Trends are a funny thing: this landmark anthology of Irish genre fiction finds its way out into the world at a time when much of the English-speaking world considers “Irish, full stop” to be its own little genre.
We may narrow the accusation further: in the case of literary fiction, British and American critics will judge writers not by whether they’re any good, but by whether they’re different or similar to whichever fellow Irish author the critic has last read. For other Irish writing – ie most Irish writing – the author’s Irishness passes with far less international fanfare. Marian Keyes skewered the Celtic Tiger and its bathetic aftershocks like few authors I’ve read, and I’ve never seen an English paper give her the credit.
The stereotypes of “Irish” fiction change with time, and perhaps nowadays the term evokes self-flagellating, sex-having, therapy-needing young women, as opposed to the olden days of Joyce’s self-flagellating, sex-having, therapy-needing young men. One constant remains: international perceptions of “Irish writing” tend to pigeonhole literary fiction and erase genre entirely.
There’s collusion from within, as Shadow Voices editor John Connolly points out in his introduction. Ever since the formation of the Irish Free State, Irish criticism itself has marginalised genre fiction, although in the last two decades we’ve finally begun to unpack this snobbery. In dismissing genre, Connolly notes, you discard flagship Irish classics – everyone from Jonathan Swift to Elizabeth Bowen, unless you think that genre can’t be genre if it’s good. Equally important to Connolly is that books can be good for different reasons: he is as interested in Beatrice Grimshaw, “one of the pulpiest entries in this anthology”, as he is Bowen.
The order of entries deliberately juxtaposes names of both sorts in a “high”/”low” bid to get you wondering why we don’t usually consider the authors side by side. It works more often than not, but it makes a few inclusions seem more belaboured than they already were. Swift’s A Modest Proposal, for one, seems an inexplicable “genre” choice over Gulliver’s Travels until you remember that Connolly said he’d only choose short pieces.
A Modest Proposal references cannibalism, but besides the superficial shared subject matter, does Swift’s satirical essay really have any of horror’s gory brio? Then again, Swift’s satire perhaps relies on its audience’s familiarity with horror. Swift needs us to expect monstrosities so that his brisk cruelty will throw us, and then the leaders he’s aping, the leaders we’d resigned ourselves to, will appear to us awful and new.
In 2021 it should not be noteworthy that an overview of Irish writers includes several from Northern Ireland, albeit mostly male ones – but it is, and Connolly deserves praise for considering all of Ireland’s literature when many still fail to. He also has a great nose for women writers that more readers deserve to encounter: I was thrilled to see Flann O’Brien’s underrated contemporary Mary Lavin take a deserved place with The Yellow Beret. It’s especially delightful to have Maria Edgeworth’s glorious strangeness acknowledged for its genre strains with the inclusion of a story that features the phrase “Villainthropic Society” and gets weirder from there.
Malapropisms are, in themselves, an Irish genre note from Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose highly formulaic comedies of error are my personal iteration of the infinite possible “If only I, the protagonist of reality, had collated this anthology”-type nitpicks that Connolly wisely and promptly says he cannot entertain. Instead, his energetic commentary gets you asking your own questions as you go.
For instance, here’s a promising seed that came to me from a brief reference Connolly makes to the “Big House” novel: I think “Big House” may be the only anglophone novelistic genre that is exclusively Irish, with the possible exception of the incipient “Trinity novel”. I could write a whole separate piece on why those two historically Anglo-Irish seats of power have become such Irish literary locuses. I feel like Connolly wants me to write it. He obviously loves fiction and hopes we’ll discuss it more vigorously when we whack the snobbery out of us.
Other missed opportunities, though, seem more than a question of taste. Connolly brilliantly describes Cathal Ó Sándair’s efforts to make Gaeilge pulp again, but apart from a cursory acknowledgment that Padraig Pearse’s The Keening Woman came from Irish there’s little interest shown in how English-language writers might have borrowed from the folklore that many of them were steeped in. Crime writer Ken Bruen claims his influences are “primarily American hard-boiled writers”, but his story’s blink-and-you-miss-it reference to “[screaming] like a banshee” goes to show how casually omnipresent such elements still are.
At odds further still with the anthology’s titular interest in marginal voices, it is overwhelmingly white. This may be a fair representation of Ireland’s literary past, but it doesn’t reflect a present featuring, for instance, the historical fiction of Cauvery Madhavan, the YA fiction of Adiba Jaigirdar, and the genre-crossing fiction of Yan Ge – whose omission is especially strange given her mastery of the short story form that the tome celebrates.
The introduction explains that the volume restricts itself to “writers born on the island of Ireland, with only a handful of exceptions”. It seems to me that further exceptions could have been warranted, or the rule scrapped, since its rationale is never provided and it excludes some of the here-and-now’s most exciting Irish genre fiction.
When scrambling to explain why Irish writing is far less diverse than Ireland itself, anyone in the literary industry can find someone else to blame. Anthologists say they can’t anthologise work that was never published; publishers say they can’t publish books that bookshops won’t get behind; bookshops say they can’t stock books that readers won’t buy; readers say they would buy in droves if the rest of the chain would only make those books available.
No individual’s decision would matter too much in a literary landscape that was fair overall. But personal judgment calls accumulate into structures and systems that keep excluding particular groups of people. I think the critic’s role is to notice that dynamic and name it.
I love all that this anthology celebrates, and Connolly is more interested in giving you ideas than in pretending he can tell you all there is to know. His core advocacy of genre fiction is stellar. Let’s hope the argument gains enough momentum to bring more shadows into the light.
Naoise Dolan is the author of Exciting Times