Thursday, June 22, 2006

Doyle and Enright give The Irish Times what for

It's a pity that Eileen Battersby, Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times didn't elaborate on the barbed comments directed at that newspaper, and at Irish literary critics - that is, directly at her, among others - by Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright during their public interview as part of last week's Dublin Writers' Festival. Perhaps it was just mentioned in passing, but this is all her report had to say on the matter:

Both he and Enright shake their heads over what they see as the ongoing stupidity of The Irish Times, all that is wrong with society is invariably reflected in its cosy pages. They also agree that there are currently 40 good Irish writers and no good literary critics, "the film critics are even worse."

Firstly, 40 good living Irish writers is too generous an estimate. It really is. It sounds like a figure pulled out of the air, possibly as a joke. I can think of maybe 15 good Irish writers. Maybe, just maybe, 20. In fact, I'm going to try and write a list, and see how many I can come up with. I'll update later.

Secondly, on the cosiness of the Irish Times: Fair play to Battersby for mentioning the comments, I suppose, even if she doesn't do much more than tack it onto the end of her article. I have to wonder whether Doyle and Enright gave a fuller idea of what they meant by cosiness when they used that word (if they used that word - it's not in quotes). Were they talking about the newspaper as a whole, about the arts coverage, about the books pages, about the opinion pages, about the Saturday magazine, to which Enright herself is a reasonably regular contributor? (It looked like she might have been taking over Roisin Ingle's column for a while there.) It's difficult to respond to their criticism without knowing.

Thirdly, and related to this last point: the dearth of good Irish literary critics. I have mixed feelings on this. Ireland does not exactly boast a vibrant and strengthening critical climate where literature and the arts are concerned, but I don't for a minute agree that there are no good Irish literary critics. Again, it would be good to know what they mean by critics - if they're talking just about critics of fiction, or if they mean critics of every form of writing, from poetry to history and biography. It's unclear, too, whether they refer to academic critics, novelists who review novels, journalists who review anything they're handed, or a mixture of all three. Even if it is a mixture, I can think offhand of examples from all three fields who I count as fine critics. Again, I'll try to update with a fuller list, but here are some critics, or reviewers if you want, who publish in Irish newspapers and journals, and whose writing I respect: Nicholas Grene (academic). Colm Toibin (novelist). John Banville (novelist and former literary editor of the IT). Declan Kiberd (academic). Dennis O'Driscoll, Peter Sirr and Vona Groarke (poets). Susan McKay (political journalist and book reviewer). William Wall (novelist, who wrote brilliantly on Irish poetry in the magazine the Shop a few months ago). There must be others, and I know I'm sticking too closely to the reviewers of the Irish Times, but really where else do you look for a serious and dedicated book review section? There's also the Irish Book Review, which has some good reviewers, but it seemed, in its early issues at least, overly cliquey and unlikely to display any real diversity or unpredictability in its views on Irish books. Also, the reviews in those early issues were just plain poor; often badly written, and either petty or parochial.

On film critics: Donald Clarke is very good. Apart from him - and I doubt Enright and Doyle were even thinking of the internet as a valid source of reviews or criticism - I look mainly to blogs for reviews of film and for other criticism. But it's true, there's nobody in Irish film criticism of the calibre of, say, Anthony Lane. That said, what real outlets would there be for someone writing longer, more considered reviews like his? (I haven't read Film Ireland for a while. Maybe it has reviews like that? I don't know.)

I notice they didn't touch on theatre criticism, nor would I expect them to in this context. That's a whole other day's work.

I'd say that Doyle and Enright made for a formidable team once they got going together on this. They're both outspoken, eloquent, sharply intelligent and utterly intolerant of bullshit. If they were given an hour to talk about newspapers and literary criticism in Ireland, I'd be on the next plane home to hear them. I'd also hope for a slightly fuller account of the debate in the paper the next day (or six days later, whatever you can manage), but that's just me. And, like I say, the comments were possibly just part of a really rapid-fire discussion, and were not dwelt upon long enough to merit a fuller mention.

Some other features of the interview (Enright interviewed Doyle), from Battersby's article today:

• Doyle didn't suffer fools from the audience gladly. He doesn't suffer windbags gladly either. Or maybe he just didn't suffer audience members, full stop. A woman wanted him to know she didn't enjoy The Commitments; he seems not to have bothered even to reply. A man wanted to know about his views on "religion and churches". "I'm an atheist," Doyle responded bluntly. That was the end of that.

• Doyle admitted that the actor Ger Ryan's interpretation of his character, Paula Spencer, in the stage version of his novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors had made for a "different, stronger" version of the character and that, as he wrote the sequel to the novel (which will be published in September), he was aware of the challenge this posed to his own characterisation of her. At least, I think that's what he's saying. Maybe he's talking about the stage version, which he helped to adapt. Again, it's a little unclear. But if this is the challenge he's talking about, it's a very interesting one, and I guess one that other authors have faced too, as they write sequels, or the next book in a series.

• He talked about the number of "wrecked, baldy old guys" who come up to him in the street and tell him that he used to teach them. Others, or maybe the same guys, are "recovering heroin addicts...the ghosts of young kids he used to teach," writes Battersby.

• Enright came across, writes Battersby, "as a harassed housewife on temporary day release from her children," and complains that she has no time to read. But she's shrewd and alert as an interviewer, and knew "how to turn an interview into an apparently casual conversation. She [was] also asking Doyle the right questions." Another reason why she should write for the Irish Times, then. Sign her up!

• Doyle would love to live in New York. You can stay with us, Roddy. Just for a couple of days, mind.

