Rosemary Jenkinson hits out at publisher who dropped her after controversial article

Doire Press insists decision was a financial one and had nothing to do with censorship

Rosemary Jenkinson: “What people don’t realise is that being censured for holding certain ideas is very much alive in Irish literature.”

Rosemary Jenkinson: “What people don’t realise is that being censured for holding certain ideas is very much alive in Irish literature.”

 

Author Rosemary Jenkinson has hit out at her former publisher, Doire Press, for withdrawing its offer to publish her debut novel. The small Galway-based independent press made the decision after the Belfast writer wrote a controversial article in Fortnight magazine last October questioning why fellow Northern writers were “feasting on the dead corpse of the Troubles more than ever” and advocating that they “modernise [their] preoccupations”.

Jenkinson suggested that the success of Anna Burns’s Booker winner Milkman and Lisa McGee’s Channel 4 comedy series Derry Girls had encouraged imitators “peddling this narrow-visioned Belfast Noir”. The article came in for a wave of criticism on social media, although Jenkinson claims she also received a lot of support, including from writers Mike McCormack and Anne Devlin. Crime writer Sharon Dempsey responded with an article in The Irish Times, entitled Don’t mention the war: why should writers not tackle the Troubles?

“Whatever you say, say nothing – the old refrain we lived by and were silenced by,” wrote Dempsey, “is still being brandished, except this time, it’s by a writer [Jenkinson].” Dempsey argued that Northern writers had in fact had to overcome huge resistance to have their stories about the Troubles published and went on: “In the absence of a truth and reconciliation process, fiction offers a space to work out how we navigate the past in order to move forward.”

Within days, Jenkinson said, Doire Press emailed to inform her of their decision to rescind their offer to publish her novel. “There was no prior conversation; no phone call to discuss their concerns; no right of reply given to me. They had agreed to publish my novel and had scheduled it, but wrote that after reading my article in Fortnight, they weren’t ‘willing to take the publication risk. You seem to have chosen to antagonise the majority of your Belfast peers’. They added: ‘You have the right to your opinions and to state them as you see fit, but with all the work that goes into a book and how hard it is to sell them, we need writers who will try to expand their audience, not shrink it.’

Jenkinson, whose Doire Press short story collection Lifestyle Choice 10mg was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize 2021, said it was “ludicrous” to suggest that her readership had shrunk or that she had antagonised the majority of Northern Irish writers. “If, as my (former) publisher said, I have the right to state my opinions, they should have continued to support and promote my work when I did so. They’re perfectly entitled to disagree, or even get hot under the collar at what I write, but their action was disproportionate.

“That email shook me, and I find myself asking: what exactly is the function of writers nowadays? Is it to solely write congratulatory tweets and keep quiet on the pertinent questions of the day? I’ve always admired fearless explorers of society and politics such as Milan Kundera who refused to limit himself.”

John Walsh and Lisa Frank, publishers at Doire Press, responded: “The decision to not go ahead with Rosemary’s novel was not about censorship but was financial. From the very beginning we knew that Rosemary was controversial in her opinions and in her writing, which we’ve never shied away from, and in fact, have encouraged.

“With the exception of one novel published back in 2011, we only publish poetry and short story collections, so publishing Rosemary’s novel was to be a very big step and a very big risk for us financially, as we are such a small operation anyway, and especially after the increasing difficulties caused for us by Covid.

“That said, we have always made the importance of expanding a writer’s audience very clear to our writers and have seen it as a partnership. It is for this reason that we employed all-expenses paid reading tours and paid workshops, both of which Rosemary benefited from.

“We were therefore extremely concerned by Rosemary’s article in Fortnight. We felt the piece was misguided. We also felt that it was likely to alienate a significant number of the people who would be the core readership for Rosemary’s novel. Rosemary is of course perfectly entitled to publicly express her views. However, in our view the effect of the piece was likely to shrink rather than expand her readership, and so we decided we could no longer afford to take on the already significant financial risk of publishing her novel.

“We also felt that we could no longer afford to devote the necessary resources to comprehensively edit Rosemary’s novel because of the now highly questionable financial return. Regrettably in these circumstances we felt Rosemary would be better off with another publisher. (We were aware Rosemary had published a short story collection with a different press and we had already wished her every success with that publication).

“Rosemary agreed in November that that it was best for us to part company we did so without acrimony. We are very proud of the two books Doire Press published by Rosemary, and we wish her well in her future career.”

Jenkinson is currently writing a play for the Abbey Theatre called Manichea, which, she says, contrasts the “cancel culture” of today with our 1960s past. “What people don’t realise is that being censured for holding certain ideas is very much alive in Irish literature.”

“Imagine if Colm Tóibín was dropped by Viking for his comments on genre fiction; if John Banville was shown the door by Faber & Faber for stating he despised the woke movement; if John Boyne was released by Penguin for vocalising his trans opinions,” Jenkinson said. “If so, denunciations of the publisher, and petitions in favour of free speech, would no doubt ensue. The majority of people assume that suppression of, and punishment for, free speech is a rare thing and belongs to less tolerant nations around the world. Surely, they think, it couldn’t happen in contemporary Ireland, north or south.

“Publishers in Ireland possess a great deal of power on account of the sparse competition, but they should resist abusing it. In the end, if a publisher lets one article override their passion for an author’s writing, it strikes at the heart of what writers do. It patently demonstrates how power can be misused. In contrast, Alan Hayes of Arlen House has fully supported me in writing what I believe to be true, as he has been a vocal campaigner for free speech for many decades. I’m fortunate to have future plans with Arlen House, but the danger is that for some writers being effectively sacked for voicing opinions can mean the end of their publishing career.”