Show Your Work: Essays from the Dublin Review, Brendan Barrington (ed), Dublin Review Books, €20, ISBN: 978-1919626734
The Dublin Review (DR) is a mountain on the landscape of contemporary Irish letters. Resting above the tempestuous currents that rile the Irish literary and cultural scenes today, it stands as a dependable source for the best Irish writing and outpost for the most challenging Irish writers.
First published in 2000, and edited since then by Brendan Barrington, the DR will feature prominently in the arguments of future literary scholars when they come to analyse the factors that precipitated a second literary renaissance to arise in Ireland during decade following the financial crisis of 2008-2013.
The contribution of the DR to this great effervescence of Irish writing is evident in at least two respects. First, as a leading literary journal at a time when few Irish journals (with the exception of The Stinging Fly) could challenge its status, it attracted many of the country’s most daring and talented writers, fostering their work and providing a platform for them to attract international attention and begin their literary careers in earnest: the obvious example here being Sally Rooney, whose breakthrough 2015 essay “Even if You Beat Me” is published in this new anthology, but one could equally mention Rob Doyle, whose 2021 essay “Tastes Good with the Money” also features. Second, taking inspiration from American and European journals, the DR championed alternative modes of writing with previously little track record in Ireland. Unlike most Irish journals at this time, the DR was cosmopolitan, participating in a globalising literary system, almost on a par with the great American and British literary periodicals from which it drew inspiration. It provided a model for subsequent Irish journals to emulate. TOLKA, Banshee and the Dublin Review of Books all arise from an ambition resting implicit in some of the more forward-looking periodicals to have emerged in Ireland during the twentieth century, from The Bell, founded in 1940 by Seán Ó Faoláin, to the short-lived Atlantis, established in the 1970s by Seamus Deane and Richard Kearney: namely, to integrate Irish literature and cultural criticism into broader European traditions and discourses from which Irish writing had ostensibly remained aloof, thereby enriching both and fostering an indigenous literary consciousness that was more amenable to new currents of thought and encouraging of novel models of creative expression. It was only in the globalising world of the 1990s and 2000s that such ambitions truly because propitious, aided by generous government support through the Irish Arts Council. The contemporary literary scene is all the richer for this.
Although it has published short stories from the beginning, the DR is probably best known for popularising that genre through which much of the most impressive Irish writing of late has been expressed – the personal essay. As noted by Barrington in his introduction to Show Your Work, an anthology comprising some of the best essays to have featured in the DR over the past fourteen years, “essay writing simply wasn’t a think that most Irish writers did”. The DR changed this, helping to usher in our time of literary ferment.
To write an essay is to follow the French verb essayer, essentially to “measure the quality of something”; to throw one’s mind over a subject, never with an end to achieving clarity or definition in one’s perspective or judgment, but rather of gaining sense of the topic at hand, its fundamental components, while discovering what can be learned in the process of composition. To write a personal essay, in this sense, is a task best articulated by an antecedent of the modern form, Michel de Montaigne, who noted in his essay “Of Practice”:
What I write here is not my teaching but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me. And yet it should not be held against me if I publish what I write. What is useful to me may also by accident be useful to another.
I look to the personal essay as I look to the autobiography, and to a lesser extent the novel. The late antique world described by Saint Augustine in his autobiography, Confessions, may be alien to me, but the crises of faith, guilt, desire, and identity he grapples with could not be more relevant to “me” – for the act of literary appreciation is, ultimately, a subjective one. The personal essay takes this axiom as a guiding principle, aiming to elicit emotional sympathy and intellectual affinity, though mostly through a semblance of relativity. Certain essays will appeal to some more to others, as in the case of this anthology, as capturing the experiences, feelings, or sentiments with which only they are associated; others resonate in their daring to capture the banal, the stultifying usual, in retreat from which we turn to art, and ability to confound our intuitions by casting in a sublime new light that which we otherwise find tedious or superfluous. The best essays are those that creep under our skin regardless of their content or subject matter; partly by force of structure and eloquence, but mainly via the new avenues of thought they awaken in us, the latent possibilities they show to be possible, and through granting form to those experiences and thoughts which had previously gonemunshapen and nebulous. Far from being a reductive form, or one set on valorising the narcissistic impulses of the late-capitalistic “individual”, the personal essay, in articulating the experience of its author, provides us with a perspective on our own lives, drawing us to introspection in the face of what we find objectionable, familiar, or novel. We acquire insight in each case; we only stand to gain in participating in the struggles of mind described by our best essayists, for they venture to navigate the intricate web of human emotional life that we will all find ourselves traversing at different stages in our lives. They offer an illuminating guide – one we need not adhere to, but a guide nevertheless if we ever happen to get lost.
The essays collected here meet these ends admirably. It is a diverse collection, with personal, reflective essays accompanied by impersonal, journalistic essays in which the authors are nevertheless conspicuously present. In this second category, in the company of pieces by Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Eoin Butler, Selina Guinness, Susan McKay, and Deirdre Mask, Caelainn Hogan’s essay “Death of a Fisherman”, in which she ponders the mysterious death of an old family friend, offers a fitting demonstration of how the tools of journalism, concerned with effacing the presence of an author to present an objective, impartial story, can be used to the benefit of a personal essay. Hogan elicits our sympathy from the outside; as does McKay in her poignant account of life and dissolution in Ardoyne, in North Belfast, in the years following the Good Friday Agreement. “Easter in Ardoyne” paints a dark picture, focusing on the epidemic of adolescent suicides which befell the region in the 2000s, employing this as a microstudy to illustrate the extent to which the Catholic nationalist community in the North is still plagued by the lingering ghost of institutional discrimination.
