The Irish novel isn’t dead. It just smells funny

Rob Doyle, editor of a new anthology, on Irish writers’ genre-rupturing freshness

The novel: better to think of it as just one among a variety of imaginative long prose forms. Photograph: iStock/Getty

The novel: better to think of it as just one among a variety of imaginative long prose forms. Photograph: iStock/Getty

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The importance of originality in art is not as self-evident as is sometimes assumed. Entire civilisations have risen and fallen for whom our modern insistence that artists must strive to innovate would have seemed bizarre. Ancient Egypt flourished for 3,000 years, during which the highest ambition of any painter was to imitate the style and techniques of his predecessors, iterating the glory of the pharaohs and illustrating the soul’s passage through the afterlife. Byzantium or ancient China likewise had no use for the notion that art must always be seeking new pathways, outdoing itself.

Each of these eras had a style: rules were obeyed and techniques copied with the utmost fidelity so that painting and sculpture could reliably serve their religious, political or magical functions. (It was never pure art.) Accomplishment lay in mastering these techniques, not in revolutionising them. The common factor among such eras is their stability: why indulge a mania to innovate when civilisation is ticking along just fine?

Here we are, however, in the 21st century, where all is change. Rather than perpetuate itself over unvarying centuries, the scientific, capitalist West annihilates its belief systems and social modes with telescoping frequency. The familiar world becomes alien within a single lifespan. In such a world of relentless evolution, art is perpetually in danger of being outstripped, every “realism” of describing a vanished reality. Just as capitalism erases difference to make way for a homogenous global anti-culture, artistic traditions are swept aside, denounced as irrelevant almost as soon as they have established themselves. Today, Ezra Pound’s modernist command to Make It New! sounds like nothing so much as a corporate slogan for Apple or Huawei. Capitalism and the avant garde check each other out from across the room, seeing much to admire.

The notion of the experimental artist is misguided. It assumes a choice, but artists simply create the work they are compelled to, and either it will be original or it won’t

While novelty for its own sake may in this sense pander to consumer capitalism, the alternative – art that doesn’t evolve, only reproduces the forms of the past – feels inadequate to the world we live in. The times keep changing, and art and literature must change with them. Some artists respond to our strident, polarising times with a countercultural insistence on difficulty and complexity; others mimic the distracted, neuronal velocity of contemporary life and achieve impact by striking on its own terms.

Don’t try to be original

Artists generally don’t view themselves as seeking to push their art forward, placing themselves on a progressive historical timeline. As Susan Sontag noted, the whole notion of the “experimental artist” is misguided and philistine: it assumes a choice, whereas in reality each artist will simply create the work he or she is compelled to create, and either it will be original or it won’t. We read the work of Jorge Luis Borges, say, and we are dazzled by the novelty of expression, the ecstasy of invention, and the lightning-bolt realisation that wow, writing can do that! Such an author isn’t “experimenting” – he is simply being himself, fully and magnificently. Too vital and single-minded to be ghettoised by dreary labels or by dull conventions, the best artists don’t try to be original. They just figure out how to become what they are, and they are original.

These are uncertain times to be a writer, full of digital possibility on one hand and apocalyptic murmurings on the other. We consume and produce more text than ever, much of it the ephemera of “content”, but novels, short stories and poetry collections are in a phase of existential doubt, questioning their relevance in an age of connectivity and metaphysical mutation. Few would dispute that prose fiction, in particular, no longer occupies the prestigious, agenda-setting position at the centre of our culture that it once did.

The claim that the possibilities of the novel form have been used up is not much younger than the form itself. Back in 1880s Paris, the Goncourt brothers were already grumbling as much into their journal, announcing the death of the novel decades before the great leaps forward of modernism that marked the zenith of the form’s ambition. In an essay titled An Introduction to a Variation, Milan Kundera writes: “I often hear it said that the novel has exhausted all its possibilities. I have the opposite impression: during its 400-year history, the novel has missed many of its possibilities; it has left many great opportunities unexplored, many paths forgotten, calls unheard.”

Novel thoughts

Some time after the dawn of the novel genre, and the exuberant, avant-garde avant la lettre inventions of Sterne, Rabelais and Cervantes, the novel congealed – that is, what we believed and expected the novel to be congealed, with the result that it eventually became a rather staid, predictable genre. The creative writing MFAs proliferating across the western world can seem like factories for these not-so-novel novels, with their narrative arcs, contraptions of plot, and dutiful focus on interpersonal relations.

During the heyday of modernism the novel was still, as DH Lawrence had it, “the one bright book of life”. Nowadays, perhaps it would be better to think of it as just one among a variety of imaginative long prose forms, and discard our assumption of its inherent primacy. Even if Kundera is right and the novel bears rich seams of untapped potential, it feels like a cultural idée fixe, an attitude in its afterlife, to maintain this belief in its centrality.

