THE recent debate about contemporary Irish fiction has been like certain other recent debates in Ireland: some sensible things have been said, some daft things have been said, and one or two things have been said that are little more than the scattergun vituperations of pub bores with internet connections.
If some of the bitter denouncers of contemporary Irish writing would descend from the Olympus of fine-spun thought and deign to venture into the Fiction section of their local bookshops, they would see dozens of stories about the era through which we have just passed, written by authors of formidable commitment and skill. And perhaps if such sages gave support rather than an ice-bucket in the face, we wouldnt have Irish bookstores going out of business.
As Eileen Battersby points out, they might pick up a copy of the Stinging Fly, a well-produced journal of contemporary Irish writing. They might notice that the Irish publishing industry, intelligently aided by the Arts Council even in these troubled times, is offering work that aspires to excellence. They might detect, among the racks of international prize-winning Irish novels, that more interesting, challenging fiction is being written by Irish women than ever before, that in every genre we have authors who are among the best in the world, that the current generation of younger Irish novelists and short-story writers is one of the most talented in the States history. But seeking out and reading a book is more demanding than spouting dismissals and grandiosities in the snug.
It might also be noticed that the audiences for literary events in Ireland have never been larger or more committed. At Listowel Writers Week, at Galways Cúirt, in towns up and down the land, local people have been attending readings in sometimes huge numbers, as they will do again this coming summer.
Poets and storytellers are appearing in the political cabaret scene in Dublin, and in schools, universities and night classes. At the Electric Picnic, many Irish and visiting novelists will be reading, as they did last year, with enormous success. Recently, in Ennis, the Book Club Festival attracted hundreds of readers. At Dún Laoghaires forthcoming Poetry Now festival, many events will be sold out. Such initiatives, often the work of dedicated volunteers who give their communities something to be proud of in hard times, should be supported by commentators rather than blithely ignored when cauldrons of phoney controversy need stirring.
In general, wonderful projects abound, but few readers might think so when the Fokker-drone of the pontificators starts up. Publisher New Islands award-winning "Open Door" series of novellas for adults with reading challenges, a collection written by contemporary Irish authors in conjunction with literacy teachers, is a hand of solidarity to brave people who deserve support, and has been imitated in several countries. Roddy Doyles Fighting Words centre is doing exciting work. Amnesty Internationals Irish section has shown imagination and resourcefulness in asking writers to help bring discussion of human rights into classrooms in an engaging way. There is also the work of our excellent librarians, among the most dedicated and highly motivated people we have. They, too, are part of a literary community that might be more improved by encouragement than by ranting.
It is vital for writers to be criticised, and for their stories and forms to be questioned. Fiction should be a participatory process, not an expression of the ego. So too, incidentally, should criticism.
But should it really be incumbent upon novelists to write only about the era in which they live? If George Orwell had acquiesced in such miserably rigid diktats, hed have written a novel called 1942 rather than the perhaps better one called 1984. Of course, the wonderful thing about 1984 , as with any great novel, is that it reveals truths about eras and situations other than the ones it describes, as every reader willing to meet it halfway will know. You would have to be quite spectacularly divorced from reality to think Gullivers Travels is a story about Lilliput.
What has been missed in much of the commentary is the not unimportant fact that this whole question has everything to do with the reasons why readers read fiction, not the reasons why writers write it. Few of us go to Wuthering Heights out of the desire to become better acquainted with the meteorological fluctuations of 19th-century Yorkshire. Nor do we explore the strange topographies of Alice Through the Looking Glass in order to learn about house prices in Wonderland. There may be readers out there somewhere who are fond of John McGaherns Amongst Women for what it reveals of cyclical fiscal pressures in the agricultural sector, but I suspect that this book club is small and select, meeting weekly in a telephone box over cocoa.
WE must have no more novels set in the past - so we are commanded by some of our touchline politburo. Well, readers, not novelists, will be the final judges of that. But if there ever existed a society that needs to wake up to its past, to the nexus of lies and evasions that created its present, to the ducked responsibilities, the frightened obedience, it is the Republic of Ireland in 2010. Yet some go on wishing us to ignore how we got here.
As to why there have not been more novels about the accursed Celtic Tiger, I have no doubt that some good ones are on their way. Writing fiction, when done well, takes time and effort, a reality not often acknowledged by one or two commissars of the national soul but understood, in my experience, by readers. If, for some unimaginable purpose, perhaps to do with Lenten self-punishment, anyone wanted to read a novel about socio-economic conditions in Dublin on June 16th 1904, he or she would be told that there arent many of those but that the most brilliant and lasting example was published 18 years later. But not many people would read James Joyces Ulysses , or any work of fiction, for such a staggeringly boring reason.
Yes, the last 15 or 20 years have seen Irish novels that did not quite work. If I want to see examples, which, to be honest, I dont, I need look no further than certain contents of my own backlist. And yes, assertive criticism is always necessary if we want to have a culture that might play a meaningful role in getting us out of the morass we are in. Culture is a conversation, or else it is nothing but the holding up of mirrors to mirages, and we need to make our conversations more honest. But I would say to the moaners: quit bellyaching and get involved.
Fascinating things are happening in Irelands recent fiction. They shouldnt be exaggerated or subjected to false hope. Nor should we replace one set of fantasies of ourselves with another that is only an inversion of the first one. All those caveats accepted, all those reservations acknowledged, the fact remains that in storytelling, in fiction and music, in the images of our playwrights, in our peoples valuing of the written word, we have possibilities that are deeply valuable as we face the coming years. They might help us come home to ourselves.