Tuesday 23 January 2018

Where have all the Irish writers gone?

John Boland

Are Irish writers losing their international mojo? As recently as five years ago, the lists of bestselling and most borrowed books in the UK would have featured at least five Irish authors -- if mostly such crafters of chicklit as Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Cecelia Ahern, Cathy Kelly and Sheila O'Flanagan.

Yet in the recent table of 2011's Top 100 UK bestsellers, only Binchy, Keyes and Emma Donoghue made the cut, while in the latest list of 100 most borrowed books from British public libraries, only Binchy remains to fly the literary tricolour, though she does so impressively with three entries.

Dominating the list, though, is the American thriller writer James Patterson, with 17 different books, thereby demonstrating a bleak truth -- that most readers prefer fast-paced plots, no matter how threadbare or contrived, to such niceties as absorbing characters or pleasing prose.

Indeed, the only recognisably literary novels to make the top 100 are Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December and Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger. In other words, the majority of literary fiction wins awards rather than readers -- or readers who borrow rather than buy books, anyway.


Meanwhile, writing in this week's issue of the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen -- that most earnestly literary of American novelists -- wonders whether Edith Wharton would have more readers (or be more "congenial" to them at any rate) if she'd been blessed with the beauty of Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Onassis rather than looking like an old frump.

It's an intriguing approach to a great writer on the 150th anniversary of her birth and it follows up on the quip of one of her contemporaries -- that she wrote like a masculine Henry James -- but Franzen's essay goes on to make many illuminating points about the author of The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence, three of the finest American novels of the 20th Century.

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