The rise of the short Irish Story
A new generation of Irish authors is coming to prominence through the short story
What do the Irish writers Kevin Barry, Mary Costello and Anne Enright have in common, aside from successful literary careers? All three authors published debut short story collections before going on to write novels. Barry launched his career with the award-winning These are Little Kingdoms in 2007. Enright’s The Portable Virgin (1992) and Mary Costello’s more recent The China Factory (2011) brought both authors acclaim at home and abroad. Enright won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature; Costello’s collection was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award.
Ireland’s history with the short story form is well documented. James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Maeve Brennan, William Trevor and Mary Lavin are just some of a long list of internationally recognised writers. According to O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice, the bible on the short story, Ireland suits the form for being a nation on the margins, a land of people who understand what it is to be isolated.
A new generation of Irish authors is coming to prominence through the short story. Sara Baume had already accrued fans, among them the author Joseph O’Connor, months before the launch of her debut novel by winning the 2014 Davy Byrnes competition with her short story ‘Solesearcher 1’. Colin Barrett is the current golden boy of the form, having won the Frank O’Connor International Award, the Rooney Prize and the Guardian First Book Award for his debut Young Skins (2013). Other debutants with recently or soon-to-be released collections include Andrew Fox, Aiden O’Reilly, Claire-Louise Bennett and Danielle McLaughlin.
While short stories have always been a favourite of writers, readers traditionally gravitate towards the novel. In her introduction to the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2010), Anne Enright writes that the form is more satisfying for authors than readers, likening it to the “cats of the literary form, beautiful but a little self-contained.”
Does the recent spate of debuts and anthologies with Irish affiliations mean that attitudes to the form here is changing? Declan Meade of Stinging Fly Press, who launched Barry, Costello and Barrett, says he believes the short story is having a moment.
“More than anything,” Meade says, “I think this is to do with the fact that there are writers of the calibre of Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, Edith Pearlman and George Saunders publishing great stories.” Meade also mentions the Canadian writer Alice Munro as a major influence: “She has steadily built up a readership for her remarkable stories and her Nobel win came as a validation for her readers and for other writers of short stories.”
As a publisher and editor, Meade has noticed a rise in the number of people writing stories. The growing popularity of creative writing courses may be a factor. “[There are] varying degrees of success,” he says. “I'd be concerned that some people submitting a short story for publication are content to provide a piece of prose writing with x number of words.”
The author Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, whose first book was the collection of short stories Blood and Water (1988), says the resurgence of the form is in part thanks to the “burgeoning creative writing programme phenomenon”, but also as a result of competitions such as the Frank O’Connor award.
Ní Dhuibhne, a recent recipient of the Irish PEN Award, has gone on to write numerous novels since her debut, including the Orange shortlisted The Dancers Dancing. She remains, however, “more at home” with the shorter form: “I found it difficult to move from short story to novel. I think I am a natural short story writer, in the way that some writers are ‘natural’ poets. I found novels hard work. They demand more planning. The novel is not a spontaneous genre.”
One of the perks of the digital age for writers, and readers, is that devices such as the Kindle make it easier for authors to get shorter work published. The Irish author Julian Gough, who has written in a variety of forms from novel to poetry, says it is now more viable for writers to choose the form that suits the work.
“The short story was always popular,” he says. “It's what parents tell their children before bed, it's what cavemen told each other round the campfire, it's what all fairytales are, it's what myths are made out of. The Odyssey is a collection of linked, self-contained short stories, not a novel. If it was hard to find for a while, that's because industrial, capitalist publishing briefly found it difficult to make money from it. But digital makes the single story much more viable. So they're back.”
Henrietta McKervey, whose short story ‘The Dead of Winter’ won this year’s Hennessy First Fiction Award, agrees: “Short stories were out by the bins for a long time, but never really went away, just out of fashion. I’m enjoying the current enthusiasm for the short-stories-as-novel form. It encourages writers to experiment in form and character while still giving us readers plenty to chew over.”
McKervey’s debut novel What Becomes of Us is published this week. She says she finds the longer form more rewarding: “For me, writing a novel is a dissection of a body in its entirety, whereas short stories examine a detail through a microscope. Even as a child I remember feeling frustrated by short stories because I always wanted more from the characters than the story could provide.”
‘Grim sales figures’
Brendan Barrington has published “many collections-worth” of short stories in his role as editor of The Dublin Review over the years. In his other day job, as an editor with Penguin Ireland, Barrington says he has always been open to collections, but that conventional wisdom, “which I find depressing, but which has a basis in the grim sales figures,” is that publishers are willing to chance a debut collection, on the basis that a novel is coming next.
“In artistic terms, I don't buy the idea that the novel is a higher form than the story,” he says. “But in practical terms it is hard for a young writer – particularly on this side of the ocean – to plot a career based on short stories alone. That's something I regret.”
Barrington notes an “uptick” in the form, but points out that it’s from a “dispiriting” low base: “It's still the case that if an established mid-career novelist publishes a collection of stories, sales are likely to be a fraction of what their most recent novel sold. Even after winning the Nobel prize, Alice Munro – a highly accessible and entertaining writer, as well as a genius – didn't sell a lot of books on this side of the ocean. If she were a novelist operating on the same level, her sales would be dramatically higher.”
