The Sweet Stench of Literary Critique in Postmodern Ireland

"Those who can, write, and those who can’t, critique". This is one of those maxims that can be relied upon to distinguish between the often Herculean undertaking of writing a meaningful text or narrative, before then having it pored over by a notionally astute or otherwise qualified reader. Theoretically, though rarely nowadays, these communicate the inherent meaningfulness before them in a journal or literary supplement or a books review section in a populist periodical. Classically, literary critique should not to be confused with literary criticism which is a prolonged and sustained interpretation of a considerable work or literary trajectory. Such material is ordinarily bound in book form, thereby suggesting that the work is worth the while of an examination more forensic, more incisive, more discursive.

The piece you are currently reading refers to literary critique rather than the other variant of interpretation and that’s why its name is ‘The Sweet Stench of Literary Critique in Postmodern Ireland’. There are a number of University presses here which produce excellent work of a deeply insightful timbre several of which I have read and been utterly improved by. The Cork University Press book by Carol Taaffe on Briáin O’Noláin ‘Ireland Through the Looking-Glass’ is an outstanding example. However, this is one kind of book that you’d not have seen reviewed in the literary pages of what newspapers there were at the time of its publication in Ireland and which carried a literary supplement. Of the nationally distributed Sunday Times, the Irish Times, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Independent, the Irish Examiner and the most incisive literary section of that day; the Sunday Tribune, not one publication reviewed Carol Taaffe’s actually important book upon its publication in 2008. I’m not surprised because I know that not every book even in such a small marketplace as the Republic gets mentioned. Yet still, there is a consensus view promulgated that Irish literary critique is well served of itself by the remaining ‘papers of literary bent. 

This especially used to be the case with David Marcus at the Irish Press but it is not so any longer. The trouble arises in that what the ‘papers palpably offer is a consensus conservatism regarding literature based upon the editorial retention of the services of those consensus thinkers and hacks who toe the cultural line or publishing schmooze and then promote in a relatively populist way the consensus du jour emanating from the preferred societal and political and economic bases of postmodern Ireland. I state this on the basis that literary critique, in what is logically to be considered an adjunct of the British publishing industry, refuses to regard the diverse plethora of works that elucidate what’s going on for the reading public as well as those engaged in creating material, while at the same time failing to illumine the crafts employed within Irish literature. Literary critique in the Republic, if it is to emerge from such atrophy, is going to have to produce an ethic as regards aesthetics in lingual form if it is to have any meaning. This is to and from the benefit of literary critique and also represents its greatest creative opportunity. It’ll naturally involve the creation of a serious publication the remit of which must simply be to consider the Irish book, any Irish book, being published and being revealed intelligibly. Beyond this and the no less stifling administration of other creative forms in Ireland, such a publication should not eschew the likes of those reviewers and critics who know their material and write elegantly as well as eloquently. Of course, this is not currently happening.

Nice to Know You

Here in the Republic it’s noticeable in governance -local council emasculation and its accompanying indecision and national representation reduced to bag-carrying for who knows what all- that lip service is made to addressing the problems of individualist society. Given this tangible plight what’s noticeable is that one need not think of oneself as an individual despite a tendency to acquisition and your having a Zazen in consumerism unless you have the backing of wealth alongside the status it affords when getting to know one of three institutional coherencies within the culture of insular influence that applies in our little globalization fief. These are the actually monolithic and seemingly diverse banking branch corporation, the branch realpolitik in the legislature and the branch horsehair who know you to be of the very best stock. And each executive from each interest grouping will be your friend although individual institutioneers within those august situations may not even know you by handshake. No matter; you know them, they know you.

Such friendliness as is provided secures the preferred social model within the ex-Republic and if you do your duty by the social glue, as it were, then no harm can possibly come to you even where you’ve been a very “buachaill dana”. Ordinarily, you can be a dire crook throughout your dealings with the public and nothing really happens that’s going to hinder your doubtless progression through influence and status in our little fief. Ordinarily these ordinary outcomes apply and that’s because the branch corporation of monolithic commerce in the form of national broadcast and newspapers will fudge, not bother to investigate and not overly concern their wood pulp or digital signals with apportioning blame or culpability because globalization and neo-liberal thrust is the core metaphysical virtue at play, here.

