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Review: Non-fiction: The Irish Novel: 1960-2010 by George O’Brien

Saturday July 28 2012
What is it with literary academics and the English language? In the 1980s, George O'Brien wrote two lovely memoirs, The Village of Longing and Dancehall Days, the first about his boyhood in Co Waterford and the second about his youth in Dublin. But then he went to America, became a teacher of literature and ends up writing prose like this:
"The novel is premised on a tissue of comparative relations between wreckage and restoration, happenstance and design, imbalance and stability, an ensemble of gestures and engagements signifying the restless need to venture human capital."
That's one of his observations on Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, which I thought was about a group of people living in New York and trying to find a meaning to their lives.
Or here he is on the retrieval of a pikestaff in Colm Toibin's The Heather Blazing: "Such a move ratifies the historical dimension's inherently symbolic value while at the same time enclosing that value within a very specific contemporary cultural setting and assigning to it a limited cultural utility."
I have no idea what that sentence means and nor, I'd surmise, would many of Professor O'Brien's students at Georgetown University in Washington. Indeed, it's little wonder that so many literature undergraduates grow to dislike the very books that attracted them to such courses in the first place.
"As learned commentators view in Homer more than Homer knew" -- that was Jonathan Swift's sardonic response to academics of his own day, and it's even more true now of a critical approach that seeks obscurantist language to convey obscure thoughts about books ("texts") that are regarded as mere fodder for whatever fashionable theory prevails.
In the case of Prof O'Brien's book, this is all the more a pity because the brief he set himself, to write 51 brief essays on 51 Irish novels (one for each year since 1960), promises an absorbing overview of how the Irish novel has changed over the last five decades.
And change there's certainly been. Patrick Kavanagh once sardonically referred to "the standing army of 20,000 Irish poets", though nowadays an observer of the literary scene might note the standing army of 20,000 Irish novelists, all of them insistently making claims on our attention.
It wasn't always so. Indeed, although the stir that Edna O'Brien and John McGahern created in the early 1960s was about the supposedly scandalous content of their books, it also had to do with the fact that so few Irish novelists were being published at the time they were almost lone figures and thus subject to special scrutiny from our official moral guardians.
Much has happened in the intervening 50 years to change the stature and the lot of the Irish novelist, not least the dismantling of a censorship system which had sought to persuade the public that writers in general and Irish writers in particular were a degenerate species unworthy of our national ideals and nationalist purity.
There were other factors, too, that led Irish writers to believe they had something to say and the effrontery to suppose that others might want to hear them saying it: greater access to higher education, increasing engagement with the outside world, popular culture's undermining of artistic hierarchies, and the gradual but irreversible erosion of all the old pieties -- religious, social, sexual and political -- that had been imposed on us since the foundation of the State.
Along with all those elements came the global rise of the author as a celebrity who might also make a lot of money, so that writing came to be seen as an exciting and lucrative career option rather than merely a holy calling, with a bracing bank balance as proof that one had made it.
In his introduction to the book under review, Prof O'Brien alludes to a couple of these changes in the lot of the Irish writer, but he doesn't really address them. Nor does he address other developments.
Although he notes in passing the current high profile of Irish crime fiction and of popular women's novels, he clearly has no time for them. Indeed, he doesn't consider any of them, even as a phenomenon.
This is a serious failing, with no analysis (or even mention) of such authors as Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Declan Hughes or Tana French, all of whom have achieved admiring international reputations and impressive sales.
But even among the more "literary" authors favoured by O'Brien, there are strange omissions. It's commendable that he gives space to such neglected writers as John Broderick, Michael Farrell, Maurice Leitch, Dorothy Nelson and Mary Leland, but it's perverse that among his 51 selected books he can find no room for anything by Molly Keane, Clare Boylan, Neil Jordan or Christine Dwyer Hickey, to name just a few startling absences.
But it's the dogged academicism and the frequently impenetrable prose that are the real killers here. Indeed, this handsomely produced book, which could have been a worthy successor to John Cronin's unpretentious and enlightening 1992 study, Irish Fiction: 1900-1940, would hardly have been approved by the former Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral.