The Irish literary journal’s irresistible rise
With their open door policy, Irish literary journals often offer new writers their first break and more established ones a platform and the chance to think outside the box
A new monthly salon series hosted by writer Selina Guinness as part of her dlr residency will focus on literary journals, starting on October 7th in the dlr LexIcon Studio in Dún Laoghaire, with readers Mark O’Connell and Sally Rooney, and editor Brendan Barrington
“When it comes to supporting emerging writers, Irish literary journals are far superior to the ones in the UK.” As both a writer and editor of The Stinging Fly magazine, Thomas Morris is well placed to judge the burgeoning landscape of literary journals in Ireland.
The Welsh writer, who recently published his debut collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, credits the open submissions policy at the heart of Irish publishing for creating such a vibrant culture.
“Quite a few UK journals are invite-only,” he says. “One gets the sense that parts of the UK literary community are just engaging in merry little circles, [though] the newer journals seem to be changing that.”
The scene has changed in Ireland too in the past decade, with dozens of publications currently offering outlets to writers. Older stock such as The Honest Ulsterman, Poetry Ireland Review, the Dublin Review of Books, The Stinging Fly, Southword Journal and Dublin Review have been joined in recent years by gorse, The Moth and The Penny Dreadful among others. Online only publications such as wordlegs, the Bohemyth and the South Circular have also brought new forums for writers and readers.
A new monthly salon series hosted by the writer Selina Guinness as part of her dlr residency will focus on the subject of literary journals. Taking place in the dlr LexIcon Studio in Dún Laoghaire, the first event runs on October 7th and features readers Mark O’Connell and Sally Rooney, and editor Brendan Barrington.
In the literary world, news breaks first through the “little magazine”, according to Guinness, who hopes to profile those working behind the scenes at Irish journals. “Editors are usually backstage workers, deeply appreciated by authors but unknown to readers,” she says. “I wanted to explore their tastes and choices, discover their current enthusiasms, and afford a stage to the contributors whose work excites them.”
Guinness credits the editors and publishers of literary journals as being “the hosts and mentors of new Irish writing”. Salon Nights at the Studio will also hear from writers about rites of passage as they cross the threshold from journal to debut publications.
“For anyone writing, it’s an opportunity to learn more about what makes work publishable and to gain an insight into current tastes and styles,” says Guinness. “I would not be writing today without the faith expressed in my work by my first editors at Icarus, Metre, and latterly by Brendan Barrington at the Dublin Review.”
Barrington, an editor at Penguin Ireland, founded the Dublin Review in 2000 “at a time when the scene was pretty sparse.” The publication will shortly issue its 60th quarterly edition. “If the field is getting a bit crowded that seems not the worst problem to have,” says Barrington.
“For any literary magazine, the question is whether good writers want to write for it and readers want to read it. If both of those things are the case then the magazine can consider its existence to be justified.”
What sets the Dublin Review apart? “Along with short stories, we publish every kind of literary nonfiction – essays, reportage, memoir, travel writing,” says Barrington. “We give writers the space they need to do it properly, sometimes 10,000 words or more. Some of our contributors are famous and some are just starting out, but we treat them all like professional writers and paying them decently is part of that.”
The writer Rob Doyle says that knowing there are venues out there publishing work that isn’t book-length gives writers incentive to experiment and try new things: “Literary journals can serve as writers’ laboratories, even if the writer’s chief focus and ambition is to produce books.” A former sceptic who thought journals were only read by a writerly elite, Doyle says he has come to value them highly as both a writer and reader.
His favourite journals are “coincidentally” the ones he has most often published in: Dublin Review, gorse, the Penny Dreadful, the Moth and the Stinging Fly. “gorse in particular has been exciting to me since its inception a couple of years ago because it has a more European, avant-garde sensibility, which I felt was lacking in Ireland previously,” says Doyle.
Launching in January last year, gorse editor Susan Tomaselli was influenced by Irish journals such as Sean Ó Faoláin’s the Bell, the Crane Bag and Threshold and European modernist journals like Transition and blast! which published the work of authors such as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.
