Roddy Doyle, British Novelist?

A few days ago, I posted about the Donmar Warehouse’s PR campaign for The Weir, which describes Conor McPherson as one of “our” greatest living playwrights.

I was suggesting in that post that the “our” might just have been a mistake but observed that Irish writers, especially the successful ones, are often referred to as British, and that this can often feel like appropriation.

A few people contacted me either directly or via Twitter, mostly expressing frustration and citing examples of similar errors. But a few others suggested that perhaps the “our” meant “belonging to world drama”: that McPherson is “ours” in the way that Sophocles and Ibsen belong to the world… That is entirely possible, though I would note that no British theatre would ever refer to David Mamet or Bruce Norris as one of “our” (i.e. “their”) greatest living playwrights.

But really we’re just talking here about how plays are marketed, so to a certain extent it’s not worth getting too upset about a bit of inaccurate hyperbole.

That PR line contrasts with a profile of Roddy Doyle that appears over on the Guardian website. It was published yesterday. Here is the first paragraph:

Roddy Doyle is one of Britain’s greatest writers. He is also my favourite teacher. His books arrived when I needed them most and, like the best of educations, changed my perceptions and the course of my life.

The rest of the article goes on to pay tribute to Doyle at length, referring in some detail to many of his novels and also displaying awareness of his former career as a teacher.

The full article can be read here, and its author is Kerry Hudson. And I should thank Emily Mark Fitzgerald for pointing it out to me via Twitter.

Needless to say, the comments soon started flooding in to the Guardian website, mostly from people pointing out the error. As one user stated it is very difficult to take an article seriously when it has so egregious an error in its opening line.

Hudson posted an apology almost immediately:

I completely understand why people are unhappy and I can only apologise. I did initially draft the copy to (incorrectly) read ‘greatest British writer’ but then realised my error requested this to be changed in advance of the piece being filed with the Guardian. For whatever reason that didn’t happen.

She goes on to say that she hopes people will ignore the error and try to follow the spirit of the article in its entirety: “I was just trying to acknowledge and say thank you to someone who had a massive impact on my writing and life,” she said.

Most of the people commenting accepted that explanation/apology – and I have to say it’s refreshing to find someone who is willing to admit a mistake in the way that Hudson does. For anyone who writes anything, this kind of howler is both a perpetual fear and a perpetual risk: there are things that you know, have always known, and will always know – but for some reason will forget for the entire period that you spend writing something. So I think anyone is capable of making this kind of mistake. That is what editors are for, or used to be for.

And for some reason those kinds of massive blunders almost always appear in an opening paragraph.

Well, one commentator, using the name Pat Jackman, then raised a very pertinent question:

I mean, what is the context in which an obviously intelligent, obviously educated, presumably thirty-something journalist describes an obviously Irish author who writes specifically about the working class experience within the Irish Republic’s capital city come to actually make a statement like “Doyle is one of Britain’s greatest writers”?

And – again, admirably – Hudson actually took the time to respond to this:

In response to the question of why I ever wrote that line in the first place I think (I wrote the article a wee while ago…) I was thinking about the reach of his books – I found mine in a tiny council estate library in Great Yarmouth – but as I’ve said this was never the wording that was meant to be published. By no means was I ever trying to ‘claim’ him.

This explanation trails off slightly, but is still interesting: it’s likely that what she means is that Doyle’s work feels like an important part of the fabric of her cultural life, not as something exotic or foreign but rather as something that is recognizable and immediate.

This is probably how many Irish people would feel about Coronation Street or Manchester United, or perhaps the novels of Ian McEwan or the music of Radiohead and so on. They wouldn’t describe those things as “Irish” but they would probably use the word “our” about them in some contexts (and I’m not just referring to the way in which Irish people will say “we” when talking about their favourite English or Scottish football team) – or they would in any case feel a sense of ownership, possession, fidelity, and so on. When you really love something, it can feel like it belongs to you, and I think that’s what she was trying to express.

It’s also possible that some of this may be caused by the status of some Irish novelists within the London literary scene. It’s been observed before that sometimes Irish fiction is presented by UK-based publishers not as a national literature but as a genre. “Irish” novels may be very different from each other on the surface: Banville is very different from Enright, who is different from Toibin, who is different from Sebastian Barry, who is different from Joseph O’Connor. But novels marketed as “Irish” do seem to have similar traits: lyricism, mordant (if not morbid) humour, a focus on the past that fuses nostalgia with acts of historical retrieval. And quite recently we’ve seen a few that are set in the past and which deal with the liberation of some unusually self-possessed young woman (Ghost Light, Brooklyn, On Canaan’s Side).

And it’s also notable that the novelists I mention above play a significant role in the discussion of fiction and ideas in Britain: Enright and Toibin’s essays for publications like The London Review of Books are widely read, as are John Banville’s reviews in London and New York.

And it’s also often been observed before that these writers constantly write blurbs for each other’s novels, thus heightening the sense that they are all inter-related by more than just their place of birth.

Again I think much of this is caused not just by marketing but by the ways in which marketing in turn influences the placement and commissioning of reviews – which in turn has an impact on other reputation-building exercises such as public readings, invitations to festivals, appearances on TV, and so on.

So I can understand what Hudson felt when she led off an article about one of her favourite writers by saying that there is no-one quite like him in all the land. I feel something similar about Zadie Smith and David Greig and many other writers and musicians. I know they’re not Irish, but the worlds they create feel like they belong to me.

Commentators over on The Guardian website are characterising Hudson’s error as arising from ignorance. But perhaps rather than seeing these mistakes as evidence of the divisions between our countries (so many of the Irish complaints are tinged with annoyance at not being noticed by a bigger neighbour), we could instead see them as an example of the ways in which the two countries are intertwined in important ways, especially when it comes to our literature(s). This intertwining is not necessarily an entirely bad thing – or an entirely good thing – but it certainly needs to be better understood.

Likewise I think there needs to be an acceptance that when Irish writers have been so warmly and so thoroughly welcomed into British theatre and fiction (albeit when they write in ways that conform to some extent with expectations of what an Irish writer ought to do), this will inevitably blur some boundaries too. We in Ireland celebrate the Booker victories and Tony Awards of people whose careers are to a great extent driven by forces in London: there is a risk in doing so that we are trying to have it both ways.

And at least Hudson has admitted the mistake and tried to correct it.

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2 thoughts on “Roddy Doyle, British Novelist?

  1. I think awards categories create much of the absurdity… you could hardly have a “British” category that excluded Northern Ireland, and you could hardly accept Unionist writers and exclude Nationalists. Northern nationalists are acceptable, excluding writers from south of the border becomes problematic, especially as “Ukanian” has never been an adjective.

    Explaining how such appropriations take place is different from excusing them, however, and labeling Doyle or McPherson is, by any meaningful standard, a descriptive absurdity,

    Like

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