Last Saturday I bought four Irish novels. I read one of them this week, a book that is very modern in the sense that it pushes the boundaries of narrative, so after a while it becomes so strange you just read it knowing that it will be strange, or you quit reading. When I went looking for Irish novels, however, what did I mean by “Irish”? Does Irish literature have to focus on small stone cottages set on green hillsides, with people who drink Guinness and say, “How’s your Da?”
It’s fairly common to describe literature, as I did, based on the writers (who they are, where they come from), rather than based on the writing itself. This can make for some strange classifications. The short Irish novel I just read, for instance mentions Irish place names and makes a few Irish cultural references, but in fact, with very few changes, the book could take place in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires or Tokyo. Is this an “Irish” novel or just a novel by an Irish writer. Or are they exactly the same thing?
Years ago I gave myself an ambitious goal of reading a novel from every country on the earth (I never came close). I thought I had Ireland covered at the time because I’d read Gulliver’s Travels, but someone pointed out that Jonathan Swift was actually Anglo-Irish (I note that Wikipedia also refers to him as Anglo-Irish). He was born in Dublin, mostly grew up in Dublin, went to college in Dublin, died in Dublin, and is buried there. But according to this point of view, he’s not exactly Irish.
Trying to define Irish literature is an example of a broader question of defining any kind of literary group. As one example, writers are routinely identified as belonging to particular countries. Here is the U.S., we also categorize writers based on groups that have traditionally lacked power. There’s a logic to this, as people in those groups can describe a reality and life that people in the power group would not know. Thus we talk about women writers, black writers, American-Indian writers, and so on.
How many writers like these labels? Probably almost none. Philip Roth, who just died and who repeatedly wrote books using Jewish characters, did not want to be known as a “Jewish” writer but as a good writer, regardless of his subject matter. And does being a member of one of these groups imply a certain type of subject matter? Did the black writer Octavia Butler, who wrote science fiction, write “black” literature? Was she not a real black writer?
From a literary point of view, what is Irish? Before I visited Limerick, Ireland, a woman who lives there recommended that I read Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, to get a feeling of Limerick, so I read it. There is even a museum to McCourt in the city of Limerick, yet he was born in New York and spent almost his entire life in America. Is he more Irish than Jonathan Swift, who lived all his life in Ireland?
The labels we use for writers and writing can sometimes be handy, because those labels might indicate cultural differences or ways of living, history, language, and so on. But as with so much, we can also use these labels in a stupid lazy way, as if a writer is supposed to write certain things based on country of origin, or skin color, or culture, and so on.
It’s no wonder writers don’t like the labels. As dictators around the world know, there are writers willing to go to prison rather be told what they are allowed to write.