Are essays and short stories the future of Irish literature?

Grace Farrell speaks to Professor Philip Coleman and author Wendy Erskine about short form prose, literary trends, and commercialisation versus innovation

The literary landscape has seen an influx of internationally acclaimed essay and short story collections by Irish writers. Although these forms have always been popular for their succinct, quickly digestible nature, short form literature has moved to the forefront of the literary scene with writers like Sinéad Gleeson and Emilie Pine garnering widespread praise and popularity. Why this, why now? Dr Philip Coleman, an Associate Professor in Trinity’s School of English and a renowned academic with vast experience in the essay form, along with Wendy Erskine, an acclaimed short story writer and author of Sweet Home, spoke to Trinity News about the rise of the essay and short story forms, the dynamics they consist of, and the history that frames them.

How did we get here?

Acknowledging its popularity in the literary world in the last few years, Dr Coleman stresses “that we have to be careful not to overstate this” by valuing the impact of the precursors that paved the way: “In some ways the essay – even the personal essay – has been a central feature of Irish literary culture for a long time,” citing 20th century works like “Yeats’s Essays and Introduction, for example, and Joyce’s nonfiction [which] is also significant”.

Regarding short forms more widely, Erskine looks outward: “Chris Power, besides being an excellent short story writer himself, is really interesting on the form. He would argue, I think, that in fact there is no particular surge in popularity at present, that the same thing has been said at many different points during the 20th century.” She stresses the clear logic behind its popularity, as it is a form which closely resembles “our main modes of extended communication…You know, you meet a friend for a drink and essentially what you do is trade short stories.” As for the essay? The same logic applies: “We’re not talking about everyone sitting around reading Hazlitt. Although I like Hazlitt. We’re talking about people and their experiences and their ideas. It’s not so wildly different from what we read in magazines. Could someone who reads Take a Break and New really enjoy Constellations? Why yes of course! Could someone who reads no literary magazines or supposed literary fiction but enjoys a drink down the bar get something out of, say, my short stories? I would hope so.” 

“You know, you meet a friend for a drink and essentially what you do is trade short stories.”

Dr Coleman deems the essay’s popularity to be less influenced by the trend than its formal possibilities: “…writers will write if they have something to say, and form will follow as it must,” as the essay “can often allow a writer a kind of formal freedom that is often not assumed to be available in poetry or certain kinds of fiction”. Erskine agreed with this notion that trends often affect readers much more so than writers: “I think that very few people who write want to feel a constituent part of a trend. It’s all about the unique quality of the work, the product of the ego sublime. But that’s probably delusional in practically every case. We can all be worked into the pattern one way or another.”

Publishers, writers, readers – who decides the trends?

The popularity of literary journals such as The Stinging Fly has played a significant part in propelling Irish literary talent into the public sphere and excelling the forms. Considering this, do literary journals, and publishing more generally, make the calls on literary trends rather than the readers, or is it all a fine balance? “The Stinging Fly is a brilliant journal and it has been so important to the development of literary talent, and culture, in Ireland and internationally over the last few years,” says Dr Coleman. “Of course the magazine and others like it do important work in ‘finding’ talent…but don’t forget that writers need to find magazines and publishers that will work for them too – it’s a two-way street, I think.” At the same time, the influence of publishers is undeniable, as they play a powerful role in “determining the public’s sense of what ‘literature’ is at a given time, and the way books are marketed – packaged, promoted, and sold – is such a huge part of what literary culture means today.” It is inevitable that such commercialisation has its downfalls, and some are hard not to see as “regrettable”: “…it’s often hard to browse in a bookshop because so many books seem to be crying out to be consumed rather than read…Ultimately I do think that readers and publishers participate in this, though – you can’t have one without the other, at the end of the day, and most writers want publishers to push their books so that they will be commercially successful. Critical success is another matter, of course.” 

“…writers will write if they have something to say, and form will follow as it must.”