We needn’t sit through hundreds of pages of gear-grinding plot development and shoddy characterisation to reach the point of fascination

It is not only the books pages and publishers who uphold this increasingly suspect prejudice, but many writers too. There are those, for instance, who see their primary contribution as residing in their fiction, whereas no one else really sees it that way. Who now reads the novels that Sontag considered the real meat of her work? It is her essays that have lasted. In our own time, Will Self makes frequent appearances in the Guardian to declaim the Death of the Novel, only to persist in writing novels that presumably not even he can be bothered to read. His enduring legacy may turn out to be the YouTube videos of his enthralling public lectures.

In the case of the late JG Ballard I would go one further: his novels and stories, I like to imagine, were the means by which Ballard established a platform to practice the art form at which he truly excelled: the interview. In Ballard’s interviews, the startling ideas for which his fictions provide hulking vehicles are presented in their undiluted state. We needn’t sit through hundreds of pages of gear-grinding plot development and shoddy characterisation to reach the point of fascination: the interviews are theory-fictions in which the climax runs right the way through.

Zombie belief

A few years ago, David Shields chucked a hand-grenade into the stately parade of contemporary “literary fiction” when he published his polemic Reality Hunger, attacking this zombie belief in the primacy of fiction. The wagon-circling that ensued seemed indicative of how forcefully his provocations had hit home. Never mind that Shields was essentially making the same case that Kundera had made years earlier in The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, or that Geoff Dyer had in Out of Sheer Rage, or that Alain Robbe-Grillet had in Towards a New Novel, Shields’s book felt like a timely updating of the polemic for a device-cluttered, hyperreal age.

Why drag out more than 300 plot-clogged pages what could be expressed directly and intimately, by literary minds too impatient for novelistic puppet shows? Why assume people still mainly want to be entertained by books, when so much better entertainment exists elsewhere? Why the artifice, the time-wasting? Why pretend?

In the 21st century, Shields argued, we are so saturated with unreality and artifice that most prose fiction cannot muster the immediacy and force that would make it worth reading. Non-fiction, he pleaded, is no longer the deferential, lesser cousin to fiction and the novel. While the traditional novel of made-up characters and plot mechanics might once have been the best medium to convey ideas, nourish and fascinate, that time is past.

Every decade has its David Shields. The novel has been declared dead so often that we should probably stop worrying and assume it is as invincible as James Bond. Some readers will always turn to novels for the kicks of narrative and atmosphere, and they will always find authors who excel in the genre. Nonetheless, Shields is probably right to suggest that the great era of fiction is behind us, and we inhabit the threshold of a period that will be defined by another kind of writing – a post-fictional New World awaiting its pioneers.

Many of today’s vital books are being written in the liminal territories beyond the novel’s traditional heartland. These enticingly hard-to-categorise works dispense with the artifices of plot and character, and concern themselves more with lived experience than invented conflicts. These are happy times for the mutant-novel, the book that doesn’t fit in, the genre-bender. Or, to hijack a phrase from Frank Zappa, the novel isn’t dead – it just smells funny.

Here at home

So where does Ireland stand in all of this? Irish writing is widely understood to be enjoying a renaissance. Strange, original talents are blossoming, wielding styles and perspectives as various as the inspirations they bring to bear on their work. Energetic independent presses have shaken things up, compelling mainstream publishers to quit playing it safe and wager on voices that break with convention. Literary journals such as the Dublin Review, the Stinging Fly, Gorse, the Penny Dreadful, the Moth, Banshee and Tangerine provide platforms both for emerging talents to cut their teeth and for better-known writers to test new material.

In short, things are looking up. Let’s not forget that during the years of our economic boom, Ireland was largely a cultural wasteland, with few writers emerging from the aridity, and a nostalgic conservatism in much of the fiction being published here. The result was that a generation of Irish readers felt quite alienated from the national literature, which seemed to speak to and from a different world than the one they knew.

Not known for their high earnings, writers of the era won little admiration amid the nouvelle richesse and property worship. In the decade that has elapsed since the economy crashed, however, there has been a recognition that it may indeed be worth devoting one’s time and energy to the discipline of literature. Irish people are interested in their writers again. And, for now at least, the eyes of the wider literary world are also trained on Ireland.

It is silly to pit one generation against another, but the newer wave of Irish writers has helped lift our literature from the parochialism into which it was in danger of sinking

It is a silly and immature game to pit one generation against another – after all, good writers go it alone, and only accidentally belong to any broader movement – yet it can be said that the newer wave of Irish writers has helped lift our literature from the parochialism into which it was in danger of sinking. There has long been a sense on this island that we know what a short story or a novel should look like and what rules it should obey; anything that deviates from the formula has tended to be treated with suspicion.

Certain conventions have persisted for so long that we can forget that conventions are all they are. Some examples: the automatic valorising of subtlety and understatement; a default tone of melancholy lyricism; a preference for fabulation over lived experience; a suspicion of work that traffics in ideas rather than interpersonal relations. Such modes are fine in and of themselves: indeed, they have produced some of our greatest writing, with many masters working within and renewing them.

