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Show Your Work: A book full of gifts from our finest writers

This anthology of essays shows how indispensable the Dublin Review has become to our sense of 21st-century Irish writing

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Sally Rooney’s essay Even If You Beat Me is about her pre-writing career as a champion competitive debater

Sally Rooney’s essay Even If You Beat Me is about her pre-writing career as a champion competitive debater

Kevin Barry’s The Skin of Anxiety is an internet autobiography

Kevin Barry’s The Skin of Anxiety is an internet autobiography

Arnold Thomas Fanning’s essay Rough Sleeper went on to form part of his excellent book Mind on Fire

Arnold Thomas Fanning’s essay Rough Sleeper went on to form part of his excellent book Mind on Fire

Show Your Work, edited by Brendan Barrington

Show Your Work, edited by Brendan Barrington

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Sally Rooney’s essay Even If You Beat Me is about her pre-writing career as a champion competitive debater

The personal essay is, by definition, a self-portrait of the writer. Who can be trusted to paint themselves truly? Only, I suspect, people who have done their best to reckon with who they really are — people, that is, who have tried to see themselves without evasion or illusion, and who therefore write with no unconscious designs on the reader (that is, their prose does not helplessly cry out, “Like me! Envy me! Pity me! Fancy me!”).

The personal essay is therefore not necessarily the ideal mode for younger writers, who often have unconscious designs on their readers. Besides, learning who you are takes time. To write persuasively about yourself, you need to have done the longitudinal study.

All of which skirts the question: why write personal essays in the first place? Why read them? Well, gossip is always fun; and there is never any shortage of attention-hounds willing to confess the worst about themselves. But to read the ideal — the Platonic — personal essay is to feel oddly like the recipient of a gift. You read someone else’s account of an experience and you see yourself; know yourself better. The confessional urge is cheap. But the urge towards honest communion with the reader is very close to the artistic impulse — it may in fact be the very same thing.

These thoughts occur to me because I’ve been reading Show Your Work, an anthology of essays from the Dublin Review — the journal responsible, more or less singlehandedly, for kicking off the Irish personal-essay renaissance. For 22 years now, the Dublin Review has been appearing four times a year in its pastel-covered quarto-size volumes. It is austerely designed. There are no illustrations, within or without. No editorial matter appears anywhere in its pages. No advertisements, either. Just essays and short stories, unadorned.

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Arnold Thomas Fanning’s essay Rough Sleeper went on to form part of his excellent book Mind on Fire

Arnold Thomas Fanning’s essay Rough Sleeper went on to form part of his excellent book Mind on Fire

Arnold Thomas Fanning’s essay Rough Sleeper went on to form part of his excellent book Mind on Fire

The short stories are usually good. But, with apologies to some extraordinary writers, nobody reads the Dublin Review for its short stories. You read it for its personal essays and journalism. I don’t remember the last time I picked up an issue of the Dublin Review and didn’t find at least one outstanding piece of what the MFA courses now call “creative non-fiction”.

A short list of writers who have appeared in the publication tells you how indispensable it has become to our sense of 21st-century Irish writing: Sally Rooney (her first ever essay appeared there, and is collected here), Mark O’Connell, Kevin Barry, Anne Enright, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Rob Doyle, Roisin Kiberd, Caelainn Hogan, Patrick Freyne, Arnold Thomas Fanning, Adrian Duncan, Sara Baume, Nicole Flattery… many more. (In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I’ve published an essay in the Dublin Review myself, though my contribution has for some reason not been included in this collection of its “very best essays”.)

Brendan Barrington, who edits the Dublin Review, is the best kind of editor. He has taste. He is heroically patient, often helping writers through multiple drafts across months or years until the piece is right. And he is unassuming. The magazine isn’t about its editor. It’s not even about the writers it publishes. It’s about the work.

Writers therefore love writing for the Dublin Review. And readers love reading it. It’s to be hoped that Show Your Work finds the magazine some new readers (and some new subscribers — literary journals are always hanging on by their financial fingernails). It should; it’s a book full of gifts.

Arnold Thomas Fanning’s essay Rough Sleeper, from the Winter 2016 issue, is one. The piece went on to form part of his excellent book Mind on Fire (2018); it’s an account of some months he spent homeless in London during a decade-long series of psychotic episodes, and it is both coolly compassionate and impressively unsparing.

Brian Dillon’s RB and Me, from the Winter 2010 issue, is another gift: a portrait of the literary critic as a young man (orphaned in his late teens, frantically pursuing an academic career at the cost of his mental health — the “RB” of the title is Roland Barthes), it achieves a remarkable undesigning honesty.

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Kevin Barry’s The Skin of Anxiety is an internet autobiography

Kevin Barry’s The Skin of Anxiety is an internet autobiography

Kevin Barry’s The Skin of Anxiety is an internet autobiography

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Kevin Barry’s The Skin of Anxiety (Winter 2012) is an internet autobiography; Barry belongs to that generation who can remember clearly a time before you didn’t compulsively check your notifications every five seconds. This is what enables him to wonder if the internet is “a skin of anxiety that’s pulled tautly across the entire surface of the world […] and what if we can never, ever escape from it?”

Sally Rooney’s Even If You Beat Me (Spring 2015), about her pre-writing career as a champion competitive debater, is typically adroit; it’s also obviously the self-assertive work of a young writer (Rooney was 24 in 2015), and fascinatingly revealing: “I did it. I got everything I set out to get.”

Show Your Work also contains some exceptional pieces of reportage. Let Susan McKay’s Easter in Ardoyne (Summer 2014) stand for them all — it’s a precisely observed account of the suicide epidemic that has afflicted the working-class Catholic North Belfast area since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It’s the sort of journalism that takes time, patience and integrity; it shows us something we would not otherwise have seen.

But in these pages, McKay is merely first among equals. Show Your Work, like the magazine it celebrates, shows you how it’s done.

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Show Your Work, edited by Brendan Barrington

Show Your Work, edited by Brendan Barrington

Show Your Work, edited by Brendan Barrington

Essays: Show Your Work. edited by Brendan Barrington
Dublin Review Books, 274 pages, hardcover €20


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