Playing follow the reader at Dublin Book festival

The Dublin Book Festival offered an opportunity for writers to discuss their work and, more importantly, each other’s works. Kevin Breathnach was on hand to witness the witticisms.

Once, I saw polemicist Christopher Hitchens eviscerate self-styled contrarian John Waters in a debate on religion. Though I’ve since come to view the militant atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins et al as somewhat tiresome, the underlying bloodlust of Hitchens’s always-eloquent rhetoric is as satisfying to recall now as it was to witness back then. “This is why readers come to hear writers speak,” I remember thinking. “To see them humiliate others.” 
It was with this recollection in mind that I sat down in City Hall on a Saturday morning, to listen to such luminaries as Nell McCafferty, Diarmaid Ferriter and Carlo Gébler speak at the Dublin Book Festival. When, in a talk on the art of literary reviewing, Greg Baxter deadpanned that, “Violent discourse on literature inspires me,” I supposed I’d come to the right place.
Reading is an intensely private experience, yet it regularly shows its face in public. Traditionally, it was in books pages and arts programmes that reflections on reading were aired. But book festivals now play an increasingly significant role in what Philip Roth once called “talking shop”. The Dublin Book Festival, which took place between the 6th and 8th of March, has completed its third year. With all talks free of charge, the organisers expected a turn-out surpassing last year’s record of 11,000. How such a figure is arrived at, however, I really don’t know.
The festival opened with a discussion entitled “Rewriting Ireland’s Rebel History”, in which Ruan O’Donnell, the avuncular author of several books on Robert Emmet, argued that, “We can literally never have enough context.” In a run-through of her new book on the graffiti of Kilmainham Jail, however, Niamh O’Sullivan argued that inscriptions such as, “To hell with government!” stand alone as artefacts, independent of any historian’s commentary. The apparent incongruity of the respective viewpoints went unaddressed. Not for the last time this weekend, the heavyweights pulled their punches.
With his play currently running in the Abbey, author of Christ Deliver Us! Thomas Kilroy spoke with celebrated playwright Declan Hughes. Borbála Faragó, Eva Bourke, Paddy Bushe and Trinity’s own Gerald Dawe read from or spoke about their poetry and others’. But for a book festival, its programme betrayed an embarrassing paucity of acclaimed novelists on show. Only Hugo Hamilton, whose 2003 autobiography The Speckled People has been translated into 15 languages, stood out among those speaking as a novelist of repute.
The novel is out of fashion, however. Greg Baxter spoke at length about David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a new work which urges a move away from the contemporary novel (an “essentially purposeless” art form) in favour of autobiography. Nevertheless, the festival would be better positioned on the other side of Christmas, a period when big-name novelists generally have new books to push and peddle, so that Baxter’s opinion might be countered. As it happened, the point went unchallenged.
It’s not as if the novelists aren’t in town. At one point during Shane Hegarty’s reading, Irvine Welsh sat down next to me. Moments later, though, he left. He had a point. Writing for The Irish Times every Saturday, Shane Hegarty is one of Ireland’s most consistently thought-provoking journalists. The Irish (And Other Foreigners), which chronicles the 10,000 years of immigration into Ireland, seems like a genuinely interesting book.
But with Hegarty stuttering and stumbling over his selected passages, the senescent audience seemed to zone out. Talking about reading is a public experience, but reading itself is to my mind a necessarily private one.
On Sunday, I went to see Declan Meade, editor of The Stinging Fly, be interviewed by Eileen Battersby. Meade was sick, however; and it turned out, in any case, that Battersby was the intended subject of the interview. With her new book to plug, the Literary Correspondent for The Irish Times pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of being a duller speaker than she is a writer. With the event taking place in the Council Chamber, Battersby said that she felt like she was sitting in a tribunal. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” she joked. Not so fast, Eileen: I’ve read your book. The man beside slept through the proceedings.
After his reading, Shane Hegarty spoke of the vivifying influence immigration has had on Dublin’s Moore Street. “The physical buildings are in rag order,” he said, “but the influx of new blood has brought the area to life.” In some respect, the Dublin Book Festival is the inverse of this. Pristinely kept, City Hall is an impressive Georgian building. Inside, twelve fluted columns describe the massive entrance rotunda, above which hangs an imposing dome. But there was a numbness to the proceedings resulting, I think, from the hegemonic role of The Irish Times at the festival. Of the event’s speakers, over a dozen are regular contributors to the IT.
The sportswriting event, which took place on the “Irish Times Stage”, was exclusive to its own writers. This is not to say anything against these journalists; they are the best in the country, and so have every right to speak at this festival. But they are colleagues and, if any differences have not been ironed out already, they can’t really appear to disagree with any vehemence in public. They certainly can’t humiliate each other.
The audience made fewer objections still. Perhaps they’d read the City Corporation’s motto, embedded in the floor mosaic in City Hall: “Obedienta Civium Urbis Felicitas” – “Happy the City whose Citizens Obey”.
On Saturday morning, Diarmaid Ferriter, author of the acclaimed Judging Dev, had warned against “the dangers of reading history backwards”, and had asserted the need in Ireland for “a more nuanced history”. The phrase is echoed by A More Complex Truth, the title of Nuala O’Faolain’s posthumously published selected writing, which was launched by its editor Anthony Glavin and Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole on the final day of the book festival.
A truly ground-breaking Irish journalist, O’Faolain passed away in May of 2008. The launch of A More Complex Truth was the last event of the festival. This sense of closure, matched to the evident grievance of so many in attendance, caused a funereal air to hang over the proceedings. The Irish Times had come to mourn one of their own.
“I still can’t quite get used to the idea that we’re talking about her in the past tense,” O’Toole eulogised. Anthony Glavin appeared visibly and audibly upset when, speaking about the selected writing, he said that O’Faolain’s voice is “palpable and resonant; just about as near as we can get to her”.
No stranger to controversy herself, O’Faolain understood that truth was not present in one viewpoint or another. Truth is more complex than that. Presented with a seemingly impenetrable block of facts, writers must painstakingly sculpt out a more complex truth.
Of course, literary warfare is not the way to go about this – it will only destruct the block. But a refusal to engage leaves the block untouched.