Writer Fiona O’Connor explores the rise of the small presses in Ireland…
Over the last decade an unusual phenomenon has emerged in Irish publishing whereby a number of small local presses have begun punching far above their weight in the international literary arena. Back in the noughties a healthy mainstream book market in Ireland had been hit by plummeting sales in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger /credit crunch downturn. Harsh austerity cuts followed, many writers being excised from publisher’s lists and previously lucrative genres such as Irish chick-lit radically downsized. Post-apocalypse, the resurgence of a thriving contemporary literature scene powered by a proliferation of small magazines and presses is creating new possibilities for writers in Ireland.
Some commentators have seen disaster economics as a key catalyst for change. During a recent discussion at the launch of Granta 135, New Irish Writing, novelist/artist Sara Baume spoke of the lack of jobs for artists in Ireland making it ‘perfectly acceptable to be on the scratcher’ (the dole). ‘It wasn’t until everything went crash that we had to look at what is the value of money…Had I had a proper job I would never have written a novel.’
The contribution of visual artists to new Irish writing is a striking feature; writers such as Baume and Claire-Louise Bennett (Pond) ‘seem to hover at the edges of the visual arts field,’ according to eminent Irish artist Alice Maher. Publisher Declan Meade, of The Stinging Fly Press, concurs with this view of people with limited career opportunities in the arts feeding into small press publishing, ‘many of whom had crashed and burned with the bigger publishing houses.’ Meade also points to a ‘growing appreciation of the importance of small presses’ developing in the crash aftermath. He emphasises the critical importance, following the downturn, of Arts Council of Ireland funding for writers being maintained, as a pivotal factor.
Technological change is another significant driver in the emergence of the new dynamic. Capitalising on the ease and reduced expense brought by programmes, small presses have optimised their size where agility and the ability to react quickly give them advantages over the lugubrious bigger houses. Sara Coen co-founder of Tramp Press in 2014, and hugely successful in publishing Sara Baume’s Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, agrees that ‘It’s easier to be agile now.’
An ability to focus on one or two projects at a time, maintaining aesthetic values rather than commercial priorities in choosing titles, distinguishes these new publishing ventures from mainstream practices. Tramp co-founder, Sarah Goff-Davis sees a problem for mainstream publishers lying in their bottom line fundamentalism: focusing on a book solely for its ‘commerciality and not looking at it and asking themselves if it’s a really good book and worth publishing on its own terms,’ she says. ‘We’re approaching it from the opposite end. When we pick up a book from our slush pile and we read it, we just want to engage with how brilliant the book is.’
Beyond the licence to recognise and pick up new talent, Irish small presses have also been instrumental in supporting emerging writing talent through mentoring schemes. Declan Meade flags up the importance of this role for publishing: ‘When Stinging Fly was faced with cuts a decade ago, the Arts Council said, increase your activity with mentoring. Which we did, and continue to do on an ad hoc basis.’ Allied with this support was the decision to publish short story collections as writers’ first books. Contrary to mainstream practice where the novel allowed sole entry to the literary party, Meade felt that not enough focus was being given to the short story form. Thus, short story collections including Kevin Barry’s There Are Little Kingdoms, Mary Costello’s The China Factory and Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, (all from Stinging Fly) launched careers in interesting new ways.
Ironically, the short story form proved a good little runner commercially as such writers made their way towards international recognition via magazines including The Paris Review, The New Yorker and Granta, because of and not despite their niche status. Development of a supportive American readership has been one of the major advantages in creating a recognisable Irish literary identity that draws to it a succession of new names and styles as it rolls forwards. The Irish connection with the US is of long standing, given the Irish diaspora. But Paul Muldoon, Professor of Poetry at Princeton, pointing to the years of The Troubles, finds that for many Irish writers ‘it was more natural…to look to the US than to England.’
The support of newspapers at home too, and principally The Irish Times book section, edited by Martin Doyle, has been instrumental in building credibility for emerging writers and for work that often challenges commercial publishing. This combination of factors, Meade sees, has led to a favourable environment for new writers and writing in Ireland and is heralding the next wave of publishers, now taking their places in a vibrant milieu. The outcome has been international success for literary novels and short story collections, amongst them:
Donal Ryan 2012, The Spinning Heart, Lilliput Press – Booker longlisted, Guardian First Book Award, European Union Prize for Literature
Colin Barrett 2013, Young Skins, Stinging Fly Press – Winner of Guardian First Novel Award
Sarah Baume 2013, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, Tramp Press, Heinemann – winner of Davy Byrne Prize 2015 and first published in Stinging Fly Magazine, one of the Granta 2016 young Irish writers
Eimear McBride’s 2014, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, Galley Beggar Press – Won last year’s Bailey’s Prize for fiction
Thomas Morris 2015, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, Faber – Winner of Somerset Maugham Prize 2016 – until recently Morris was editor of Stinging Fly Mag
Joanna Walsh 2015, Vertigo, Tramp Press – First published in 3.am and The Dublin Review
Claire-Louise Bennett 2015 Pond, Stinging Fly Press – Now published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Other notable small presses include Lilliput Press, New Island Books, Ward River Press, Dublin Publisher’s Cooperative, Kevin Barry’s Winter Papers, an anthology of Irish writing.
Fiona O’Connor is an Irish writer and academic currently teaching at University of Westminster. She is a Hennessy Short Story Prize winner among other awards. Her work appears in The Stinging Fly, Crannog, Fiction International and nth Position. She is a regular contributor to The Irish Times and has written features for The Guardian, Time Out and The Big Issue.