‘Fun, fun, fun. That’s what reading and writing is all about’

Oisín Fagan, winner of the Penny Dreadful Novella Prize for The Hierophants, says it is an angry goodbye to academia and a long joke about the weakness of the West

In 2015 the Penny Dreadful Magazine and press launched the Penny Dreadful Novella Prize, a €2,000 award for the best literary novella from Britain or Ireland. Sara Baume, winner of the Rooney Prize; Colin Barrett, Guardian First Book Award winner; and Paul McVeigh, nominated for the Polari Prize and Not The Booker Prize, were brought on as judges. After whittling the entries down to a five-title shortlist, Oisín Fagan’s novella The Hierophants was chosen as the winner.

Described by Rob Doyle as “like a Flann O’Brien armed to the teeth and bent on vengeance”, The Hierophants centres around one disgraced, drunken, former academic and author’s tumbling descent into the murky Joycean underworld of modern Irish literary academia. Guided by the mysterious Professor Kaz, he seeks the answer to the most important question of his life and career, who are the Hierophants?

Fagan, from Moynalvey, Co Meath, was born in 1991. His fiction has appeared in the Stinging Fly, New Planet Cabaret and the anthology, Young Irelanders, edited by Dave Lordan. His book, Hostages, will be published this autumn by New Island.

The Hierophants deals with terrorism, academia and a rather extreme form of bibliophilia. How did it come about?

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I wrote it in 2010 when I had dropped out of college and was working full-time. I went back to finish my degree a year later, so it would end up looking like it was just an embarrassing, year-long holiday, but at the time it felt like a very real, permanent, big decision. When I was younger I just wanted to be like Terry Eagleton, Franco Moretti, György Lukács and Julia Kristeva. But then, once I got into college my priorities changed a lot, very quickly, and any sustained interest that I held in literary criticism or universities quickly evaporated. So, when I wrote The Hierophants, it was an angry goodbye to academia, but it was also a joke I made up about how weak western, secular, artistic and intellectual culture is; how it couldn’t actually inspire people to change society structurally, but then, neither is that what art or the intellect is for.

Now, looking back, the issues that seemed important to me then were how hermetic academia seemed, and how readily certain forms of knowledge were instrumentalised to collaborate with either the State or private enterprise. The Hierophants was written at a time when the moneyed West was engaged in the destruction of a subcontinent and was still bothered with self-justification, which they don’t do anymore, so it was busy carting out figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to talk about the West’s artistic achievements.

Something that made a big, negative impact on me around that time was AC Grayling had the gall, somewhere, to publish an article entitled “Bombing civilians is not only immoral, it’s ineffective”. The assumptions within that title really brought home to me the total bankruptcy of liberal intellectuals.

That’s the world it was written in, and now we’re drawing the fruits of our labour.

Did you consciously decide on the novella before writing?

The Hierophants is about hate and it’s also a long, drawn-out joke, so there is an upward limit to the word count. I don’t think when you’re playing with ideas, especially ones as ridiculous and esoteric as the ones in this novella, that you should stick around too long. It was always going to be a novella. Novellas are the future. The market puts limitations, and always has, on novellas, but, still, they’re really old and still around. If the notion of length is decisive I’d claim, anachronistically, that most Irish mythological tales are handed down in what could be termed a corrupted novella form. I believe that novellas are the future, and they, along with memes, are the only things that can hold newer social forms, and novellas are the only ones that can do it in a narrative form.

How do genre forms influence The Hierophants?

Because it’s a novella completely about hate and self-hatred, I used the campus novel genre, which is, by far, my least favourite literary genre; also, incidentally, the style I used in this novella is modelled on my least favourite literary style; that worthless, annoying, first-person fiction that came out of London in the very late 19th century, and covered the Edwardian period up until modernism kicked off and London lost, forever, its social hegemony of influence over English-language literature. I hate those books so much I wrote an entire book using their style.

Regarding genre more widely, I believe fictive truth can only be structured through genre. You need a comprehensible vehicle to carry truth. Sometimes, the idea circulates that unless you’re breaking down (which only ever means blending) genre you’re conservative; I don’t buy this. You can be as revolutionary in form as you like, no one will care, or read you. If you want to get across revolutionary content, you must rely on the insane strength of genres that were developed for structural, societal reasons. To make The Hierophants work, and to make it compelling, it had to be a mystery in the diary form, and there had to be loads of explosions and weird sex. Otherwise, it’d just be a novella about a sad literary critic. Nobody wants to read that. Not even sad literary critics want to read that.

Sara Baume has said that the novella is both anti-philosophy and philosophical. How would you respond to that?

Sara Baume is an incredible writer, and I’m still a bit giddy at what she said about The Hierophants. I don’t know what I think about philosophy. Something I was trying to say, maybe, is that philosophy, as opposed to religion or ideology, is nothing if you’re in front of a gun, even if some hidden form of philosophy is what put the gun there. Personally, I am anti-philosophy, though, but that doesn’t matter. I just don’t think it’s as important as narrative or music or nights out. I agree with what [Louis] Althusser said, basically, which is that philosophy is just class struggle in theory.

Are there any parallels between The Hierophants and your book of short stories, Hostages, coming out with New Island in September?

Hostages is all set in rural Meath and it’s sci-fi. It’s very, very different. More lovable, less intellectual. It’s full of characters I love, because it’s all set around the place I love; and it’s full of family and friends. Hierophants is anti-anti-community, that’s the point of it. Hostages is all about community, which is different. But of all the pieces I wrote around that time, Hierophants signposted the way. It showed me what my form of honesty looked like. I started to focus on structures rather than individuals, genre as opposed to literary fiction, struggle as opposed to inertia, and, above all, fun as opposed to the serious. Fun, fun, fun. That’s what reading and writing is all about.

The Hierophants by Oisin Fagan is published by The Penny Dreadful Press. See the thepennydreadful.org for more information