Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story - review

The nice people at Granta sent me a copy of The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story because they 'thought I'd like it'. I do like it - thank you, Granta! So I thought I should repay them by reviewing it here. So here goes:

Will I do the clichéd reviewing-an-anthology thing and lament the excluded writers? Wail about the story that should have represented X writer? Moan about the fact that anthologies usually represent who the writer is friends with/connected to, rather than who is actually writing and publishing short stories at the time? No, I won’t bother. This is very much Anne Enright’s personal selection. She read hundreds of stories for this book – I have no doubt that she took her task seriously and, here, she presents the stories that stayed with her, long after reading them. Her foreword is cryptic in the way only Anne Enright can be cryptic. She appears to say that the English are not great short fiction writers – or does she? She is also provocative in that she takes issue with Frank O’Connor’s assertion that the short story is about the lonely and ‘submerged populations’.

I’m a huge Enright fan and I enjoyed reading her introduction to the book, even if I didn’t fully get all of it. She has, as always, interesting things to say. Consider, for example her assertion that ‘if the short story is a national form it did not seem to flourish in the national language of Irish, where all the excitement, for me at least, was in poetry.’ Agh – what about Liam Ó Flatharta’s Dúil? Or Peig which was essentially a collection of stories? (Or am I unique in that I enjoyed Peig?!)

But I love what she says about John McGahern’s stories: ‘[they] are the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor.’ Brilliant.

My heart fell to my boots when the opening story by Michael McLaverty was about nuns. Groan. Ireland is not all about religion and alcohol – really! Anyway, I read the story. It broke a few ‘rules’ of writing, for example, it shifted viewpoint throughout and it was overloaded with characters. But, do you know what? I enjoyed it. It zones in on the claustrophobia and pettiness that always seems to surround convent life; it highlights the childish nature of many nuns; it focuses on one event, which is what any good short story should do. The story ends predictably, but so what? Sometimes there is comfort in that.

There's a nasty little story from Roddy Doyle and a not very convincing one from John Banville but all in all there's a tempting selection in the anthology. I like that Maeve Brennan is included and Mary Lavin, but I would have loved more modern stories.

I wonder if this book was rushed out in the end – the copyediting and proofreading is poor. Claire Keegan’s name is spelt wrong twice and there are odd gaps left around the ellipsis here, there and everywhere. It’s enough to drive a reader mad! And for anyone who thinks I’m nitpicking – perfection in presentation is crucial (ask Noah Lukeman). I would have thought that Granta would be top-notch when it came to such issues.

There is a sense of the usual suspects about this book – only one name was not familiar to me: Jennifer Cornell. Wouldn’t it be lovely to open an anthology and be introduced to heaps of lesser known writers? None of the writers represented here is under 40 years of age either. That, I think, is unfortunate and an oversight. I would also have liked to see Emma Donoghue in the book and, maybe, Des Hogan.

There, I did end up doing the clichéd thing but maybe, when reviewing an anthology (however briefly), it can’t be avoided. Would I encourage you to buy it? Well, if you are not familiar with Irish short fiction of the 20th Century, yes. If you're looking for ultra-contemporary Irish short stories, not so much. But it's a good overview of many of the writers who paved the way for the rest of us and for that alone, it's worth the investment (€18.89 from The Book Depository, delivered). Or maybe Santa Claus will be gifting it this year.


Kar said...

How lovely to get a present of a book because they thought you’d like it.

I looked at the book on Saturday in town and to be honest the size of it put me off, that and the fact that nearly all of the writers are well known. It miffed me a bit. I’d have loved to come across a whole pile of names that I’d never heard before or were only vaguely familiar to me. You know even a mix of known and unknown / nearly known would have been great. In my head I was saying ‘ahhhh give the strugglers out there a chance!’

The sloppy editing and incorrect name spelling would annoy me too. However in saying all that, you’ve given it a good enough review for me to want to read it, so I may just have to present it to myself because I’d like it ;-)

Padhraig Nolan said...

Interesting review, ta.

As a rule, anthologies are rife with caveats, which doesn't automatically prevent them from being successful books in their own right - although many end up as flawed endeavours. Not a bad thing in itself - better to take a few editorial risks than be doggedly predictable?

I've been dropping xmas present hints for this book - sounds like a sturdy collection - but I'm pretty appalled to hear of those proofing issues. As you say, if Granta are missing these things it's a very sad state of affairs. Creative editorial risk is one thing - but technical negligence? Not impressive.

We're all on a very tight budget these days, so a book with nuts and bolts issues like this does itself no favours when there are so many other excellent titles out there, competing for limited funds. Pity.


Kar - maybe wait for the paperback? I've no doubt it won't be too long coming.


PJ - I hope your hints are heeded. I love the way an anthology makes no urgent demands on the reader. You can dip in and out as you like. There's plenty to enjoy in it.

Anonymous said...

I was going to buy this second-hand but I found out that the vendor wasn't shipping here. I ended up buying two Claire Keegan collections instead.
I have to say I prefer mix and match anthologies where they don't just include the big names like a Greatest Hits collection. I remember reading "Ireland in Exile - Irish Writers Abroad" and discovering several writers I had known nothing about. I have been reading a lot more short stories lately and I am beginning to see that the best novelists are not necessarily the best short story writers. The best short story writers are like the apparatus specialist in gymnastics, they deliver potent magic in a concentrated dose.


Wow, I love that gymnastics analogy.
I agree re anthologies - they should introduce lesser known writers.
And what you say re novelists is true - the s/s is a specific art, not a short novel.
Thanks for stopping by, Oranje.


Aidan - tusa atá ann! Fáilte.

Anonymous said...

I changed over to Wordpress a while back (I still left the old blog there though read-only).
I actually ordered "Nude" a while back so it should be coming to me soon but we have postal strikes in Holland. I am going crazy for short stories partly because of my OU studies. Jhumpa Lahiri is one writer who has really hooked me. Chimamanda is still my favourite short story writer and novelist though, I guess that she is a true all-rounder.

The Plath Diaries said...

Based on your review, I think this would be a book my best friend would love for Christmas! I may well just buy it! :)


Aidan - Chimamanda is brilliant, alright.

Maeve - hope she likes it!