New stars of Irish fiction: Did ‘The Guardian’ get it right?

The British newspaper has named 12 writers as the ‘post-crash’ stars of Irish fiction. Not all Irish critics agree with their selection

There's a "new Irish literary boom" under way, according to an article in the Guardian on Saturday October 17th, on the "post-crash stars" of Irish fiction. "Dynamic, radical, often female . . . Irish fiction is flourishing," said the British newspaper. "Gone is the conservative writing – all nostalgia and sexual repression – of the Celtic Tiger years. The writers of the new wave are original and bold."

The lengthy article, by Justine Jordan, includes a list of 12 irish writers who fit this description. They are, in alphabetical order:

Colin Barrett
Kevin Barry
Sara Baume
Mary Costello
Oona Frawley
Tana French
Julian Gough
Claire Kilroy
Emer McBride
Lisa McInerney
Paul Murray
Donal Ryan

But did the Guardian get it right? We asked some of our own critics for their views.


Eileen Battersby Literary correspondent, The Irish Times 

My initial reaction to hearing the Guardian had published an article about contemporary Irish fiction was: "And what took it so long?"

Readers and publishers have long been aware of the strength in depth in Irish fiction writing; it is a exalted tradition and a diverse one, with two languages, a memory as vast as the ocean, a shared curiosity and a confident swagger that means Irish writers look both look within and beyond Ireland – because Irish writers are also  informed readers.

Are there omissions from their list?

Eoin McNamee may well be one of the finest writers at work anywhere; sentence for sentence, he is superb – the Blue trilogy is a poised, artistic achievement of compelling menace. Also a rare literary artist of daunting imagination is Ronan Bennett – his Havoc in its Third Year (2004) is devastating.

Colin Barrett's Young Skins (2013) was one of my books of the year and, like Kevin Barry, he had a mentor of genius in Declan Meade. The latest books from Anne Enright and Colum McCann could be their finest works to date.

I am thrilled to see Keith Ridgway's Hawthorn & Child  (2012) mentioned in the main article but would have liked to see Sean O'Reilly included. His debut novel Love and Sleep (2002) in common with Ridgway's The Parts, was slightly ahead of its time.

I’m surprised to see Claire Keegan mentioned as a novelist. As long as she continues writing stories, I will be happy, and it is pleasing to note that rather like Swift being famously in Yeats’s phrase “around every corner” every celebration of Irish fiction is underpinned by the national mastery of the short story.

Several of the most gifted novelists in the article honed their art on the short story. Two reasons why Irish fiction dominates? Emphasis on writing authentic dialogue in addition to setting out to tell a good story invariably laced with humour.

Bert Wright Administrator of the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Curator of the DLR Voices Series and the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival
The list omitted perhaps the hottest young writer in Ireland in Louise O'Neill, whose Asking For It has caused a firestorm of interest both here and in the UK. But then a young-adult title probably didn't fit their thesis.

I thought the Guardian piece was a strong enough piece of work and they interviewed reliable witnesses like Anne Enright. But as ever with these things, to get "a story" you have to join up so many dots that may not be connected. The whole "school" or "movement" idea is just a labelling exercise for journalists and critics ¨– convenient but not very substantive.

I liked a comment from Kevin Barry where he said: “I think it would be smug and premature to herald a golden age but maybe a proper radicalism is at last starting to re-emerge in Irish writing.”

“John Boyne recently urged caution on over-praising young writers because it serves nobody’s interest. I thought that was wise too. Getting out the blocks is just the first step but the real test is building a body of strong work over time. Who knows? Some of these writers might never get to book three and they’re all too well aware of that.”

The “new irish avant garde” looks like the default story to replace the “emerald noir” features we read so much about a few years ago. Interesting, and good to know the British think Irish writing is cool because it enhances the chances of young Irish writers getting published. But in the end it’s all blather, what an old critic called “soft talk about Shelley’s wife.”

And we’re all guilty.

Martin Doyle Assistant literary editor, The Irish Times
While it is great to see the resurgence of Irish fiction highlighted in Britain (Francesca Wade wrote a similar piece in the DailyTelegraph in August), I don't quite buy into the notion of a clean break with a turgid literature bogged down in pastures of the past.

Colm Tóibín's Nora Webster is one of the best books I've read in the past two years but it sounds like the sort of novel we're supposed to have evolved beyond.

Lists are an invitation to cavil and quibble. I love Julian Gough’s writing but he is closer to his pension than his child benefit, and his first novel came out in 2001, so I don’t see him as part of a new wave.

The two stand-out books for me this year have been debut short story collections – Danielle McLaughlin's Dinosaurs on Other Planets and Thomas Morris's We Don't Know What We're Doing – so I'd include both writers. I helped pick McLaughlin as a runner-up in an Irish Times short story competition a few years ago so it's a thrill to see her talent bloom on the big stage.

Morris may be Welsh but has been here long enough to be naturalised and, as editor of the Stinging Fly magazine, is at the heart of the best new Irish writing.

I would also include Nuala Ní Chonchúir for her brilliant The Closet of Savage Mementos and, writing as Nuala O'Connor, Miss Emily.

In heartless Simon Cowell fashion – after a dramatic pause to allow the hysterical screams of the book-loving public to abate – I would regretfully dethrone Oona Frawley, whose Flight never took off for me, and Tana French, whose thrillers I really enjoy, but which are just too implausible.

Sarah Gilmartin Irish Times columnist
I studied English in Trinity during the Celtic Tiger years and the new and exciting literature was coming from further afield than Ireland – America, Britain, postcolonial literature from India and Africa in particular.

The current Irish literary “scene”, to use that word that so annoys writers, is vibrant and interconnected. New journals and anthologies, new launches every week. The rate of books being published has gone up, and so has the number of people attending launches.

I think the sense of celebration around publishing books has come back with a vengeance. Social media has played a big part in this. In the early boom days, there was no such forum for emerging writers, or any writer looking to promote their work and become a part of a literary community.

In terms of the authors profiled, you could argue that it’s not really a “new wave”, more a look back over 15 years – Kilroy, Keegan, Murray, Barry and Gough – and the distinctive voices that have emerged.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir is a notable omission from this list, a writer acclaimed for her poetry, short stories and novels. Her third novel Miss Emily should hopefully get her the audience she deserves, with its engaging tale of friendship between an Irish maid and the poet Emily Dickinson.

The debut authors are also pleasingly diverse. Compare Colin Barrett to Mary Costello, Sara Baume to Eimear McBride, and unique styles and visions are clear.

In my capacity as a reviewer of new fiction for this paper, I think there are some newer names that deserve a mention. Many of these are women, a trend that the author notes in her article. Henrietta McKervey, Máire T Robinson, Paula McGrath and – adopted Irishman – Thomas Morris have all brought out significant debut novels or collections this year.

The article is mainly concerned with literary fiction but on the commercial side, it's good to see Tana French profiled, an author who writes consistently good books. On that note, it's surprising that the Cork author Louise O'Neill wasn't profiled. In the past year, her debut novel Only Ever Yours won the best newcomer at the Irish Book Awards, and her second book Asking For It has been the most talked about book in Ireland this summer.