Eimear McBride, Jennifer Johnston and Kevin Barry are some of the names that have been suggested in response to the Arts Council’s call for nominees for its new three-year, €150,000 role. But who will the judges announce as the recipient in January 2015? Sinéad Gleeson gauges opinion.

Over the summer in the UK, an organisation called the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society (ALCS) published a much-reported on survey. They asked 2,500 writers about their income levels and the results were grim, if unshocking. It found that the average wage for a full-time writer was just £11,000, and that since 2005, the number of writers who earned their income solely from writing dropped from 40% to 11.5%. Not a great advertisement for writer-as-dream-job. Despite column inches dictating that recession is ebbing away coupled with lack of Medici-like patronage, times are tough for those of a creative bent. So the Arts Council is to be commended for a new initiative, the Laureate for Irish Fiction. The role will be awarded to an Irish writer of national and international distinction, and used to promote Irish literature here and abroad, while encouraging “the public to engage with high quality Irish fiction”. Sarah Bannan Keegan of The Arts Council explains the genesis of the new role. “It was inspired by the fact that we already have an Ireland Professor of Poetry, and Children’s Laureate na nÓg, so in part, it was about completing the puzzle. We do this kind of thing well in Ireland and it helps get people excited about a kind of literature, so this new position will honour that.”

The award of €150,000 over three years is also supported by UCD and New York University (NYU). Over the summer, approaches were made to literary organisations, bookshops, arts organisations, libraries and book clubs to suggest names for the longlist. This list will be examined by a five-strong judging panel of Paula Meehan, Siobhán Parkinson, Deborah Treisman, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Blake Morrison and overseen by chairperson Paul Muldoon.

Poet and writer Colm Keegan, who is one of the organisers of next month’s Lingo Spoken Word Festival thinks the role has possibilities. “I think if it is awarded to an upcoming writer who really needs it and can build on it, rather than somebody already established, it’s a good thing. For me, the person who would really deserve it and make good use of it is Donal Ryan. His writing is red hot, full of feeling and he is a skilled writer who connects with everybody. The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December were two amazing books, and I still think his best is yet to come.” As with any literary award, deciding on a recipient will be difficult, not least because Ireland is spoiled for choice in terms of worthy acceptees.

Bert Wright, Events Curator at the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival applauds the idea but is glad he is not on the judging panel. “Ireland has a close literary community all of whom know, or know of, each other.  There’s a fairly collegiate spirit abroad amongst writers but still – who do you give it to without offending others?  Call me old-fashioned but I would favour a distinguished senior figure with a solid body of work internationally recognised; the equivalent of Nobel-in-waiting, Haruki Murakami in Japan.  It’s more than a writer-in-residence gig, so it should go to a totemic figure.”

The new Laureate will also be required to teach a creative writing term at both NYU and UCD and engage with the reading public in a series of events. This may not suit writers who are not currently based in Ireland, or someone who feels that a three-year commitment coincides with concurrent writing projects that they cannot be distracted from. Similarly a writer who prefers the solace of the garret and is uncomfortable with being a Yeatsian “smiling public” figure might not relish the visibility the role requires, as Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen of Tramp Press point out. “The Arts Council gets a lot of flack but this is a good and bold idea, and the move deserves recognition. However, the creation of this position also begs questions concerning the type of talented author who would rather scribble away in a dark room for the three years and who isn’t much of a people-person – isn’t performing the act of being a full-time writer enough to merit a decent living?” They also offer an eclectic list of suggestions: Anne Enright, Jennifer Johnston, John Boyne, Belinda McKeon, Eimear McBride, Donal Ryan and Peter Murphy.

Managing Director of Dubray Books Maria Dickenson, also suggests Donal Ryan as a contender. “The Laureate role is intended to provide encouragement and support to emerging writers, and Ryan’s much noted journey as an author – from slush pile to bespoke Irish publisher to international recognition – is a firm foundation from which to guide those he would encounter through the practicalities, as well as the fine art, of fiction writing. His writing reflects that of some of Ireland’s literary greats: the understated lyricism of McGahern and the eye for small town sadness of Trevor for example, but it is overlain with a very contemporary sensibility. This ability to tread a path between Irish literature past and present makes him well placed to represent the changing face of fiction in this country both at home and abroad.”

The position can also been seen as recognition for a lifetime of literary contribution, and could go to a writer with a large body of writing behind them. Given the economic difficulties for writers, a new, upcoming voice who is published, but has years of work still ahead of them might also benefit from the financial security of the role. Sarah Bannan Keegan points out that key public events, “from a large scale events to “possibly a reading in someone’s kitchen” will be part of the role. She also stresses the importance of countrywide events, and of video and podcasts to share the experience for anyone who wants to engage, but can’t attend. “What those events are will depend very much on the writer who is chosen and what kind of person they are. This role is also about nurturing their own creativity while helping the next generation of writers”.

Sarah Davis Goff and Lisa Coen are hopeful that given the malleable nature of inaugural awards, the new Laureate will help to shape and define the possibilities of the role. “The question of ‘who’ is naturally tied to the question of ‘what’: what should the Laureate for Irish Fiction do? Champion and promote Irish fiction, at home and abroad: lobby for better rights for authors, publishers, and editors, encourage readers, teach and work as an example to up-and-coming writers, and generally work as a massive flashing red finger pointing at Irish fiction shouting ‘Look! Would you just look?!’ Luckily we have a load of Irish writers doing this already. The sense of community and camaraderie amongst Irish writers is supportive, encouraging and inclusive, and thank goodness (and thanks to the Arts Council), one of them will get paid semi-decently for this encouragement and support over the next three years. It’d also be great to see the Laureate be given something of a free rein to interpret the role as they like. If I could give the Laureate just one job, it’d be encouraging people to read. That’s what the industry really needs.”

The (potentially very lengthy) longlist deadline is October 3rd, and the judging panel will then discuss and decide on shortlist of between seven and nine writers. The winner will be announced with a public event in January 2015. It’s a laudable idea and will be interesting to see who takes up the mantle. Susan Tomaselli is the editor of literary journal Gorse and hopes it will be a writer who makes us laugh. “It’s a mistake to assume that funny books and ‘Serious Literature’ are mutually exclusive. Nabokov called it ‘laughter in the dark,’ and our best practitioner is Kevin Barry. You’ve never been to the bright lights of Atlantic City of Bohane, but you recognise them in spite of Barry’s mangled comic vision. Kevin Barry is good for Ireland: he’s kept us laughing through some pretty dark days. He’s good for Irish literature too: he abuses the language beautifully, plus he’s dragged the Irish short story by the scruff of the neck to new, wild, exciting places.”

This article was originally published in The Irish Times on September 15th, 2014

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