From the writer’s perspective, the choice of form is often organic. “I never made a conscious decision to write a collection of stories,” says the Galway author Mary Costello. “I started writing in my early twenties simply because I needed to write, and stories were the obvious way in. I had many isolated characters and disparate images and ideas and the short story was a form that could accommodate them. There’s an intuitive quality to stories – nothing is transparent, the reader must glean things. Something usually lurks beneath the surface. Joy Williams says that short stories are devious. They pretend to be transparent, about ordinary things, ordinary matters, but it’s all a masquerade.”
Costello says the idea for her debut novel Academy Street, which won Novel of the Year at the 2014 Irish Book Awards, grew out of a story in The China Factory: “The reach of Tess’s life required a longer form, and that’s how the novel came about.” But which does she prefer? “When I’m writing a novel I prefer the short story form, and when I’m working on a short story I want to write a novel. There’s no pleasing us.”
Transition between forms
Making the transition between forms had a similarly natural feel to it for the novelist Nuala Ní Chonchúir, whose third novel Miss Emily publishes this August. “I wrote my first published novel in my early thirties,” says Ní Chonchúir. “I was five years writing stories in a serious way at that point and You grew out of one of my stories.
“There are differences between the two genres. Stories are switchy and intense and, as a writer, you are always starting anew. Whereas with the novel it is long work, the work of years, so it can be a more comforting place to be in as a writer. There is a place to go to at the desk each day.”
Is there pressure on short story writers to graduate to a novel at some point in their career? “That’s a publishing industry driven perception,” says Ní Chonchúir. “It is difficult to sell a collection of short stories. Not impossible, mind. There are presses willing to take a punt, usually smaller ones like New Island, Arlen House, Lilliput Press and The Stinging Fly, who are very supportive of short fiction.
“There are writers making a career from short fiction – Philip Ó Ceallaigh, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis – but publishers and readers are hungry for novels. If we can get more great short stories into the hands and minds of readers we might see a bigger demand for collections.”
Éilis Ní Dhuibhne says that while most readers prefer novels, from an artistic point of view, authors don’t need to write novels to create great fiction: “There are examples of world class writers who never graduated to the novel. Anton Chekhov, Katharine Mansfield, Frank O’Connor, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver. It’s just that there aren’t all that many of them and, with a few exceptions, they don’t get the same attention from the ‘ordinary reader’ or from the critics. There’s always more fuss about new novels. Then there is the Booker factor, and the Baileys factor – only novelists may apply.”
Anthologies have always been a popular way of showcasing stories from new and established voices, none more so than in recent years. In December, O’Brien published Surge, a collection of short stories from the various creative writing courses in universities around the country. Liberties brought out Love on the Road in February, a collection of international voices depicting the highs and lows of love, edited by Sam Tranum and Lois Kapila.
In May, Faber publishes All Over Ireland, an anthology edited by Deirdre Madden with new writing from, among others, Colm Tóibín, Eoin McNamee and Mary Morrissy. In autumn, Sinéad Gleeson is at the helm of The Long Gaze Back, with the title from a Maeve Brennan quote an apt choice for a collection of Irish female writers including Ní Dhuibhne, Ní Chonchúir, Anne Enright and Christine Dwyer Hickey.
Of current interest is the launch of The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015 (New Island) this week. Edited by Dermot Bolger and Ciaran Carty, the third anthology in the series chronicles an emerging literary generation. Carty believes the form has always been popular, pointing to Ireland’s history of short story writers. “O'Connor, O'Faolain and O'Flaherty were household names when I grew up in the 50s,” he says. “Neil Jordan and Des Hogan established themselves with short stories in the 70s. William Trevor was probably the most popular Irish writer, followed later by Bernard MacLaverty during this period.”
The New Irish Writing programme was viewed by Carty as a national platform for the form: “Since 1988 we've published over 300 new writers and probably read maybe 15,000 more. The form has changed away from the O'Connor and O'Faolain style to a more open-ended New Yorker style offering fragments of life or moments in relationships, but good writing is always good writing, whatever the trend.”
While acknowledging that readers generally find more satisfaction in novels, Carty says this can work in the writer’s favour: “When readers discover novelists they like, they'll then read their story collections. Joe O'Connor's first story ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ became his first novel Cowboys and Indians, but people then went on to buy his collections.”
Declan Meade says he can understand the appeal of getting lost in a novel for an extended period of time but that he is “first and foremost” a lover of the shorter form. “It’s the sharper focus, its more scrupulous intensity,” he says. “I think that a good collection of stories will be just as satisfying for the reader as most novels are. Readers do seem to be somewhat suspicious of the form and of the writer's intentions, but really good collections manage to break down whatever reservations the general reader might have about them.”
Top short reads: Irish publishers and writers pick a much loved story
Brendan Barrington – Friend of My Youth, Alice Munro
Ciaran Carty – The Necklace, Guy de Maupassant
Nuala Ní Chonchúir – Good Country People, Flannery O’Connor
Mary Costello – My Lord You, James Salter
Éilis Ní Dhuibhne – The Garden Party, Katherine Mansfield
Sinéad Gleeson – The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Henrietta McKervey – Strings Too Short to Use, Lorrie Moore
Declan Meade – Differently, Alice Munro