• The recent changes to Ireland's population, which have seen large numbers of immigrants come to the country over the last five to seven years, have created an unexpected bonus for Doyle, who's a pretty recognisable figure in Ireland, as writers go: "I can walk down the street without every tenth person asking me if I'm Roddy Doyle." He also mentions in passing that he's learning Polish. Is he? Was this said ironically (he also said he's the only person on his bus route now who speaks English) or in dead seriousness?

• As was already known (it was discussed at some length in Angela Bourke's biography, and in Doyle's book Rory and Ita), Doyle's second cousin was Maeve Brennan, the famous Irish New Yorker writer, who wrote the magazine's Talk of the Town column during the 1950s and 60s under the pseudonym of the ”Long-Winded Lady”. Doyle spoke a little about her on Friday; he was 14 when she came to stay in his family home for a few months. That would have been around 1972, when things had begun to fall apart for Brennan. She rarely ate, stayed in her room with the curtains closed, and wrote furiously. Doyle, on Friday, remembered her as "incredibly elegant and eccentric", bewildered by an Ireland she no longer knew. He didn't speak to her about writing, because he wasn't interested in it at the time.

• Enright talked about something interesting: the emergence of an underclass in Dublin, or in Ireland (not clear which), and how this is something different to the working-class. Again, more on this would have been fascinating, but perhaps space didn't allow it...or something... anybody who was there, please comment!

• Doyle on the linguistic gift of the working class (in Dublin, I think): "A well-aimed working-class insult can do in two sentences what it would take a barrister three days to do."

• After they made their '40 good writers' remark, the audience got involved, shouting out the names of other Irish writers to see what Doyle and Enright had to say about them. Battersby remarks that "the expected [were] praised". It'd be good to know who the praised and the unpraised were, but only one is named in the piece: Jennifer Johnston, whose work Doyle said he loved. It's the duty of the writer, he said, "to produce good work."

Yeah, and it's the duty of the literary journalist too.


Stellanova said...

While the quality of news journalism at the Times is really good, if a little dry, I think that the Irish print media in general have little time for stylish, witty and original writing (present company excepted, of course). There are lots of writers for the Guardian and the Observer whose work I will always read, regardless of subject, but they seem to have the freedom to be a bit more adventurous. The only Times writer whose work I'll always read, whether he's writing about films or football, is the ever-wonderful Donald Clarke.

I also don't think that most of the arts/features editors are particularly willing to take risks. I've pitched a few ideas for pieces in the past that have been rejected on the grounds of being a bit too non-mainstream - and then seen pieces on the same subjects on the cover of the Guardian's G2 section a couple of weeks later, which is just terribly frustrating. It's as though anything that isn't already familiar to the average Irish mammy or daddy is automatically too weird to be included.

And I agree that there are plenty of excellent critics contributing to the books pages of the Times - like all the writers you mentioned (I wouldn't include Battersby in such a list). In defence of my old employers, though, the Tribune is the only other Irish paper that devotes several broadsheet pages to book reviews.

Ada said...

Stellanova is right. The Irish Times does have some good writers but I think they are rather stupidly keeping them in their respective ghettos too much. I’d like to read more Donald Clarke, Hugh Linehan, Mary Hannigan, Jim Carroll and Hilary Fannin (to name but five), but they all seem confined to very defined areas. It seems to me that it is very narrow-minded commissioning editors who are at fault here. You can also blame the very narrow range of features which are covered on this. At the weekend, there was a really interested piece in the Guardian Weekend magazine which followed a tenner on its travels round London. The chances of seeing something similar in the Irish Times Magazine? Not a chance, darling. There needs to be a revolution at that particular supplment and that can only begin by getting rid of the current editor, awful dreary dribble like Roisin Ingle and letting some new ideas and writers run riot. Sure, it will lose readers initially but give it six months and it will be a different story. They should look at how The Ticket has worked and take stock from that.

Good blog by the way, ms hack

hesitant hack said...

The magazine does some of what it's meant to do very well - it is meant, in certain respects, to be a Saturday morning, relatively entertaining-cum-escapist read, after all. So lifestyle, fashion and columns of the ilk of Roisin Ingle's have their place and I have no problem with them. There is a need for meatier features - and if you're going to slag Roisin's column, you should also account for her work as a features writer, which I think is often very fine and original, as well. I don't mean this in reference to your comment, Ada, but I think that Ingle-bashing is often used as a lazy shortcut to real engagement with the question of what the Times should and should not be doing. On the commissioning editors, I've never actually found their range to be particularly narrow, but I do find that it's sometimes a chaotic and unpredictable experience for writers to pitch to the paper, because the editors are carrying so much work between them after the redundancies. They're stretched, and opportunities are missed as a result, inevitably, and that is very frustrating for writers. But it's not strictly the fault of the editors themselves.

Fred Johnston said...

I think it should be stated that the reason there are, even moreso than a couple of years ago,no decent literary critics, is because there is no longer any place for them. The Irish Times, a paper that once boasted of its robust reviewing, doesn't want them. And there are no brave magazine editors who will risk the 'wrath' of some scribe who disapproves of the reviews he/she publishes. The Irish Times has moved closer to the Right with every passing Saturday; it reflects a trend in Irish society to pretend that all is well in our arts' world and there are no flaws, no bad writers, no hyped scribblers. It is the nature of ultra-conservatism to assume a monopoly on perfection. No critic worth his or her salt - and this goes doubly if he or she is also a writer trying to get published - will dare to risk any chance of future publication by being seen as subversive, caustic, or not toe-ing a certain line about who deserves merit and who does not. It may be said that, in Ireland, writing has ceased being about literature just as criticism has ceased to be about criticism or even'robustness' of approach. Whatever you say, say nothing.