Hugh Linehan: Be careful what you say about your literary peers

Rosemary Jenkinson's article may have offended some of her fellow writers. So what?

Last year, the writer Rosemary Jenkinson published an opinion piece in Fortnight magazine, headlined "The Troubles with Northern Irish literature". In it, she argued that literature in Northern Ireland was "feasting on the dead corpse of the Troubles more than ever". The article was not very nuanced; writers as disparate as Anna Burns and David Park were tarred with the same brush. Memoirists like Seamas O'Reilly were criticised for writing about their childhood experiences, apparently just because their childhoods happened during the conflict. Even Derry Girls got a sideswipe.

Jenkinson’s argument may have been crudely phrased, but she asked some interesting questions about the shifting dynamics – creative and commercial – of fiction and drama in and about Northern Ireland. And her view is hardly unusual; for generations there’s been a healthy tension in Irish fiction, drama and film – both north and south of the Border – between the pressing demands of the contemporary and the enduring grip of the past.

The emotional stakes are a little higher when it comes to the Troubles. Responding in The Irish Times, Sharon Dempsey wrote that "crime writers from this region have been fighting against a cultural genocide that denies our expression of how we have been affected by the Troubles" and argued that "in the absence of a truth and reconciliation process, fiction offers a space to work out how we navigate the past in order to move forward".

Criticising consensus

At the risk of being accused of both-sidesism, is it not possible that both Jenkinson and Dempsey may be partly right? Totalising arguments about what subjects should or should not be legitimate for writers to explore are inherently problematic, but it’s perfectly valid and necessary to criticise the prevailing consensus, whatever that consensus may be.


In any case, the whole thing might have been forgotten by Christmas, were it not for the fact that Doire Press, a small Connemara-based publisher, decided to cancel its planned publication of Jenkinson's book, A City.

Lest there be any doubt about the reasons, Doire’s John Walsh wrote that “we don’t see much prospect of A City receiving a positive reception in the circumstances. You have the right to your opinions and to state them as you see fit, but with all the work that goes into a book and how hard it is to sell them, we need writers who will try to expand their audience, not shrink it.”

Jenkinson has responded that it was “ludicrous” to suggest that her readership had shrunk or that she had antagonised the majority of Northern Irish writers. “If, as my (former) publisher said, I have the right to state my opinions, they should have continued to support and promote my work when I did so. They’re perfectly entitled to disagree, or even get hot under the collar at what I write, but their action was disproportionate.”

Taking Walsh’s explanation in good faith (as we should), it does lift a veil on the underlying forces at play in Irish publishing. If tiny cottage businesses like Doire, operating on a small scale and minuscule margins, can’t afford to publish writers who are antagonistic or difficult or hold unpopular opinions or fall out with their peers, then they are making the same cold, rational calculation that some large corporations do in similar cases: cancel the contract and move on from the embarrassment.

Aggravating peers

The dread phrase “cancel culture” generally obscures more than it reveals, but it seems useful in this case, especially since the actual argument at issue doesn’t fall neatly into the usual culture war categories. What does it tell us then about the Irish publishing business? The implication of Doire’s position is that if you aggravate your literary peers you therefore undermine your appeal to potential readers. How does that actually work? It certainly seems to fly in the face of the evidence of centuries of bitter literary feuds and rivalries which seemed to have little negative impact on sales.

The Fortnight article was a robustly expressed, scattershot polemic which may well have offended some of the many writers it named. It probably also caused affront among the ever-increasing ranks of people on the lookout for a reason to be outraged. But frankly, so what? It seems that Jenkinson is contracted with another publisher, and is also writing a play for the Abbey which, she told The Irish Times this week, contrasts modern cancel culture with our 1960s past. This serendipitous conjunction of grist with mill offers fuel to those who see the entire episode as an exercise in self-promotion. But a more persuasive and worrying perspective is that contrariness, heterodoxy and unpopular opinions will be punished and exiled by the "community". And that conjures up its own echoes of the Troubles.