Fruits of the second flowering


Short Stories: This decade has seen the resurgence of the Irish short story, and the influence of globalisation is everywhere, writes Declan Kiberd

A lot of stories by younger Irish authors are now set in the US. Why? Because many now attend a writing school over there? Perhaps. Or because Ireland is now another US state, an aircraft carrier for the Americans? That can hardly be an explanation, since two of the best stories in this particular collection are set not in Americanised Ireland but in the US itself.

The real reason may lie in the prestige of recent American literature: hence Gerard Donovan's Harry Dietz is narrated here in the hard-boiled style of Raymond Carver and his documentation of the quiet desperation of blue-collar life.

The romance between Irish and American story-writers has long ago been consummated, and Richard Ford is but the most recent Yank to salute Frank O'Connor as one of his exemplars. More than a century ago, Henry James remarked that "the little story is but scantily relished in England, where readers take their fiction rather by the volume than by the page". Pondering that comment many years later, Seán O'Faolain observed with a sort of baffled triumph that "the Americans and Irish do seem to write better stories".

O'Faolain thought English writers preferred the social amplitude of the novel to capture the layers of a made society, whereas the Irish and Americans, still not fully "conventionalised", favoured a more personal exposition. Through much of the 1930s and 1940s, O'Faolain seemed somewhat unnerved by the adoption of the short story (in the New Yorker, on radio, in national papers) as his country's quintessential art form. He fretted about the problem of "adequacy" and whether Ireland was yet sufficiently calibrated by different economic classes and social rituals to sustain the full complexity of the novel. In asking as much, he echoed a question once raised about mid-19th-century America by Henry James: how could one write a novel of manners about a society that had none?

Frank O'Connor, in due time, came up with a modification of this theory. In The Lonely Voice he argued that the short story "marks the first appearance in fiction of the Little Man" and that it is characterised by its treatment of the "submerged population group", those lonely persons who live on the fringes of society because of spiritual emptiness or material deprivation. No wonder that both he and O'Faolain saw the story as the appropriate form for the risen people, the rebels on the run, the Os and the Macs.

This still holds true in that there could hardly be a better description of Carver's "trailer trash" or of the shop assistant who is the subject of Gerard Donovan's account of a mid-life male veering out of control on the fringes of greater Chicago. But then the reader of this rich volume begins to notice that nowadays everyone feels part of some persecuted minority or misunderstood sub-group - whether it's Roddy Doyle's desperate house husband who seeks escape from a stifling marriage by telling an incorrect joke, or Blánaid McKinney's TV weatherman who, beneath a chummy exterior, harbours sociopathic tendencies, or William Wall's translator of Dante who feels himself at odds with the world of publishers and royalty advances on which, nonetheless, he depends.

There are many sensitive treatments here of that ultimate submerged population group in contemporary culture, children - Bernard MacLaverty has a moving tale of two boys coping with sudden bereavement; Julia O'Faolain describes a girlhood in the south Co Dublin of the 1930s; and Cóilín Ó hAodha evokes a mother-son estrangement.

OVER THE PAST decade or so, the short story in Ireland has enjoyed a second flowering. That might at first have seemed a little surprising, as the country boomed with an economic self-confidence which appeared to be based on exactly the sort of social consensus which SeáO'Faolain felt to be necessary for the production of long, accomplished novels.

Far from achieving a social consensus, however, Ireland had simply created new minorities and out-groups. As the Os and the Macs became sufficiently empowered to become the staple of novels, those about whom novels had once been written - the Anglo-Irish, Catholic priests, farmers - were now the new marginals, and so fitting subjects for short stories by a McGahern or a Trevor.

In this same decade, however, Irish culture has itself been globalised. So in this collection Blánaid McKinney can use American idioms for a tale set in London that is nevertheless labelled "Irish". And Hugo Hamilton can make wry mockery of the merchandising of Aran sweaters and signature Irishness in a beautifully wrought narrative called The Homesick Industry (which might itself be a comment on the fate of "Irish" short stories). Or Niall Williams can set a morality tale about Irish guilt-feelings in a village of Peru.

One of the effects of living in a globalised world is to make everyone feel like outsiders in someone else's reality - or, as Neil Jordan here diagnoses it, "actors". The first modern people to feel this were the Americans themselves: as far back as 1980, those who voted for the actor-president Ronald Reagan told Garry Wills that they did so because they felt "like outsiders in their own country". Ever since, and in an increasing number of countries, leaders have been at once in government and against the social consensus represented by the very idea of government. It is a condition which, if O'Connor was right, will lead to many, many more short stories.

Once upon a time, castigators of the form saw in it a sort of apprenticeship served by writers who might, if gifted, go on to compose full-blown novels. That seemed to be O'Faolain's general position. But it was never O'Connor's: he recognised that major novelists such as Trollope could sometimes write badly and get away with it, but that no great storyteller could be an inferior writer, because the true affinity of that genre was with the pure art of the lyric poem rather than the applied art of the novel.

That the "short story or novel?" debate was based on a false dichotomy is obvious now. The vast majority of Marcus's contributors, from Colm Tóibín to Edna O'Brien, are recognised practitioners of the novel. It is notable, however, that the most powerful contribution here is once again written by Claire Keegan, who has yet to produce in the "applied" form. Her tale The Forester's Daughter is an artful meditation on the life of a woman in a remote farm beyond Coolattin and on the subversive power of the storyteller's art to challenge the repressions of a traditional community.

And here may lie the deepest answer to the question raised for well over a century. The short story has flourished best in those societies where a vibrant oral culture has been challenged by the sudden onset of print codes. It is a natural outcome of the fusion between folk tale and modern literature - hence its strength in the American midwest, in late-19th-century Russia and France, in New Zealand and Australia, and in Ireland. It often takes for its theme that very tension between the old and the new of which it is a portent. This would explain Claire Keegan's ongoing interest in the ways in which old superstitions and stories may or may not assist people in ordering their lives.

The two foremost contemporary masters of the form, Alistair MacLeod and John McGahern, know that tradition can live even in the lament for its passing; and on the evidence supplied again here, Claire Keegan is their true successor, a writer already touched by greatness.

Declan Kiberd's new book, The Irish Writer and the World, will be published by Cambridge University Press in September

The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories. Edited by David Marcus. Faber and Faber, 325pp. £12.99