Gough And The State of Irish Publishing

There has been much discussion about Irish writer Julian Gough’s analysis on the state of Irish literature. Much of Julian Gough’s posting on his website has stirred up a great degree of interest from the Guardian UK, the New Yorker, and a great many online websites and blogs. There is some context here which seems to have been lost in translation to the general media or deliberately gone unmentioned for reasons of, shall we say, a degree of sensationalism.
Let us go back to how this actually started.
Gough was asked by Dalkey Archive Press, a distinguished literary and academic US publisher, who intended publishing an international anthology of short stories entitled, Best European Fiction. The anthology included Gough’s short story The Orphan and the Mob. Each of the contributing authors were invited to answer five questions on the state of literature in their respective countries. Gough chose to expand upon his original submission reply to the publishers by posting an enhanced version for his website last week—I warned you enhanced would be a buzz word for 2010!
I think the analysis of Gough’s comments have been at times extremely selective. Let us look at what exactly he was asked by Dalkey Archive Press. (I’ve parsed some of Gough’s responses, but included the core of the responses and much of what was left out by other media who ran with this.)

1. Are there any exciting trends, movement, or schools in contemporary Irish fiction? Who do you feel are the overlooked contemporary authors in Ireland who should be more widely read and translated?

“I haven’t the faintest idea… If there are exciting trends in literary Ireland, the excitement hasn’t made its way to Berlin yet… But for what it’s worth, none of my Irish friends read Irish books any more… Indeed, I hardly read Irish writers any more, I’ve been disappointed so often… I do read the odd new, young writer, and it’s usually intensely disappointing. Mostly it’s grittily realistic, slightly depressing descriptions of events that aren’t very interesting. Though, to be fair, sometimes it’s sub-Joycean, slightly depressing descriptions of events that aren’t very interesting. I don’t get the impression many Irish writers have played Grand Theft Auto, or bought an X-Box, or watched Youporn.

I do like Kevin Barry. His collection There Are Little Kingdoms had something special about it. Hints of glory ahead. (I gather there will be a novel. I’ll be buying it with cash money.) And from a few years back I loved Mike McCormack’s first book, the story collection Getting it in the Head.

The Irish writer that most excited me recently was Diarmuid O’Brien, and he writes unproduced television scripts.”

For the most part, Gough continues name-checking quite a number of Irish writers, who are actually in the business of scriptwriting and other mediums of the arts, like Graham Lenihan and comedian Tommy Tiernan.

For me, when you are asked to talk about new trends in Irish fiction and you begin to wander down the paths of broadcast writing, comedians and Irish musicians, it really is the time to shut the fuck up. You’ve said you don’t know much about what you were asked—you’ve even demonstrated you don’t know read and know much about it—but still Gough rambles on about areas of literature he claims he doesn’t know. Obviously, in the Gough household in Berlin, he’s happy to settle for a plumber when he needs his electricity fixed.

2. Who are the contemporary European writers from other countries that are writing compelling fiction?

“I’d only be bullshitting you if I tried to answer that question…”

3. Do you want your work to be translated? Why or why not?

“Of course I do. I want readers. I want to be understood…”

4. Are there enough publishing outlets in Ireland for contemporary fiction? Is there a market for literary fiction in Ireland?

“Well, we have the usual situation that arises when you share a language with a larger neighbour. A perverse, S&M relationship. You fight your oppressor & occupier for 800 years, get your freedom, then immediately ask them for a publishing deal. Just as Bosnian writers seek Croatian publishers, Irish writers seek English publishers… There are a lot of small, very noble but very undercapitalised Irish publishers, but they have great difficulty hanging on to their writers if a UK publisher offers a decent advance. Or any advance at all…”

5. Given a choice, would you prefer a faithful, literal translation of your work or an interpretive re-imagining of it? Why?

“An interpretive re-imaging, definitely. I don’t think a “faithful, literal” translation of my work – of any work – is even possible. If a translation were to be literal, it wouldn’t be faithful, and vice versa. Any decent writer is playing with nuances, rhythms, echoes, soundstuff that will evaporate in any literal translation. I like a lot of layers. Puns, resonances, double-meanings, Tipperaryisms, things my mum says at Christmas. Often the point of the sentence hasn’t anything to do with its literal meaning at all.”

