Helena Wulff, Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature
What makes a successful Irish fiction writer? This book probes the social, political and cultural forces behind our writers
Winner of this year’s Rooney Prize for Irish Literature Doireann Ní Ghríofa (centre) with Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, and previous winners, Sara Baume (left), Anne Enright and Kevin Barry. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature
Contemporary Irish writing inspires a wealth of critical commentary. Helena Wulff’s engaging study, however, is the first one to view it anthropologically. Rhythms of Writing seeks to explain the success of contemporary Irish fiction produced by several generations of gifted authors, including John Banville, Roddy Doyle, Evelyn Conlon, Colm Tóibín, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Deirdre Madden, Joseph O’Connor, Mary Morrissy, Donal Ryan, Mary Costello and Belinda McKeon, and to probe the social, political and cultural forces that form an Irish writer.
Creativity for Wulff, who has undertaken a study of dancing in Ireland, involves private artistic rhythms that remain largely invisible and much more overt social forces that determine how the public face of an author and a literary culture are manufactured.
Wulff, who is professor of social anthropology at Stockholm University, casts herself at once as intimate of the Irish literary scene and a keen-eyed external observer. The patronising hauteur once maintained by anthropologists has long since been dislodged. In Wulff’s work, it is replaced by partisan but at times flinty commentary. In carrying out her fieldwork, she made friends, moreover, with many of the authors she dissects. Dinner party discussions as well as formal interviews form the basis of her analysis. As she admits, there is a fundamental kinship between authors and anthropologists; examining Irish writers involves “studying sideways”, making sense of one’s peers.
But this closeness does not prevent her from grappling with besetting but seemingly jaded debates. Foremost among these is the question as to whether the term Irish writer carries any validity. Most Irish writers if questioned rush to deconstruct the notion of Irishness and to back away from its essentialist or nationalist implications. Wulff would beg to differ. She states emphatically that the “Irish are a people of the pen”. For her, Irish writing does have an unchanging kernel and is grounded in our traditions of storytelling and love of the oral. A further hallmark that she discerns is the predilection for tragicomedy, the combining of dark themes with enlivening wit or savage humour.
They are also now a fixed aspect of what has made Irish writing such a marketable global commodity
Additionally, she holds that Irish writing is dominated by what she has identified as six quintessential storylines. Key narrative threads centring on the Famine, emigration and exile, the consequences of British colonialism, the impact of the Catholic Church, the Troubles and the Peace Process, and the economic boom and downturn have historical roots but they are also now a fixed aspect of what has made Irish writing such a marketable global commodity.
Moving beyond these themes is risky in her eyes and is one of the reasons as to why it has been so difficult to establish immigration as a new symbolic fundament in contemporary fiction. Given her concentration on female writers and interest in feminist themes, she seems, though, to omit a further dominant strand in Irish writing – the woman’s story and the quest for female liberation.
Much of Wulff’s study is concerned with calibrating Irish writing careers and the drivers of public recognition. While she identifies five different career paths, the crucial fault-line for her is that between national and international acclaim. The latter two spheres albeit distinct are interconnected. While certain factors may act as stepping stones to achieving a global profile at least for the current generation of authors, such as publishing first with a literary journal like The Stinging Fly and then with a niche publisher such as Lilliput before acquiring an agent and gaining a contract with an international publishing house, there are impediments, she notes, particularly for women writers.
In her chapter on journalism and the formation of artistic reputations in Ireland, she observes the degree to which the position of public intellectual has been dominated by writers who have produced work for the media, such as Fintan O’Toole, Declan Kiberd, John Banville, Joseph O’Connor, Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann. The only woman writer she picks out who is accorded the same authority to wield a public and adversarial voice is Anne Enright.
Many of those who have an international profile like Edna O’Brien or Emma Donoghue do not live in Ireland
Wulff persuasively argues that the lack of public and institutional power granted to women in Ireland, especially by comparison with Sweden, explains the dearth of female intellectuals given a platform and in turn the few women writers who have built up an international reputation. Many of those who have an international profile like Edna O’Brien or Emma Donoghue do not live in Ireland.
Wulff’s interest, however, lies less in the public trappings of fame than in identifying the significant cross-currents in Irish writing that act as a draw for an international readership. Even though she notes an Irish reluctance to face the world, she concedes that a concentration on emigration and the diaspora dominates much recent work.
In a chapter analysing recent novels wholly or partially set in the US, such as Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic, Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, Mary Costello’s Academy Street and Anne Enright’s The Green Road, she comes to the surprising conclusion that, despite their troubled subject matter, America still betokens hope in Irish fiction.
Her final discussion of the opening up of Irish fiction to international themes underlines how problematic it is for writers to break away from reigning expectations of the Irish writer. While Wulff lauds the way in which the authors of the 2005 collection, The New Dubliners, edited by Oona Frawley, among them Maeve Binchy, Frank McGuinness and Joseph O’Connor, introduced themes of emigration and immigration into stories that used Joyce’s tales as leaping off points, she nonetheless insists on identifying the implicitly Irish themes, such as community and the pain of exile, in Colum McCann’s novel Dancer about the Russian ballerina, Rudolf Nureyev. Anthropological constants seem to act as constraints as well as enablers.
Wulff, however, as anthropologist is also alert to the lived experience of writing. Her book is the fruit of painstaking research and draws on many years of interviews with authors. Her groundwork took in visits to venues as various as a workshop at the Listowel Writers’ Week, an MFA class in creative writing at UCD and a theatrical introduction of the art of writing to secondary school children taking part in the Fighting Words scheme set up by Roddy Doyle.
It is clear,though, that the literary scene has altered significantly in the past decade
Her pioneering investigation nicely balances an advocacy of aspects of Irish cultural traditions which may be taken too much for granted by those living and writing in the country with a shrewd and timely critique of the inbuilt sexism of our public institutions and the provincialism of our general outlook. It is clear, though, that the literary scene has altered significantly in the past decade; Wulff’s survey does not cover more recent generations of writers such as Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume, June Caldwell, Colin Barrett, Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Sally Rooney. It seems likely that the career paths of writers in the present are changing and that the fixed storylines of Irish literature are being modified as new forms of fiction are being invented.
- Anne Fogarty is professor of James Joyce Studies at University College Dublin and director of the Dublin James Joyce Summer School.