The art of understatement

A problem only arises for readers of Irish literature who prefer something different, who are not especially moved by the art of understatement or the patient dissection of relationships and communities. The predominance of a certain type of fiction in Ireland can leave such readers cold, inducing them to abandon Irish writing altogether in favour of freer, more daring international fare.

It is peculiar that Irish writing fell into the habit of stolid conventionalism. The writers to whom we pay continuous cultural lip service are those who were most flagrantly unconventional and inventive: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien. As a nation we drop their names and celebrate our Bloomsdays and repeat how great they are, only to treat with suspicion contemporary writing that declines to play it safe, attempting to blaze new trails as O’Brien did with At Swim-Two-Birds, or Joyce with Ulysses.

The exception proves the rule: Kevin Barry’s 2015 novel, Beatlebone, includes an intriguing, metafictional section in which the author airs his doubts around his material and the challenges it presents him with. The startlement with which this welcome if fairly modest deviation from the meat-and-two-veg, MFA-approved model was greeted, suggested how limited we had grown in our expectations. What would ideally be a widespread, let’s-try-it-and-see approach was in fact rare enough that even faint stirrings of it caused a sensation. (Three hundred years before Kevin Barry, Laurence Sterne was doing stuff like that in his sleep.)

Meanwhile, writers are hailed as “modernist” when they faithfully imitate the techniques that were modern a century ago. Mistaking a bygone generation’s inventions for some perennial, Platonic form of originality, we applaud purveyors of a safely “experimental” formula of the kind that Geoff Dyer has labelled “secondhand avant-garde”, while ignoring the new frontiers being staked out by writers unsatisfied with traditional fictive models.

A longer shadow

Again, things are changing, and fast. In today’s global, online culture, Irish writers are as likely to be influenced by South American, Asian, or Central European writers as they are by those who happen to have lived on the same rainy island as themselves. Among earlier generations, it was commonly said that James Joyce cast an inescapable shadow over the literary landscape. Today, it is as likely for Irish writers to feel similarly daunted by the legacies of, say, Roberto Bolaño or David Foster Wallace.

Writers are no longer automatically influenced primarily by their national literature, because nationhood and nationality are no longer what they once were. By the same token, the Ireland of Frank O’Connor probably looks as foreign as sub-Saharan Africa to today’s younger Irish writers. An effect of living in the homogenous global anti-culture, alienation from one’s own history and race scrambles old assumptions and patterns of literary activity. On the plus side, a fecund internationalism nourishes the latest wave of Irish writing.

Rather than the priestly solemnity and social realism that has tended to get so much of the airtime, it is arguably the playful, freewheeling inventiveness uniting Laurence Sterne and Flann O’Brien that represents the deeper identity of the Irish literary tradition. The Other Irish Tradition, the anthology I have edited and which has just been published by the Dalkey Archive Press, is intended as a modest reminder that Irish writing has always had room for such playfulness and genre-rupturing freshness: for subversives, instinctual avant-gardists, and outsiders who strain at the leash of convention.

The book will hopefully open up new ways of looking at Irish literature through the prism of its singular geniuses, startling talents, oddities, subversives, and transgressors

The Other Irish Tradition makes absolutely no claims to completeness. It should rather be seen as a sampler of work by authors celebrated or obscure who, at some point in their careers, or throughout them, were willing to try something new, roaming beyond the limits of convention to expand the territory of our literature. Presented chronologically and covering four centuries, the selection places the colossal names of Irish experimental writing alongside work by lesser-known writers, and new talents that are striking out in curious, uncharted directions.

Some pieces have been included not so much for their formal originality as for their subject matter, which strikes me as transgressive or unprecedented. There is an emphasis on satire, comedy, and what might accurately be called serious fun. I have also indulged an entirely personal preference for Ireland’s tradition of writers in self-imposed exile, whose books are permeated by drift and expatriation, a cosmopolitanism rooted in an inescapably Irish sensibility.

A set of aesthetics

In compiling the anthology, I tried to seek out as many female writers as possible who fit the aesthetic or set of aesthetics represented within: the male-heavy selection is due to the fact that, for the well-known reasons, Irish female writers had until recently a hard time breaking out of obscurity. Any similar, hypothetical future volume covering the next 50 or 100 years will certainly allow for an even split. (The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore, two anthologies edited by Sinéad Gleeson, are a good starting point for anyone seeking out Irish women writers.)

The Other Irish Tradition does not pretend to propose a new canon, but rather offers an alternative, refracted perspective on the canon that exists. The book will hopefully open up new ways of looking at Irish literature through the prism of its singular geniuses, obscure but startling talents, oddities, subversives, and transgressors. More than this, I hope that it will simply provide plenty of rich and surprising reading. Combining familiar texts with lesser-known gems, a wander through its pages should enable readers to make exciting discoveries, reacquaint themselves with seminal works by master authors, and stimulate further reading from the deep and variegated pool of Irish literature.

The Other Irish Tradition, edited by Rob Doyle, is published by Dalkey Archive Press

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