Gough answers this the way all writers worth their salt do. Writers have to work closely with translators and arrive at a balance, rather than a literal meaning for every sentence and nuance. Recently I got hold of a translation of Sigur Ros lyrics in English and they are absolutely shit—directly translated, they become incoherent thoughts cast down on paper as words and destroy their original conception and poetic delivery.
I should also perhaps add that Gough was not the only Irish representation in the anthology, though from some of the press picking up on Gough’s own website comments, you be forgiven for thinking so. Orna Ní Choileáin’s short story Camino is also included in the anthology and she is an Irish author and musician from Cork comfortable writing in both English and Gaelic. Her debut book, Canary Warf, a collection of ten short stories in Gaelic was published by Cois Life in 2009.
Gough does later explain by way of additional comment the context of his ‘rant’ on the state of Irish literature.

“I’d better explain: that rant came about when Dalkey Archive, a very good but very literary, university-based publisher, asked me a few questions about the state of Irish writing, and about overlooked or neglected writers. They were clearly interested in self-consciously “literary” writers, and my answers were purely addressed to those.”

Gough’s own website has spawned many comments, here and here. A read of those comments and Gough’s own input suggests that he perhaps originally answered the Dalkey Archive questions in an irreverent and flippant manner which did a great disservice to his real understanding of modern Irish authors and their struggle to deal with a provincial and out-of-step Irish publishing industry.
The reality is that Gough’s view of Irish publishing is actually, and sadly, entirely accurate. If anything, his ‘rant’ has at least brought to the spotlight that Irish publishers are still wholly run and influenced by people who are from the last generation of Ireland, fixated on the dour romanticisms of 1950’s rural Ireland – priests, bicycles, ballrooms, ceol agus craic, and a fag by the church wall before we head up to Mollies or Finnegans to sit by an open fire, enjoy a pint, and discuss Joyce, Le Mass, and The Quiet Man.
Irish Publishing News recently ran a poll asking the question – Is Irish Publishing Provincial? The fact the question needed to be asked pretty much told you the answer. It is like asking is Afghanistan a good place to holiday? Discuss!! There is no discussion when we look at Irish publishing and the reality that before the presence of Penguin and Hachette, we had little international profile transferable outside of Ireland. Here is a comment I posted on the poll Irish Publishing News ran.

“I would suggest anyone with the latest edition of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook to peruse through the listings for Irish publishers. Firstly, Irish publishers are lumped in with UK publishers – a consistent trend with various yearbooks. Look carefully at the description of each Irish publisher – what you will find is references to ‘General and Irish literature, or ‘with an Irish view/slant’!!!

What is Irish literature? In short, it is nothing without a broader international identity; our best authors have an international identity. They carved that out for themselves. Our best authors, ironically, like our best business and sporting icons go abroad to achieve their ambitions, simply because we do not have the foresight, publishing infrastructure to sustain their ideals. That, in a word, is shameful. Shameful, that even UK publishers like Penguin and Hachette have tried to fill the vacant void that exists in these lands.

In 2006, Alan Hayes produced a report on Irish publishing and asked the question – ‘Is Literary Publishing in Crisis?’ It was then, and it still is. If anything, it’s worse now 4 years on. That Alan Hayes had the courage to put together that report for CLE, as a working employee, and still deliver it with recommendations. A few of those were implemented; most never saw the light of day.”

Gough may consider his comments as simply rants, but he does a great disservice to the validity of what he has to say about publishing in Ireland and modern Ireland in general. The fact is, our best modern writers gain their notoriety from without rather than within modern Ireland. Our greatest writing talents flourish by existing outside of the publishing world they first tried to engage with. Exile seems to be in our make-up as a nation when it comes to realising our own value, whether that is in the arts, the sporting world or the business world.
It is no wonder Julian Gough watches and comments on the state of Irish publishing from a window in Berlin.

Julian Gough is an Irish novelist and singer with the rock band Toasted Heretic although in recent years has gained repute for his literary endeavours.
Gough was born in London but grew up in Nenagh, County Tipperary. He moved to Galway to attend college, and there formed Toasted Heretic. The band released a number of well-received albums and had a top ten hit with the single “Galway and Los Angeles”.
Gough also has a career as a novelist; his first novel, Juno and Juliet, was published in 2001. A majority of the book takes place on the campus of the National University of Ireland, Galway. The opening chapter of his most recent novel, Jude: Level 1, titled “The Orphan and the Mob,” won The BBC National Short Story Award. Levels 2 and 3 of Jude are being published in installments online.
Orna Ní Choileáin is an Irish author and musician. She has had an interest in story telling since a very young age.
Éilis Ni Dhuibhne reviewed Orna’s recent work under the writers’ mentoring scheme organised by Bord na Leabhar Gaeilge in 2006/2007..
Orna’s first book, “Canary Wharf”, was published in January 2009. It is a collection of 10 short stories written in the Irish language and published by Cois Life. She received awards for her work from An tOireachtas in 2008 & 2007. Her work has been reviewed in the The Irish Times.

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