Is this really such a golden age for Irish writing?
John Spain says that, despite all the prizes, he has some serious doubts
Colm Toibin this week won the 2009 Costa Novel Award, yet another victory by an Irish writer to add to all the other recent triumphs which appear to confirm the arrival of a new golden age of Irish writing. But how golden is it?
Toibin won the award for his bestselling novel Brooklyn. He's now the 6/4 hot favourite to take the overall Costa Book of the Year award for 2009, which will be announced in a few weeks. The Costas, formerly the Whitbreads, are among the most prestigious literary prizes in Britain.
One does not want to tempt fate, but it will be a major surprise -- not least to the bookies -- if Toibin does not go on to win the overall prize. Mind you, an Irish victory should not be a surprise because last year the Costa Book of the Year award for 2008 was won by another Irishman, Sebastian Barry, for The Secret Scripture.
Toibin's Novel of the Year award this week comes hard on the heels of another Irish triumph. It's just weeks since Colum McCann won the National Book Award in America with his acclaimed novel Let The Great World Spin. The award is one of the most important in America. McCann's book is a bestseller and was hailed by the American media as the best post 9/11 novel, with the New York Times describing it as "one of the most electric, profound novels in years".
It's just a few years since John Banville and Anne Enright won their Bookers and Colm Toibin won the IMPAC, the world's most valuable literary prize. Both Toibin and Sebastian Barry have been shortlisted for the Booker, and Barry's The Secret Scripture should have won in 2008 (it was the clear favourite) except that the judges balked at giving the Booker to another Irish writer the year after Enright had won, which was just two years after Banville had won in 2005.
There is also Joseph O'Neill's wonderful novel Netherland, which won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction awarded annually for the best American work of fiction (O'Neill has lived in New York for some time).
There are numerous other international awards won by Irish writers -- Joe O'Connor's bestseller Star of the Sea, for example, won the European Novel of the Year award in France. Hugo Hamilton's magical memoir, The Speckled People, won the Prix Femina in France and the Berto in Italy, both major awards. And there are many others.
One could go back to Roddy Doyle's Booker in 1993. Or Seamus Heaney's Nobel in 1995. Or talk about all the awards picked up by the late Frank McCourt. Or the way Irish female writers like Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Cathy Kelly and Cecelia Ahern have won numerous popular fiction awards in the past few years, as well as dominating the bestsellers in Britain. There is also the new wave of Irish crime writers and playwrights winning foreign awards.
One thing is clear: we seem to be in a golden age for Irish writing, if one is to judge it on the basis of the prizes our writers are winning. Proportional to our population, the recent success of Irish writers in the big international literary competitions is hugely impressive, unmatched by any other country of similar size. But is that the right way to judge? Whether one can call this a new golden age is doubtful, certainly if the comparison is with the golden age that produced Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and others.
One eminent literary commentator puts this rather well: "The current crop of Irish writers have resolutely, and shrewdly, turned aside from the demanding route laid out by truly great and entirely engaged artists such as Joyce and Yeats and Beckett and taken their lead instead from the minor masters of the previous generation, the Sean O'Faolains and Frank O'Connors, to do what the Irish do so well, that is, spin polished, plausible and beguiling yarns."
That critic has a point. The fact is that there is something superficial and parochial about a lot of contemporary Irish writing, including some of the very successful Irish writing. There is also something contrived, calculated, even opportunistic about some of it, particularly in the choice of subject matter. It's either very safe, in a nostalgic, Oirish kind of way, or newsworthy and cinematic in a way that will connect with readers in the wider world.
But then that may be what international award panels and readers want. On the nostalgia front, one thinks of Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, a story full of charm and pathos (by the very gifted author of The Master) but not one that will advance the Irish novel. Or Colum McCann's novel Dancer, about Nureyev, as a subject choice with instant global appeal.
Or McCann's current bestseller, which begins with the universally known image of the Twin Towers tightrope walker. Starting with a celebrity or an event that is known around the world can be half the battle in getting readers.
Another example, coming later this year, is the book by Emma Donoghue, whose next novel Room is about a young boy who has lived his life in a locked room, unaware of the outside world, an idea inspired by the Fritzl case. That has attracted over €1m in rights sales, a phenomenal achievement. Or there was John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas -- a huge hit, even though there are memoirs still appearing by people who really were in the concentration camps as children.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with basing a novel on a real person or event. It all depends on how it's done, on the insight that the writer brings, on the quality of the writing.
Traditional Irish themes and settings -- about rural life, emigration and so on -- can also make spell-binding books, like John McGahern's That They May Face the Rising Sun or his Memoir. These masterpieces are deceptively simple; the local becomes universal, the books are spiritual and philosophical as well as lyrical.
That is what most of the contemporary Irish writers (including the successful ones) lack, not all the time, but too often. The current crop of award winners are so focused on being successful career writers that they lack philosophical depth and don't have the time or patience or the ability to sustain excellence in writing over a complete book.
Of course, this may be a hopelessly idealistic way of looking at things. Making a living as a novelist is extremely difficult. Even serious novelists have to be conscious of what sells. Literary novelists have to find ways of making their books connect with a wide readership. So yes, we are in a golden age of Irish writing if one judges that on the ability of our best writers to win international awards and carve out literary careers.
One also suspects that the more accessible books now being written by contemporary Irish writers are a great relief to the London reviewers and the pundits in the New York Times, who seem to be the sole arbiters and reputation-makers these days now that real critics, the likes of Edmund Wilson and Cyril Connolly, are no more. The London and NYT crowd bitterly resented being required to think by the 'difficult' work of Joyce, etc. They are relieved that the current crop are not so demanding.
Where is a contemporary Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, or even a Shaw or a Wilde? Nowhere to be seen. Where is the Irish novelist with real insight into the human condition today, who is attempting to write something of importance? With one or two exceptions, absent.
We're in a golden age for Irish writing, if one judges it on the basis of success in international competitions. But all that glitters is not gold.