Thursday 5 December 2019

Angels and Demons in the land of saints and scholars

We have a reputation for being a nation that loves to read Irish literature one that takes great pride in our own writers. But - according to a new study - we are really addicted to foreign blockbusters and bonkbusters.

Pen Pals: Sebastian Barry. Photo: Dave Meehan.
Pen Pals: Sebastian Barry. Photo: Dave Meehan.
Maeve Binchy
Marian Keyes
Roddy Doyle

Edel Coffey

Last week, Nielsen Bookscan, the service that compiles sales figures for the books industry, revealed that over the last 12 years - the amount of time Nielsen has been counting books sales in Ireland- the best-selling book in the country was Angel and Demons' author Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Not so surprising really when you consider it has been one of the biggest selling books globally since its publication.

What was surprising, however, was the fact that, of the top 20 books sold in Ireland since 2002, only one writer was Irish. Sebastian Barry's 2008 novel The Secret Scripture made it to No18 on the list with sales of 87,697. The Da Vinci Code sold 221,126, but EL James took three slots on the chart with her erotic Fifty Shades trilogy, which added up to a grand total of 433,260 sales.

So where were all the Irish writers we love so well? Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchy, Joseph O'Connor, Marian Keyes, John Banville and his alter-ego Benjamin Black, Cecelia Ahern and Colm Toibin? We like to think we're a nation in love with literature. We gave the world James Joyce and Beckett, Oscar Wilde and WB Yeats. But if this list is anything to go by, many of us would prefer to curl up with a page-turner, or in the case of EL James, a toe-curler, than the latest publication by our finest writers.

And one has to wonder where Joyce and Beckett were on this list - if The Official Driver Theory Test could make it in, surely Ulysses should have?

Of course the blockbuster mega-sellers are always going to take the top spots when looking at a time span of 12 years. A look at the bestsellers for 2013, for example, shows eight of the top 20 authors on the Nielsen list are Irish, including Marian Keyes, Ross O'Carroll Kelly, Colum McCann and Donal Ryan, amongst others. The year before, five of the top 20 were Irish, and it should be borne in mind that 10 of the places on the list were taken up by massive sellers EL James, Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games) and JK Rowling.

So are the latest figures indicative of anything meaningful when it comes to Irish reading tastes?

Michael O'Brien of The O'Brien Press thinks our tastes have changed direction over the last 100 years. "We're just so much more exposed to American culture and mass media here. Compare Ireland to France, where there is genuine respect for intellectual thought. We don't have that in Ireland. As a nation we never respected our intelligentsia. If we had, we would have cultivated and cherished people like Joyce and Beckett. They were driven out of the country by narrow-minded Church-led people."

Sarah Davis-Goff is co-founder and co-publisher of the independent publishing house Tramp Press and says there is a small, committed core of readers who are interested in Irish literature. It was Davis-Goff who discovered Donal Ryan's Booker-longlisted novel The Spinning Heart when she worked as an editor at Lilliput.

"I'm not sure how much meaning we can draw from those figures. That's not to say that isn't somewhat dispiriting. The market is tough and people aren't buying as many books as they used to, but I was talking to an independent UK publisher and the print runs for a small UK publisher are the same as those for a small Irish publisher, which goes to show what a good market we have here."

So how does a small press like Tramp decide on what to publish? "I don't really think about what the market likes. As soon as you get into that you'll run into problems. No one would have guessed, for example, that fan fiction erotica [Fifty Shades Of Grey] would have made it into that list three times. I think it's been proved time and again that small publishers serve a vital place in the market. We're more inclined to deal directly with incoming submissions so manuscripts are not being filtered and thus we come across work that doesn't reach the eyes of the big editors. Donal [Ryan] got picked up by Random house having come through Lilliput."

Likewise, the experience of last year's literary phenomenon Eimear McBride and her debut novel A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, suggests Irish readers are still interested in reading Irish literature.

Dermot Bolger, author and former publisher of Raven Arts, which went on to become New Island, says: "Where Irish publishing comes into its own is that Irish presses like New Island, Lilliput and Liberties have an intuitive understanding of what is happening to, and what hidden stories are significant within, Irish society. I would find it impossible for example to imagine a major UK publisher having the understanding to realise how important it was that someone like Nuala O'Faolain was coaxed into telling her life story in her landmark memoir, Are You Somebody? This became a huge international bestseller but only after New Island slowly coaxed it from her, recognising how her story echoed that of so many other Irish women."

While we may not be buying Irish writers in the same volumes as we are buying international ones, there is still a strong market for Irish writing. "We wouldn't be here if people weren't interested in reading Irish books," says Michael McLoughlin, publisher at Penguin Ireland. "It's understandable the phenomenal blockbusters take over but you can't categorise Irish readers on the basis of that."

Michael O'Brien adds: "There is a small intellectual core and that's why you can still publish literary books in Ireland."

Bolger agrees: "I think that there remains a strong core support in Ireland for quality Irish fiction by both established and new writers: you see this in the breakthrough of writers of the quiet quality of Donal Ryan, the interest and pride that people feel in the continuing success of someone like Colum McCann and the genuine outpouring of grief at the death of the great Dermot Healy - a man who wrote few books but whose books truly touched people's hearts.

"It would be insular and unwise if people were only interested in Irish writers and it is fascinating to hear about the truly eclectic international mix of authors and genres that book clubs here discuss, but I think Irish writers still feature hugely in the melting pot, not out of any parochialism but because the themes and characters touch readers strongly. So I think there remains a strong interest in quality Irish writing''.

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