Most of the essays here draw our sympathy from the inside, however. Some of the more notable instances include the contributions of Dason Yang, Dominique Cleary, Darragh McCausland, Brian Dillon, and Roisin Kiberd. Yang’s essay, “Seven Days”, recounts the emotional and physical tumults that convulsed her over the course of a week during which she secured an abortion. The tone is remorseful, pained, but the message is nevertheless defiant, as in Cleary’s essay. “Advice on Motherhood” provides a rich tapestry of sequential vignettes through which Cleary reflects on her protracted battle with reconciling the duties of motherhood and work, and the stress and fatigue of trying to maintain one’s former standing in a highly competitive, male-dominated corporate sector in which being a new mother puts one at a serious disadvantage. Forced from work without being formally dismissed, Cleary devotes herself to her children. She allows this new role to define her, to direct the course of her life and determine her priorities, as she did with her previous role. In flight from her prescribed essence, she finds new solace in writing and the introspection this affords, providing a sense of relief whereas previously there was none.
McCausland and Dillon have recourse to the consoling embrace of the written word for similar reasons, aiming not to escape their afflictions, or muffle them out before they come roaring back, but to use writing and the personal essay as a means to overcome them. For McCausland, the affliction is bulimia brought on by an eating disorder. These two ailments come to define his life, strain his relationships and impinge on his career and life prosects – but he refrains from seeking treatment until it is too late, persuaded that men cannot contract bulimia, that only women are susceptible to eating disorders and that it’s not fitting for a man to demonstrate such frailty or lack of control.
In “RB and Me: an Education”, Dillon provides a fragmentary account of his personal and intellectual development between the years 1986 and 1998. Between these years his parents die in quick succession; he stumbles through his formal education at secondary school and UCD, thereafter deciding to embark on a PhD that would take seven years to complete and send him into a debilitating spiral of depression and self-abasement that his caustic apathy did little to remedy; and he reaps the fruit of an informal education, rich in David Bowie, Warhol, those 1950s Parisian thinkers dismissed by his father “as ‘madmen’ from behind his Irish Times”, and Roland Barthes, his great obsession, through whose work Dillon would hope to keep the “world at bay”. He turned to Barthes and the canon of critical theory as “an intellectual apparatus by which I thought to diffuse potentially explosive emotional situations, or more accurately damp the slow-burning grief and general misery that I was unable to express”. These afflictions would eventually find expression in the personal essay. In this, in Dillon’s endeavour to sublimate these consuming passions and render them perspicuous, he provides a sense of what might have been, and proffers a warning in the face of what might be.
Roisin Kiberd’s piece, “The Night Gym”, achieves a similar effect. In this moving evocation of the alienation so pervasive to modern urban life, especially in this digitised world where much human interaction occurs online and the once stable boundary between life and work become ever more blurred, Kiberd recounts her difficulty in trying to establish a stable new life pattern in a context that is recalcitrant to this. She falls into loneliness, depression and irregularity, and appeals to work and the twenty-four-hour night gym as two sources of validation. She embraces the moniker of “girlboss” three or four years before this concept is coined, allowing her work to define her, giving it priority over her social life and mental wellbeing, all so that she may repeat to herself: “I am not wasting my time, but making the most of it.” The consequences are predictable: “This system … drew me further and further away from contact with other humans, leaving only the company of machines. I went out less and less, apart from the gym. As in the gym, where the proof of a good workout is an aching body, I told myself that each cancelled invitation, each ignored event or unanswered message was proof that I was working hard. Loneliness had become addictive; it had come to define me.”
It nevertheless takes her time to recognise them, to reconcile herself to the fact of her isolation and the need for change: “By the end of the summer of 2016 I was beginning to realise that I had a problem, not just with workout habits but with the order of my life in general. I was alienated, distant from society and from myself. Messages went unanswered, deadlines unfulfilled. I realised that I was running away from my problems.” Many of us will, at some point, inhabit a situation resembling Kiberd’s: stuck at an impasse, with all routes of escape apparently cut off, depositing one on the verge of crisis. Kiberd’s essay provides one account of how someone might escape from a bind that constrains many of us; one we need not follow, even if we do recognise some aspect of ourselves or our situations in it, but which we are nevertheless better for having.
Although each of the essays in this volume was selected for its individual quality, they also seem to have been chosen because of their contemporary relevance. This is no bad thing. Taken together, this volume covers the wide breath of Irish writing at this fruitful moment, capturing its main concerns and reflecting the issues that drive its authors to action.
Many turn to the personal essay as the preferred medium for giving forceful articulation to those issues that impinge Irish society, through a journalistic eye or the perspective provided by their own embodied subjectivity. This collection provides a forceful vindication of the personal essay, and presages a bright future for the form in Ireland.
Adam Coleman will be starting a PhD at the University of Oxford in 2023 on the topic of ‘Seamus Deane as Public Intellectual’.
We are making some changes at the drb. From 2023 we will publish three times a year. The reduced frequency means we will be concentrating on our core activity, the long-form review essay. The first of the three issues to be published next year will appear in February. Blogs will continue to appear between issues. We wish our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas.