Saturday 18 November 2017

Sting in the tail for a fine literary tradition

Good work needs to be published, and The Stinging Fly's Declan Meade is ensuring that happens. By Alison Walsh

The literary magazine has a long and illustrious history: the New Yorker, Granta, the Paris Review have all defined literary culture and nurtured the career of some of the world's great writing talents. But in today's tough market, where literary fiction is no longer the cornerstone of the publishing business, no longer the prestige flagship of any respectable publishing firm, the influence of the literary magazine is arguably no longer what it once was.

However, in Ireland, one small but beautifully formed magazine is bucking that trend, launching the careers of literary talents, nurturing them with care and even publishing their work in book form. How, exactly, does The Stinging Fly do it?

A casual glance at the Winter 2009-10 issue confirms that it contains everything that a good literary magazine should: an essay, by Jack Harte, on the vital work being done to keep the Irish Writers' Centre alive; an extract from Paul Murray's much-anticipated Skippy Dies, which makes the reader want to go out and buy it; a fascinating interview with Deirdre Madden, author of Molly Fox's Birthday, one of the reading highlights of last summer.

There's lots of new poetry, from Theo Dorgan among others, some reviews and a selection of excellent short stories. All this on 128 pages of beautifully designed glossy paper. It looks and feels as if it should be savoured quietly in a smoky cafe. Even its name is erudite, a quote from Plato's The Last Days of Socrates.

But publisher Declan Meade says that in the beginning it was something of an amateur enterprise. "What got us started was David Marcus and the publishing of the Fish anthology. He said it's a shame there aren't more anthologies, so myself and my friend said, sure, let's set up a magazine. We knew nothing about what we were doing," he admits cheerfully. "But immediately stories started coming in -- it took on its own momentum. It just kind of blossomed."

Meade's laconic account of the magazine's creation belies his passion for literature and, in particular, the short story, which is positively unfashionable these days. But, also, one senses the kind of drive which must be needed to keep this kind of enterprise going. After all, the poet ee cummings referred to running a literary magazine as being like pushing your head through a straw.

Sure enough, after a couple of years of modest success -- the more remarkable for being achieved with just a small Arts Council grant -- "I didn't feel I was pushing the magazine as hard as I could, so I took a break and thought about what to do with it," Meade says.

He decided not only to return with a redesigned magazine, but with a publishing arm to boot. The first author of The Stinging Fly Press was the highly praised Sean O'Reilly. "I'd interviewed him for the magazine when he was working on his second novel ... When he had written Watermark [his third novel], I said send it to me and I'll read it. And I liked it," he says simply, going on to explain: "Sean's manuscript just happened to be there and needed a publisher," which epitomises his philosophy -- that good work needs to be published, demands an audience, regardless of notions of market share or profitability.

It was this same noble motivation that marked many famous literary collaborations in the New Yorker, Granta, etc. Many writers got their first encouragement in a literary magazine, a hastily scribbled note from an editor to the effect that the story could be improved, the offer of publication, the regular support of a writer which was so vital to their careers. The relationship between Raymond Carver and his Esquire magazine editor Gordon Lish was famously close, and where would Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Pat Barker be if they hadn't been named as one of Granta's famous Best of British series?

It's clear that Meade sees this nurturing approach as part of his remit at The Stinging Fly, both at the magazine and the press. "I have seen people come through with five or six pieces and then gradually start to improve -- people have to start somewhere," he says. And while he readily admits that he can't reach the levels of Marcus with his careful letters -- "I only have time for a quick email" -- one senses that many writers have continued because of his encouragement. Take his new find, Michael J Farrell: "He sent me three stories and I said, 'Sorry, not taking these,' and he said, 'Well, I'll give you one more chance,' and I published it. Then he sent me two or three at a time by email." The resulting short-story collection, Life in the Universe, was acclaimed by many, including critic John Boland who found himself "irresistibly snared by its originality and wit".

"If I could believe that there were publishers out there looking to publish short stories, I wouldn't have to," Meade insists -- this from a publisher who has an uncanny knack for finding literary gems. One of the most talked-about literary debuts of recent years, Kevin Barry's There are Little Kingdoms, was published by The Stinging Fly Press, and he has now been snapped up by none other than the New Yorker and by Jonathan Cape for his first novel City of Bohane.

Meade has also organised the prestigious Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award, won by Claire Keegan, and if this weren't enough, the print magazine is backed up by a strong website (www.sting ingfly.org), a notable feature of which is a literary "cafe", in which writers can chat to others and receive information and support.

The magazine has a healthy circulation, but Meade is realistic about its success: "I make a living because of the Arts Council grant. Subscriptions have built over time, but if it was to be run as a money-making exercise ... well ... " Meade shrugs amiably. But his modesty is misplaced. The Stinging Fly is something of a rebuke to our commercialised times -- what, no tweeting, or blogging, no product placement, no ads? -- and yet this magazine has gone from strength to strength, garnering a loyal audience, taking its first steps into the publishing world and guaranteeing its place in Irish culture by its support of new writers.

And, at a time when Arts Council funding is uncertain, the role of magazines like The Stinging Fly has become more vital, connecting us to a part of our literary culture which might otherwise disappear.

The magazine is inviting submissions for this year's issues until March 31

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