate, grittily realistic or wildly satiric – about the way we live now in Ireland.
These are not the stories we carry on the news or business pages, though they breathe some of the same air. They are not reports of the doings of politicians or technocrats, though they often reflect on the absurdities inherent in much of that activity. They are not journalism: unlike journalists, creative writers are free to exaggerate reality, as Aifric Campbell does in today’s brilliant reimagining of a moment in the saga of the bailout, or to delve far beneath its surface.
The writers in Legends of the Fall will include all three of the Irish novelists featured on this week's Man Booker prize longlist: Impac winner Colm Tóibín, US National Book Award winner Colum McCann and Donal Ryan, whose The Spinning Heart was named overall book of the year in the 2012 Irish Book Awards. Also contributing are Anne Enright, Joseph O'Connor, Julian Gough and Eilis Ní Dhuibhne. And the final story will be written by a reader. Entries for our competition are invited below. What's your story of the fall?