But prior to the advent of a milquetoast reportage with everybody singing from the same hymnal throughout college and into an exhausting yet not exhaustive journalism supported by corporations lucratively engaged with not providing the truth at all costs, there was Mary Raftery the subject of Fintan O’Toole’s rather fine Irish Times piece Mary Raftery was perhaps the most undaunted and skilled investigative journalist and documentary writer in the recent history of Ireland and she took no prisoners. She relentlessly pursued the truth about such institutional autocracy as resonates in the plural mind much of the time nowadays where institutions begin to seem as ropey as they are desiccate. She knew where the bodies of Catholic branch autocracy were buried and she told us where this was.

Mary Raftery also blew time on Charles J Haughey, perhaps the most truly representative grandee profligate, when nobody else would pursue the story despite the widespread knowledge that he was within the gift of more than one vested and well-heeled Irish businessman. And this despite RTE’s legal department interference and the corporation’s errant gutlessness or manipulation. She made ‘States of Fear’ about the Industrial Schools too. She is now dead a year and the Irish Times has put in place a grant scheme for investigative journalism of €120, 000 in honour of her name which is I suppose, something. In a post-Republic like the Republic of Ireland it is much to be hoped that the legacy of an investigative journalist as brazen and fine as Mary Raftery is found to be a worthwhile metaphysic within the somewhat ersatz model of the prevalent trend. Certainly, such principle is desperately required.

Dangerous Literature in Kerry

It’s fascinating that Kerry County Council has provided literarians of all the creative forms interested in its Writer in Residence position -joint funded by the Council itself and by the Arts Council, who are in partnership on this- a “heads up” for the 22 week contract beginning this Springtime and for which the February 28th closing deadline for applications ought to include your no-larger-than-three-page CV in triplicate. The information gives a lot and you can download ‘thefile,8043,en.pdf’ from the County Council’s website and learn about the requirements of the position, the €13,200 contract payment made in three tranches, and the expectations of your 20 hour working week, inclusive of the 5 hours set aside which allow for your personal authorial development, should you prove successful in your application for this singular position.

It’s nice work if you can get it because you’re rather spectacularly encouraging a plethora of newer writers and exhorting them by your example and interest to excel in the varied creative lingual form-seeking that is the keystone of practically all Irish literary endeavour. Your effect, far from being didactic, will be elemental or at least elementary to the future of Irish literature and you’ll reach minds. There are very few jobs like it -think of being a bad teacher, a County Councillor or a T.D. by comparison- for satisfaction is embedded within its code. With the Writer in Residence position you will literally or at least literarily become a ‘messenger of the people’ and that’s a story for posterity if ever I heard one. Kudos be upon you, fellow writers, and good luck to you.

The guidelines, however, become a little surreal at the bottom of the third page of the document where, referring to the heading ‘Insurance’, it is written, “The Writer in residence agrees to keep the Council indemnified against all claims howsoever arising and howsoever caused in respect of any damage, loss or injury of any kind or nature, whether arising directly or indirectly from the provision of the residency and to provide evidence of Public Liability insurance which indemnifies Kerry County Council with a limit of indemnity of €6.5 million”. Such hyper reality as this conveys, moves into a kind of zero point of dark matter with what follows and pictures emerge through the mist of the documentary syntax. “It is the responsibility of the Writer in residence to ensure that other person(s) not employed by Kerry County Council, but employed by the Writer in residence to assist them with the residency have adequate Public Liability (€6.5 million) and Employer’s Liability (€13 million) cover which indemnify both Kerry County Council and the writer.”

Who knew that literature could be so dangerous in the Kingdom or that Writers in Residence in their role as very well off members of society can be required to provide a tax clearance certificate and hand over their insurance details to demonstrate their aptness for the residency to the previously under-insured and uncovered Kerry County Council? These are exciting times for Irish literature, aren’t they?