“There’s a great tradition of experimental writers in Ireland like Laurence Sterne, Joyce, Ethel Lilian Voynich, Beckett, Flann O’Brien and Blanaid Salkeld, and I wondered if they would struggle to get published <DD> [nowadays], and I suspect a good few of them might,” says Tomaselli.
“Irish publishing is in rude health at the moment, but it’s the journals that can perhaps take a few more risks with writers, and writers can take a few more risks with their writing. They can demand more from their readers, ask them to trust them and take strange digressions, as the stories and essays are usually quite short.”
Tomaselli publishes her twice-yearly print journal in a book format as she wants to lend a permanence to gorse. But with a background in web editing, she says she also loves to read online and doesn’t think print and online magazines are mutually exclusive.
Morris says the beauty of online is its immediacy: “Someone can write a piece in the morning, and it could be online by the afternoon, and read by thousands by the evening. Print periodicals are a much slower thing, and they can’t react to events with the same speed as online journals. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is a clear point of difference.”
Print periodicals could learn a lot from online publications when it comes to sharing content and maintaining a distinct web presence, according to the Stinging Fly editor, “but their first priority should always be the work and the writers they publish – and central to that is the thorough and patient editorial process. That can and shouldn’t be rushed.”
A new journal launching this month will publish both digitally and in print twice a year. Banshee, set up by Claire Hennessy, Eimear Ryan and Laura Jane Cassidy, aims to appeal to both people who are familiar with the “admittedly-small-and-enclosed world” of literary journals, as well as those who aren’t but want to sample fresh work.
A new product in a competitive market needs a reason to exist. Is there a gap that isn’t currently being filled? “We’re an editorial team of three women under 30,” says Hennessy. “We’re not a women’s-only publication at all (though some people presume anything with women at the top must be), but I suspect we collectively might have different tastes to, say, men in their 60s.”
Hennessy says Banshee is interested in work that’s both literary and accessible, “exciting and smart without being pretentious”. Their list of influences ranges from Daphne du Maurier, George Saunders and Kevin Barry to Judy Blume, Sofia Coppola and Joss Whedon. “We also believe in paying our writers – a thing that is becoming harder and harder to do for literary journals, especially new ones,” she says.
As new journals emerge, older ones are continually coming up with ideas to keep readers enticed. Poetry Ireland Review dates back to 1948 and editor David Marcus, then John Jordan in the 1960s, followed by the establishment of the current imprint of the journal by John F Deane in 1981. Editors have included Paul Muldoon, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Michael Longley and Vona Groarke.
Paul Lenehan, its publications manager, says they aim to showcase contemporary poetry, both established and new. The journal also features artwork from contemporary visual artists, recently including James Hanley, Cian McLoughlin and Martin Gale. Publication of regular themed issues, such as the Seamus Heaney tribute issue, this month’s WB Yeats commemorative issue and next year’s issue on the Rising Generation of contemporary poets to celebrate the 1916 centenary, also helps to keep things fresh.
“Reader figures are growing, especially for our themed issues, which will sell up to 3,000 copies,” says Lenehan. “Each regular issue of the journal will sell about 1,000 copies. Because many of the contributors to the Yeats issue have huge international reputations (Margaret Atwood, Sharon Olds, Colm Tóibín, Thomas Kinsella), we expect to sell substantial quantities of issue 116 in Britain and the US.”
Fostering an emerging generation of poets is at the heart of each issue, according to Lenehan. “Almost all of our current younger generation of poets with just a debut collection published, such as Martin Dyar, Caoilinn Hughes, Jessica Traynor and Rebecca O’Connor, have published work in Poetry Ireland Review.”
Lenehan’s sentiments on incubating talent are echoed across the board, which is encouraging for new writers starting down the long and often lonely road to publication. As Guinness puts it: “Writing is a lonely business. To discover that someone whose taste and judgement you respect takes your work seriously is all a writer needs to devote the next day to the task.”
Tickets for the dlr’s Salon Nights at the Studio series can be purchased here.