As the arrival of the early summer sun continues to shine, it does so on the start of the Irish cultural festival season. Already this year the hugely successful Cuirt International Festival of Literature brought record numbers to Galway for the week-long festival. Coming up next you could look at a myriad selection of locations hosting literary festivals. Yesterday saw the announcement of the line-up of the Dublin Writers Festival, one of the standout events of the summer. Cuirt, Dublin, Listowel, Ennis, Waterford, West Cork, wherever, these literary festivals have one common trait, that is the frontline presence of the short story.
One of the headline events at the Cuirt Festival in Galway was a panel discussion on reasons as to why and how the Irish short story has undergone such resurgence of late. The panel was chaired by Anne Enright, editor of the recently published Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. She was joined on the panel by three writers who are featured in the volume, Kevin Barry, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and Phillip O’Ceallaigh. Those in attendance at Galway’s Town Hall Theatre were treated to readings from the Granta volume of Irish short stories by all on the panel. What really gripped the audience was the resulting discussion between the authors who seemed at such ease they may well have been seated at a kitchen table and not on a spot-lit stage.
The discussion raised some key questions that have been asked on more than one occasion of late when considering the current popularity of the short story in Ireland. Anne Enright teased at the ideas of tradition and of nationhood in Ireland. The panel discussed the idea of the novel being a form born out of and perfected by the society of the industrial revolution. It came later to Ireland for this very reason. The tradition in Ireland for telling stories was telling them in their oral form, their purest form: stories told for and to an audience. Eilis ni Dhuibhne really ignited this part of the discussion as she outlined her work as a folklorist and insights into the Irish oral tradition. Enright further added that as Ireland has had this tradition of oral communication, the short story has been an excellent medium to move this form from the oral to the written.
Discussion moved from short story writing to novel-writing and if the panel would consider working in this form in the future. O’Ceallaigh offered a considered but definite no. He outlined his affinity for the shorter form and how it offers a platform to write ‘the individual’, making more intimate a form than its longer cousin. Kevin Barry bucked this trend of course with the recent launch of his novel, City of Bohane. Barry’s Rooney prize-winning collection, There are Little Kingdoms has earmarked him as a truly original voice in the ever-growing stable of the Irish short story writers. Barry spoke of simply ‘knowing that feeling’ when embarking on a story whether it will stay within the short form or extend to a novel. Eilis Ni Dhuibhne mentioned the stress levels and self-doubting are considerably higher when writing a novel as it is just you and ‘this thing’ looking at each other for years at a time!
Barry also gave his ‘breaking news’ prediction on the return to popularity in the very near future of the novella. This form has lain lost between the short story and the novel in a literary limbo of late. The reason proffered by the panel as simply being publishers can’t sell novellas. Barry predicted that the arrival of the E-reader will make novellas a viable option again and will produce a new wave of great Irish works. Foster by Claire Keegan published in 2010 may add a lot of credence to Barry’s prediction.
Looking at Ireland’s neighbours, Enright moved on, there does not seem to be the same emphasise on short story writing in the U.K., she considered to the panel. Are these ‘small works for a small nation’? She offered further that short stories are symptomatic of a nation undergoing change and are more responsive to a people undergoing re-evaluation. While not fully getting to root of ‘the English question’ regarding the short story, the idea of tradition again arose, with the fact that Ireland is proud of its short story tradition and talks about its short story writers more so than any other nation. O’Ceallaigh was quick to add that the form is not a strictly Irish form and that he was hugely influenced by the Russian short story writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century American and Russian short story writers.
The discussion drew to a close with a consideration by all on the ‘long’ short story, such as which have been written by Colm Toibin, William Trevor and Frank O’Connor. Again the idea of the novella was raised as an answer but also the fact that Enright herself considered this point when editing the Granta volume of Irish Short Stories and considered the ‘long’ short story worthy of a volume of its own. That was enough to leave the audience perhaps considering more as they left the Town Hall Theatre as when they came in!
If the Irish short story is deemed a tradition owing to it being talked about as well as being read, it is sure to continue as a proud Irish tradition and a literary form that has something a little extra special to offer its readers.