Awards celebrate national talent
Literature is in our blood and the Book of the Decade list shows why we are still masters of the art, says Eamon Delaney
Published 16/05/2010 | 05:00
During the recent talk of cutbacks and recession, and the need to haul ourselves out of the torpor of negativity, there has been much reference to our artistic legacy and what an asset it is in terms of our sense of worth and self-confidence. This is valid talk. The arts, in the broadest sense, created the self-confidence and cultural renaissance of the late Nineties which preceded the economic boom of the Noughties, and there is no reason why this can't be the case again. And, of all the arts, it is fair to say that literature is what we are best at.
There is a pecking order in terms of the arts in Ireland. At the bottom, alas, is anything with a visual aesthetic -- painting, sculpture and design -- while at the top is music, drama and then literature. This is mainly because of our history. A dispossessed people, eking out a living on the land, we didn't have the time or affluence to create objects of aesthetic pleasure -- as they did in other European countries. We found our expression through our verbal culture and told stories and sang songs.
As one sage put it, "we carried our mythology in our heads". And then when we got to write those stories down, we exacted a post-colonial revenge by becoming masters of the language forced upon us. Witness what Joyce and Beckett have achieved.
When you look at the list for the Bord Gais Energy Book of the Decade you see why we are still masters at this artform: John Banville, Colm Toibin, Joseph O'Neill, Edna O'Brien -- our writers are world beaters. Colum McCann, a lad from my own very ordinary area of Clonkeen Road, Blackrock, in south Co Dublin has gone on to render the world's greatest city to itself and won the National Book Award in the United States. That takes some doing. No doubt about it: it is something in our blood.
Recently, there has been an often heated debate about current Irish writing and whether it is properly reflecting our contemporary lives, rather than reaching back into the past to revisit old subjects and give us well-worn costume drama. The debate has provoked some strong and defensive reactions, but surely it is good just to have such a debate.
The reality is that Irish writing does both, and often the most interesting way of looking at the present is through the events of the past. Often, indeed, it is the only way to look at something contemporary and "now". We use the past to reinterpret the present. The plots of centuries-old tales allowed Shakespeare to write about his own society. Colum McCann meditates on the experience of 9/11 by setting his novel back in the mid-Seventies.
Every decade feels like the most important for a society, but the past 10 years in Ireland have been truly remarkable. But it is hard to take a snapshot of something moving so quickly. And yet the books here have done a good job trying. In some cases, they reflect the changes through those 10 years since the books have been selected year by year.
Here are the highlights of the past 10 years. But better still, when we see the books listed for Banville, Toibin, Sebastian Barry and William Trevor, there is also a sense of tribute to that writer's whole canon. Thus, when we note Ronan Bennett listed for Havoc In Its Third Year, we also remember his superb previous novel, The Catastrophist. It is the same with Pat McCabe's Wildwood: we think of The Butcher Boy and The Dead School, which brought such stylistic innovation to Irish writing (not something it has excelled at, frankly, despite the experimental legacy of Joyce and Beckett).
And yet one who has reconsidered form and style is, of course, Roddy Doyle, who is here for Paula Spencer, a worthy successor to his other novels. Likewise for Joe O'Connor, for whom The Star of the Sea represents probably his strongest novel -- an ambitious canvas in terms of character and plot. Meanwhile, Hugo Hamilton took the elegant art of poetic memoir to new levels with his masterful account The Speckled People.
But what enlivens the list is the variety of its writing. Thus, for example, we have John Connolly's Every Dead Thing which, as I wrote at the time of its release, may appear a conventional crime novel, but combined the quality and texture of literary fiction with the atmosphere of Southern Gothic American fiction, and so brought a whole new element to Irish writing.
Bring it back home, the energy and colour of the last decade here is vividly depicted in the popular books by Marian Keyes, Cecelia Ahern, Cathy Kelly and, of course, the indefatigable Maeve Binchy. In the non-fiction mode, Bill Cullen's memoir was a huge hit and a classic affirmative read for the Tiger (and post-Tiger) years. One could question the inclusion of sports books such as the troubled memoirs of Paul McGrath or Roy Keane, ghostwritten with Eamon Dunphy. Should any ghostwritten book be included here? Nothing against sports books, but having read these two, I can't find anything better than the average political memoir or biography.
One could also raise eyebrows at the inclusion of The Builders by Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan, which was basically drawn from a series of newspaper articles. But then they, and it (the book), chart the course of our building industry and the characters who sustained, and gave personality to, so much of the now-lamented boom. In terms of events, the books on the list thus reflect the momentous happenings of the last decade and before, such as the Northern violence and the exhaustive peace process charted by Ed Moloney's Secret History of the IRA.
There are also new talents here, such as Kevin Barry and Julia Kelly. This is heartening, for one of the features of the past decade has been the shortage of new literary talents coming forward, compared to the Nineties which saw a plethora of new and acclaimed writers. Claire Keegan and Claire Kilroy are two of the few new voices. This shortage is perhaps a consequence of the boom, and of full gainful employment: nobody had the chance to write novels or books. The hot desk had replaced the cool reflection of the bedsit desk. And so perhaps now, with recession recurrent, we might see a return to writing for pleasure, and publication, and for a sense of adding to the Irish canon, be it fiction or non-fiction.
In all, this is a very worthy exercise and a broad and democratic choice, as opposed to those of the self-perpetuating cliques who preside over other literary contests. There is no back-scratching here, or complacent log rolling. Long may it all continue. And long may we continue doing those things in Ireland that we're good at.
Eamon Delaney's latest book is Breaking the Mould: A Story of Art and Ireland published by New Island.
There's still time to vote for the Bord Gais Energy Book of the Decade. Simply visit www.bookofthedecade.ie. Voting ends on May 27