The Long Gaze Back edited by Sinéad Gleeson
The Long Gaze Back is the first all-female anthology of Irish short stories in 14 years and is therefore timely and well overdue. Edited by the broadcaster, critic, and journalist Sinéad Gleeson, and published by New Island, the collection carries stories by emerging (EM Reapy, Eimear Ryan, Lisa McInerney), established and award-winning (Anne Enright, Mary Costello, Belinda McKeon, Eimear McBride, Nuala Ní Chonchúir), long-deceased (Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen), and forgotten (Norah Hoult, Charlotte Riddell) Irish writers.
In 2012, Sinéad Gleeson edited Silver Threads of Hope, a collection of new stories by Kevin Barry, Emma Donoghue, Colum McCann, Arlene Hunt, and Dermot Healy, among others, published in aid of CONSOLE, a suicide awareness, bereavement, and counselling charity. She has presented two seasons of The Book Show, broadcast on RTÉ Radio on Saturday nights. Sinéad Gleeson first came to my attention back in 2009/2010 when she was podcasting and blogging from The Anti-Room with Edel Coffey and Anna Carey about books, films, politics, pop culture, feminism, recipes, and you name it. Indeed, many contributors to The Anti-Room appear now in Long Gaze. I tell her that Canada excels, to my newcomer’s eye, in emphatically urging diversity and gender equality when it comes to showcasing the work of artists across all disciplines, and then ask her about how she thinks Ireland is doing. In answer, she highlights the fact that there are many female playwrights coming through in Irish theatre (Elaine Murphy, Grace Dyas, Deirdre Kinahan) and she would really like to see that reflected on the stages of the major theatres there. Perhaps, then, the work has always been there; it just continues to be selected or “staged” less often.
On bringing Long Gaze together (and naming it too—the title is taken from Maeve Brennan’s masterpiece novella The Visitor), Gleeson said “while there are swathes of Irish women writers now—winning prizes, teaching creatively—this visibility wasn’t always there. Look at any Irish short story anthology before 1980 and there’s huge disparity between the number of male and female writers (some books had no women, or just one or two). Writers like Lavin, Bowen, and Brennan paved the way for the huge numbers of talented women writing today, so I wanted the book to stretch right back to Maria Edgeworth.”
The editor’s selection is a personal one; her wish-list was lengthy and that’s a fine place to begin. Starting with the writers she admires the most, Gleeson moved onto the classic stories and then ventured further to the National Library of Ireland, hunting for the shorter texts of more obscure writers like Hoult and Riddell. (Point of interest here, previous contributors to this blog series, Tramp Press, published Charlotte Riddell’s 1883 novel, A Struggle for Fame, last year as part of their Recovered Voices Series. She is described as “an Irish Jane Austen,” “a master of witty observation,” and the novel as a “rare treat.”) By contrast, when Sinéad Gleeson approached living writers, she gave them little brief and only stipulated that the story be new and unpublished elsewhere.
Sinéad Gleeson, broadcaster, journalist, and critic
For Canadian readers, the inclusion in The Long Gaze Back of Anakana Schofield, the award-winning Irish-Canadian writer who publishes her second novel, Martin John with Biblioasis in September, is significant of a kinship between the two countries’ contemporary literature. After reading Malarky, Anakana’s first novel, Gleeson decided she had to be included in the anthology. On the Canadian writers who are important to her (and I’d hazard a guess, to many Irish readers), Gleeson praises Margaret Atwood and Patrick de Witt, and thinks “Canada–like Ireland–is extraordinarily good at producing brilliant short story writers. Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are two masters of the form, who I will never tire of reading.” Two years ago at the Cork International Short Story Festival, Gleeson conducted a public interview with the late Alistair MacLeod. They talked about the Gaelic words that seeped into his work, which fascinated her. While his output was small compared to other writers, Gleeson is firm in saying there is not an extraneous word in his pristine prose: “He also shocked the audience (which included many writers) by saying he never redrafts–he put the words down slowly, but only once.”
When considering the broader movements or events that have made a palpable difference in Irish literature’s worldwide profile in recent years (because this series is all about rebooting that cred), Sinéad Gleeson cites the reinvigoration of literary journals with the arrival of The Stinging Fly in the 1990s, wordlegs, The Poetry Bus, The Penny Dreadful, gorse, and The South Circular in the last five years, and the persistence of Crannóg and The Dublin Review. They are at once the lifeline for aspiring writers and often the first expression of a burgeoning career in publishing. One of the more positive legacies of the boom years in Ireland is still the plethora of opportunities for like-minded culture fans to get together, in a field or a Big House, in wellies, carrying two plastic pints of lukewarm beer: “For a small country, we hold huge numbers of arts festivals … They encourage readers as much as writers, and I find them inspiring places to be. The Cork International Short Story Festival is incredibly important in fostering the form and discussion around it.” Ireland also boasts some of the world’s most important and rewarding literary prizes such as the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award (€100,000). The Frank O’Connor short story prize is the world’s most lucrative for a collection of short stories (€25,000). Other awards, like the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature (€10,000), the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award (€15,000), and the Hennessy New Irish Writing Prize (€7,000 across four categories) recognize a writer as they are just beginning to be published or are emerging into a domestic or international arena.
While no anthology can ever be completely comprehensive, The Long Gaze Back seems special in its span of 400 years of Irish writing. Cutting the Night in Two, the previous female only collection also published by New Island in 2001 and edited then by Evelyn Conlon and Hans-Christian Oeser, was released well before I entered publishing, and so I could only glean a handful of its contributors–Edna O’Brien, Mary Lavin, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Clare Boylan, and Blánaid McKinney–from online reviews. Comparing the presentation of these two anthologies gives one a few things to consider. First, the reminder that every generation throws a heroine up the pop charts, those heroines being as representative, evolving, and transient as their audience. Second, the way we herald the arrival of an anthology of short stories, all of whose writers just happen to be female, has changed considerably, too. In the first instance, we are told it is “An important anthology which brings together 34 short stories by Irish women writers.” Yawn, another hot drop there, please. In the second instance, we are told “The Long Gaze Back … is an exhilarating anthology of 30 short stories by some of the most gifted women writers this island has ever produced.” Hoo-wee, pour us another pint, Jacinta! Slowly, surely, Ireland is beginning to insist upon telling you about her female writers. The work has always been there; now we’re shouting about it.