Thinking about Northern Irish Fiction
This week, Dr Caroline Magennis explores the politicised criticism of Northern Irish fiction and argues that more nuanced comparative studies are needed. Tweet her @DrMagennis with your thoughts.
Northern Irish fiction is hard to place. The poetic output of the province is internally renowned and, as such, has benefitted from a diverse and thoughtful range of critical approaches which include comparative studies with other nations within and without of British Isles. The problem with placing Northern Irish fiction begins, then, with the relative cultural inattention to the form within both Irish literary studies and critical work on twenty-first century literature. It often does not feature in studies of either the British and/or Irish novel, despite authors considering themselves a part of either of these national identities. There is a sense that critics are often squeamish about quite what to do with these fictions, which often have an uncomfortable and dissonant relationship to ways of understanding Northern Irish identity. This discomfort is entirely reasonable, and often borne out of politeness and perceived ignorance of the nuances of the political situation: but I do not want the novels I love to exist outside of the mainstream critical landscape of contemporary fiction when they could be important contributions to the debates around identity, gender and class in Britain and Ireland.
The problem, then, becomes that criticism of Northern Irish fiction tends to come from an avowedly political standpoint that does not do justice to the formal traditions from which this work arises. These authors read widely outside of their context, indeed I get a lot of brilliant fiction recommendations from Lucy Caldwell on twitter (@beingvarious). In her important essay looking at 1990s Northern Irish fiction, “Fiction in Conflict: Northern Ireland’s Prodigal Novelists”, Eve Patten traces the influence of English fiction on Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson and when I interviewed both writers, they wanted to discuss their non-Irish influences (admittedly mostly French in the case of Wilson), despite the obsession of critics with exactly what their work had to say about national identity in Northern Ireland. I want to propose, then, that the work of Northern Irish novels should be read against prevailing trends in twenty-first century literature rather than just as representations of a political process. The major exception to this is Stefanie Lehner’s Subaltern Ethics: Tracing Counter-Histories in Scottish and Irish Literature which has a unique and useful comparative framework. More nuanced comparative studies would be welcome, as well as an acknowledgement in studies of contemporary British fiction that what they really mean is English fiction (and further again: do they really mean Southern English fiction?).
At conferences on twenty-first century fiction (whether British, Irish or global), I am often the only person talking about Northern Irish fiction and get unfeasibly delighted when someone has read one of ‘my’ novels. I am lucky, then, to find people talking about English, Scottish and Welsh fiction using theoretical and contextual apparatuses not unlike my own, and it is exactly this sort of comparative work that has enriched Irish poetry criticism that I want for Northern Irish fiction. These novels should be read alongside the multi-cultural novels of contemporary Britain, their often ambivalent relationship to national identity read against Scottish and Welsh fiction and their indebtedness to English fiction traced.
Northern Irish fiction is having an exciting moment in the ‘post’-conflict literary landscape of these islands: authors are being published by the best houses and there is a diverse and existing tradition emerging which aims to show more of contemporary society than just the boys with balaclavas. These novels show the complex operations of history and memory and how they interact with the novel form. So, I ask you to read a Northern Irish novel.
Tweet at me (@drmagennis) for a recommendation and, when you do, you’ll see that their fine prose holds up well with any longlist you care to mention. Then we’ll wait for critics of English, Welsh and Scottish fiction to catch up.
Caroline Magennis is a Lecturer in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford. Her research focuses on contemporary Northern Irish literature and culture, with particular interest in theoretical approaches to ‘post’-Troubles fiction. She is the author of Sons of Ulster: Masculinities in the Contemporary Northern Irish Novel and co-editor of Irish Masculinities: Reflections on Literature and Culture. Her research lives at: https://salford.academia.edu/CarolineMagennis