For Erskine “a really good literary journal is less about trend and more about a multiplicity of different voices and styles”: “Where the trend maybe becomes significant or useful is in a wider market where the imperative is to sell as many books as possible; here the ‘trend’ perhaps becomes something tried and tested, something that poses not too much of a risk, a familiar thing that is accessible for many readers.” Drawing parallels with Dr Coleman’s perspective, she explores the influence of the public in a commercial as well as an exciting sense, as we have seen by the popularity of more innovative and commercially-risky books: “…to a certain extent, in the marketplace, I do believe that ‘the public wants what the public gets’, to quote Paul Weller. But what I love is when the public shows amazing singularity and celebrates a book that really is not part of any trend at all, that is totally unique, and which, to boot, has come from a really small press, like Ronan Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul from Bluemoose.”

Looking back on literary history 

The essay can easily mesh two powerful elements of literature – the succinctness of a short story and the navigational scope and emotional depth of a novel – and this often involves a crucial element of vulnerability, as we have seen in Sinéad Gleeson and Ian Maleney’s essays. “You are absolutely right to make a connection between the essay and the short story – both depend on a high degree of formal economy and yet they can also both be remarkable vehicles of emotional reach and thematic exploration,” says Dr Coleman. Reaffirming the importance of looking to predecessors of such movements, he reiterates that recent trends should not be mistaken for recent phenomenons: “…think of the incredible emotional power of Joan Didion’s essays from the 1960s, for example, or the candour and depth of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Richard Wright’s essays from earlier decades of the 20th century. Going back even further, there are moments in Henry David Thoreau’s essays, or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s.” On the topic of vulnerability, Erskine traces it through literary history, and while it may not be particularly celebrated here more than elsewhere, she thinks “there might be a particular need in certain places for there to be openness about certain, specific subjects: what life is/was like in a theocracy for example”.

“I think that very few people who write want to feel a constituent part of a trend. It’s all about the unique quality of the work, the product of the ego sublime.”

The succinctness of the form in tandem with its recent surge in popularity draws parallels with the current age we live in – whether growing unconsciously used to 280 character tweets, instagram highlights, or facebook memories – our attention spans are able to be as short as ever, and the proliferation of information at our fingertips is as high as ever. It raises the question of whether or not the two aspects interact to make short form literature all the more attractive as something meaningful, but not time-consuming. “It’s true I think, what you say about our attention spans being limited,” Erskine admits. “I can’t concentrate on anything for more than 10 minutes without stopping to watch a Wayne Goss video or playing Yahtzee on my phone. But I don’t know if the short form is ideal for a limited attention span. Personally I find a short story collection takes me a lot longer to read than anything else, because it involves concentration and it also requires recalibration to lots of different worlds.” Accordingly, Erskine reads more novels than other forms, and she does it rapidly: “I rattle through them, although that’s also because I’m a bad novel reader. I’m happy to skip loads of stuff: description of landscapes, dissection of feeling and so on. But yes, I think all art involves some kind of human connection. Always has done.” 

Where will we go next?

As for predictions for future literary trends? Dr Coleman places value in the unpredictability: “Who knows where art will go next – this is one of the reasons why it’s so exciting and interesting to be involved in the study of literature and why it’s so important to support young writers too!” Surrounding scholarship, he mentions how the essay has become the focus of increased attention in the last few years, and in March 2020 college will see “a symposium exploring various aspects of its development”. He adds that the renowned Philip Lopate will be the keynote speaker, and that The Call for Papers has been made public in anticipation of the symposium.

“…it’s often hard to browse in a bookshop because so many books seem to be crying out to be consumed rather than read…”

Something Erskine would like to read more of is work “which uses visual images as an integral part of the text, say a text made up of artefacts and writing in a box, like gorse No. 10, but a novel”, providing Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris as an example. She recalls her literary taste as a child: “those books which asked you to turn to page 10 if you want the character to go with the stranger, turn to page 23 if you want the character to head to the bus shelter instead. There’s stuff kind of like that online, but I would love to read something super-complex and weird and labyrinthine. I hope more people work in that kind of way. Joanna Walsh’s Seed is a little like that and I love it. I suppose what all these things have in common is that a reader is co-opted into creating meaning beyond reading sentences.” Her final words? “So come on all you guys. Bring on this trend. Next month is fine.”

It’s clear that the essay and the short story have a long history of craft and consumption, but their current rise doesn’t seem to be a temporary trend. In 2017, Jia Tolentino proclaimed in The New Yorker that the “Personal-Essay Boom” is over, but with all that’s happened since, who knows where literary trends will go next? 

Grace Farrell

Grace Farrell is the current Arts and Culture Editor of Trinity News.