‘Irish publishing has no VIP room’: why Irish writing is a movement having a moment
Tramp Press co-publisher Sarah Davis-Goff surveys Ireland’s literary scene, argues that its small presses have the best ammunition and offers her own publishing philosophy
Lisa Coen, left, and Sarah Davis-Goff, founders of Tramp Press: people are interested in what we’re doing because in Ireland, literature feels close, real and relevant
As co-founder and co-publisher of Tramp Press, it’s my duty to do many things I like – reading unsolicited manuscripts, finding new talent, selling the crap out of our titles – and a very few things that I do not like. Chief amongst these is speaking at launches.
My co-founder Lisa Coen and I are ballsy as hell in pretty much everything we do: having taste, making offers, directing the trajectory of Tramp Press, and publishing brilliant, brave new work. We released our fourth title, Spill Simmer Falter Wither by debut Irish writer Sara Baume, in February. As usual, Lisa and I stand up to say something at the launch. It’s an important part of the celebration to put our own shape on the night and our own faces to the company. I want people to know who we are, that we as the decision-makers are within reach of writers.
I say as little as possible, because I really loathe speaking in public, and because I’m not very good at it. When standing in front of a group of people, I must repeat exactly the words, even the movements, I have practiced, or I will blather and twitch uncontrollably before being led away by the hand, or the hair. I need an anchor to which I can lash myself to make sure I can come back to the thrust of what I’m trying to communicate. Lately I’ve been trying to achieve this by means of a catchphrase.
So, sandwiched between the brilliant new talent Sara Baume and one of the best-known contemporary Irish writers, our first Laureate for Fiction Anne Enright, I try to talk about “The Movement”. It has been obvious for several years now that something very exciting is going on with literary fiction in Ireland. Even the dogs in the street know it. After I clench my sweaty fist, and say what I have to say – that Sara’s work is exciting, that it’s coming on the crest of a wave of brilliant new work, and that THIS IS A MOVEMENT – I sit down. Anne Enright rises then and says something less obvious and just as true, and it is a more important and interesting thing to say: “There is no VIP room in Irish publishing.”
What makes up a healthy environment for readers, and for writers? First, lots of people have to be working: a sport has to be popular at the most junior levels in a country for that country to excel internationally. Likewise a huge mass of the population should be obsessed with writing and trying to write for a few true talents to shine through. Ireland has always been a nation of writers, maybe even before we were a nation of readers. Literature is deeply embedded in our collective national psyche: a friend bought round-framed glasses and strangers told him that he looked like James Joyce. The seats of our national airline, Aer Lingus, are literally stitched together with extracts from Ulysses. Bloomsday, while more genteel than the ribald tome it celebrates, is a party celebrated nationally. When poet Seamus Heaney died in 2013, the country mourned as one. Essentially, we refer to literature regularly as a cultural touchstone. It’s a living, breathing part of our lives.
Meanwhile readers are voracious, even competitive. Book clubs are common in communities. There’s a different literary festival in some part of the country every month – more in the summer. There’s a constant stream of launches, readings and literary events at bookshops, publishers, pubs and cultural centres. The media is kind. For example, The Irish Times devotes pages and web pages to reviews and criticism. National and local radio stations will usually have dedicated features talking to writers and even publishers. Lisa and I have been included in fashion magazine articles and gala dinners. We’ve been interviewed and awarded prizes: people are interested in what we’re doing because in Ireland, literature feels close, real, and relevant. So with lots of creative output going on and a receptive environment, what’s happening in publishing in Ireland? What’s going on in the business of joining the talent with readers? What is “The Movement”?
Well, there’s a good handful of independent publishers, and a few outposts of the Big Five (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster), the ears on the ground for their head offices in London, making use not just of the talent that can be found in Ireland, but the small but determined market. It’s becoming clearer that although the big publishing houses have big guns – in terms of resources, funds and marketing power – it’s the independents, the scrappy publishers that can move quickly and don’t have to distill their tastes through committee, who have the best ammunition. In Ireland, we are still the best at discovering new talent.
Despite the skills, experience and inarguable success of presses working in Ireland today, Lisa and I tried to approach ideas around literature and what serves it best with fresh eyes when we were setting up Tramp Press. I have the sense that for some years publishers, unsure of the market, unsure perhaps of their own tastes or place in the commercial sphere, have tended to publish a lot of books and hope like mad that a few will make money. Obviously this is problematic: it costs a lot to produce a lot, and dropping the majority of writers if they’re not immediately commercial is unfair on those writers. Besides this, what is a publisher if not a distillation of a certain aesthetic, a creator of a list of real cultural merit and artistic value?
Lisa and I, when we were talking about what Tramp Press should look like, and what a great publisher should be defined as, agreed that the burden of commercialism should not be laid at the author’s feet. It is the job of the author to be unbelievably brilliant at writing. It is our job then, to recognize this brilliance, to edit, package, and market it, and to put it into the hands of readers. We propose that there is always a market for brilliant fiction, even if that market is modest and can be difficult to reach. Let the author be brilliant, and let us be good publishers.
The market itself, we’d argue, mightn’t particularly know what it wants, except for excellence and value. Readers just want great things to read. If we had to express the ethos of Tramp Press, it is this: publish little and publish exceptionally well, be organised, develop taste, and have balls. We’re not the only publishing company with these ideas – we’re not even the only press in Ireland with them – but we have the advantage of bringing this work ethic, with fresh ideas about getting beautifully produced works of exceptional fiction to the table, at a time when there’s a wave of new talent to meet us.
Of course, there are other elements at play here, such as support structures for writers and publishers. There’s the chance of some financial aid and some training in the form of the Arts Council. The brilliant Irish Writers Centre, various city councils, exceptional bookshops and active libraries combine to help support this ecosystem in Ireland.
The last time Ireland saw a similar movement and wealth of talent might have been in the 1970s, when writers like Neil Jordan, Des Hogan and Peter Sheridan were working together, and a group called the Irish Writers’ Co-operative was created (today, publishers have created an informal partnership called the Dublin Independent Publishers Collective). It’s worth noting that both movements are adjacent to times of particular financial stress and an amendment to our national identity. Conversely, but no less importantly, the Stinging Fly journal was established in the 1990s, just as Ireland’s famous Celtic Tiger was sharpening her claws.
The most significant thing in making this infrastructure work is the way these elements are working together to achieve the same goal of simply creating great literature and putting it into the hands of writers. A movement comes about when diverse elements come together to respond to national economic and political issues. What else are people to do when there are no jobs?
As Anne Enright said, there is no VIP room here. We – writers, readers, publishers, supporters, and all the paraphernalia required for a ringing, hopping, literary scene – are on the stage together.
Our latest book, a collection of short stories on the theme of distance edited by Belinda McKeon, called A Kind of Compass, came out earlier this month, and I’m starting to think about a catchphrase: something simple, something true. Something’s afoot in contemporary Irish literature. We’re not here to take part, folks. We’re here to take over.
Tramp Press was founded in Dublin in 2014 by Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff, with the aim of finding, nurturing and publishing exceptional literary talent. Their list now features the writers Oona Frawley, Sara Baume and Charlotte Riddell. Dubliners 100 edited by Thomas Morris, was awarded Best Irish-Published Book of the Year at the 2014 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards and Sara Baume’s debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither has been awarded and nominated for several literary prizes.
This is an edited version of an article first published in the Town Crier, the Canadian literary magazine