This was the title of a debate chaired by poet and writer Michael O’Loughlin at the Writers’ Centre Dublin on 2nd February. The panel was made up of the clever and inspiring novelist Claire Kilroy, who always speaks from the heart of her art, arts journo Nadine O’Regan from the Business Post, Gerard Smyth, poet and Managing Editor of The Irish Times, and David Love from Amnesty. Most of the panel responded by not appearing to agree with the premise, as indeed did some of the audience, which included writers Lia Mills, Mary Rose Callaghan, Rachel McNichol, dance-director Peter Duffy and others.
However, in the general shakedown it appears that people – although unwilling or unable to debate the premise – had very specific views on a range of issues varying from theatre today, to publishing and the crisis of the mid-career author suddenly finding themselves shored up and cut-off and unwanted by publishers, to a few mildly inflammatory comments about contemporary writers. The starting point for O’Loughlin – which was contested by several people, including Smyth – was that Heaney and Brian Friel have not taken on ‘what’s happening in Ireland’, to quote O’Loughlin. As anyone who has attended Irish theatre in the last thirty years will know, the one thing Friel’s oeuvre demonstrates is that he has engaged very distinctly and yet imaginatively with the issues of both our history and our present – from plays that range from ‘Translations’ to ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’, and beyond. His ‘The Freedom of the City’ was a landmark drama. Claire Kilroy then pointed out that writers should not feel any need to be polemic or engagé for the sake of resolving social issues and taking up the cudgel against the agitations within any society. However, as it happens – and as I pointed out – no woman in her middle years who has been writing over the past twenty to thirty years has failed to offer a critique of our culture through her work. It has happened automatically, by virtue of the fact that so many of us grew up aggrieved and often marginalised by our own country. What I found particularly interesting, though unsurprising, was the lack of interest in this notion – of a recent history of female critical engagement – among the panel. There is obviously no perceived problem for younger women – and in one way this is fantastic, especially if this reflects their experience. But is there any awareness of how they came to be where they are, and whether or not their work is actually read and responded to critically, within academia for example? Does it matter to them? Perhaps not. The F for Feminism word was tossed around a little and there is a generation of women who largely steer clear of any engagement with it. Yet it seems to me that without a corresponding tranche of academic criticism on the work of our writers, debate may be stifled. For a long time, writers in Ireland have survived very well without academic response – it is fairly recent to see the work of contemporary writers included on academic courses – and the Muse, the idea of writing as inspiration, often sustained a balance of debate that was quite different from what one found in the USA for example. But things have moved on.
In any case, the debate was interesting, and well enough attended. All seats were filled although I’d have liked to see a greater representation from the literary, artistic and academic worlds. It’s probably necessary to follow-up with another event perhaps in September. The Chairman might also consider putting a gag on speakers who speak uninterruptedly for more than four minutes at a time. And more time for audience participation also might be an idea. Still, a good night’s work, and a good start to very necessary debate. O’Loughlin is a provocateur whose position is known to be oppositionist, and the more I think about it the more I feel we need a good contrary strand of thinking which not everyone will hold a consensus view on, within our debate today. We have become too tamed, too deferential, too afraid to bite the hand that ‘feeds us’ (whether this is potential readers, or grants, bursaries, Cnuases), too aware of ‘position’. To hell with that. Bite, writers, BITE BLOODY HARD!!