Ireland will get its first Laureate for Fiction in January 2015, chosen from a longlist of 34 writers announced recently. The €150,000 laureateship, which has been in planning for more than two years, has been set up by the Arts Council, in partnership with University College Dublin, New York University and The Irish Times, to promote Irish literature at home and abroad.
In line with the award’s criteria, the inaugural winner will be an Irish writer who has contributed significantly to the field of literature, has a track record of public engagement and an internationally recognised body of work.
Although the longlist includes debut novelists and emerging writers, these criteria seem to favour a more established author. Sarah Bannan Keegan, head of literature at the Arts Council, says it's a difficult thing to categorise. "Are you established at two books? Four books? Do you need to have won an award?"
Nevertheless, she says the chosen candidate will be a writer who has had “a profound impact” on the field of literature: “The person will be an ambassador for Irish literature at home and in the US. The reason we worked so hard to put together such a strong selection panel was to tackle these questions.”
Declan Meade, editor of The Stinging Fly, says the position is designed for an established writer: "Someone who is willing to play an ambassadorial role for contemporary Irish writing. The first laureate will help define and shape the role and I'd hope he or she will go for the Mary Robinson style of office."
Asked about the sizeable monetary value of the award, Meade says it remains to be seen whether this is the best way, “or even a good way”, for the Arts Council to spend €150,000.
“It’s really important that they pick the right person,” he says. “I definitely don’t see it as someone simply getting an award. It needs to be someone who is going to do a good job.”
The judging panel is chaired by the poet Paul Muldoon, who has the casting vote in the event of a tie. Other members include Ireland's current Professor of Poetry, Paula Meehan; the British poet Blake Morrison; former Laureate na nÓg Siobhán Parkinson; Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker; and the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who won the 2014 Impac award for his novel The Sound of Things Falling.
Orlaith McBride, director of the Arts Council, doesn’t envy their task. “The judges will consider the longlist and will have to make that very difficult decision,” she says. “We felt that a high-calibre panel was important for the inaugural award to set a precedent and to elevate the position.”
With a longlist that includes so many household names, is there a danger that the inaugural winner will be seen as “Ireland’s best writer”?
“You’re always going to get a bit of that, particularly as this is the first award,” says McBride. “It’s about the writer in totality, the body of work, as opposed to this book or that book. We have a big job to make sure the public understands this and to make clear, when the winner is announced, why that individual was chosen above others. It will come down to their contribution to the field of literature and the positive impact they’ve had on readers.”
Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, a literary scout and founder of Writing.ie, views the role as a way to further Ireland's reputation in the field. "There is global interest in Irish fiction, as our authors prove by continually topping international charts and winning awards, and the laureate is a superb initiative that will highlight this," she says. "I feel strongly that we should develop a national strategy around one of our strongest exports, with Bord Fáilte and Tourism Ireland working with the Arts Council to promote Ireland as the go-to destination for both readers and writers."
The longlist itself has already begun this process of spotlighting Irish literary talent, according to Bob Johnston, owner of the Gutter Bookshop. "It'll be really interesting to see who the judges pick and what the first laureate can achieve during their term," he says. "It's particularly exciting to see a real mix of established and newer writers on the longlist because each of them would bring something different and dynamic to the role."
To compile this list, Bannan Keegan says that hundreds of nomination forms were sent to individuals and organisations across the arts community in Ireland, including cultural institutions, local authority arts offices, organisations with a literary interest, playwrights and poets, bookshops, county libraries and affiliated book clubs. This process returned 119 nominations.
“The 34 names that emerged from these nominations demonstrate the strength of Irish fiction,” she says. “They incorporate all types of fiction writing – short stories, comic writing, experimental, historical – and a diverse group of personalities.”
But Bannan Keegan also highlights that the list represents a moment in time, and that fashions can dictate when it comes to nominating. “Book-selling, the media and festivals all tend to focus on writers with a book that has just hit the shops, and that means that there are some missing parts to the list,” she says. “The laureateship will be working to address this, shining a light on writers who tend to get overlooked.”
Thirteen of the nominated authors are female, 38 per cent of the list. Some believe that women writers get a raw deal when it comes to literary awards.
“There are interesting debates about how male and female writers get represented in the literary press in the US,” says Bannan Keegan. “It would be wrong of us to think that we don’t hold some of the same biases here. This might be the kind of project a laureate will tackle, or it might not. It will be up to the laureate to shape the role.”
Some high-profile authors are missing from the longlist. McBride says that not everyone who was nominated chose to accept: “There were authors who felt it wasn’t for them and also a couple who feared a conflict of interest. It’s a big undertaking for an author and it has to be up to the individual.”
The names that do feature range from established authors such as Anne Enright, Colum McCann, John Banville and Sebastian Barry, to newer talent such as Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. Whoever wins will devise a programme for literature for the three-year term in conjunction with the Arts Council. This will include, among other duties, a calendar of public events and teaching creative writing at NYU and UCD.
“Whichever of these fine writers emerges as our first laureate is going to have a whale of a time,” says panel member Siobhán Parkinson. “To be appointed as laureate is a personal and artistic accolade, a national obligation and an international opportunity. It presents a magnificent horizon.”
Parkinson, who speaks from experience as the inaugural Laureate na nÓg, says the position is a big change from the inward focus of writing. “The endless permission to be self-directed and totally absorbed is turned inside out. The role is outward-looking, collegiate and celebratory. It demands great energy and generosity of spirit, but it is also tremendously invigorating.”
IRISH FICTION LAUREATE: THE LONGLIST (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER BY FIRST NAME)
1 Anne Enright
2 Anne Haverty
3 Belinda McKeon
4 Bernard MacLaverty
5 Catherine Dunne
6 Christine Dwyer Hickey
7 Claire Keegan
8 Colum McCann
9 Dermot Bolger
10 Donal Ryan
11 Edna O'Brien
12 Eimear McBride
13 Emma Donoghue
14 Eoin McNamee
15 Evelyn Conlon
16 Hugo Hamilton
17 Jaki McCarrick
18 Jennifer Johnston
19 John Banville
20 John Boyne
21 John MacKenna
22 Joseph O'Connor
23 Liam Mac Cóil
24 Michael Coady
25 Niall Williams
26 Nuala Ní Chonchuir
27 Patrick McCabe
28 Paul Murray
29 Peter Cunningham
30 Ré O Laighleis
31 Roddy Doyle
32 Sebastian Barry
33 Tom Kilroy
34 William Trevor