Monday, 24 December 2012

Expect the Unexpected

Everything you always wanted to know about the creativity of computers but were afraid to ask... and plenty you never even suspected.

My review of Tony Veale's Exploding the Creativity Myth: The Computational Foundations of Linguistic Creativity is forthcoming in drb.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Influence of Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien, outside the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire at the Mountains To Sea Festival in 2011. It's the closest I've ever been to her. But over the years I have met her figuratively, through her books, not least her recent memoir, Country Girl. I'm delighted to get the news that the iconic Eclectica, one of the oldest surviving online literary publications, will publish my review-essay 'The Influence of Edna O'Brien' in their Jan/Feb edition.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Try Something Different

The very fine Ofi's West African edition has just gone online with poetry in translation from Nigeria, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Ghana

My story Auslanders can now be found at

Here's a taste from current Ofi Press, from the first African to be awarded a nobel prize for literature.

By Wole Soyinka

Blue diaphane, tobacco smoke
Serpentine on wet film and wood glaze,
Mutes chrome, wreathes velvet drapes,
Dims the cave of mirrors. Ghost fingers
Comb seaweed hair, stroke acquamarine veins
Of marooned mariners, captives
Of Circe's sultry notes. The barman
Dispenses igneous potions ?
Somnabulist, the band plays on.


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

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Paula McGrath@ViewReView1

MA/MFA Reading

The MFA pulls in all directions at once: now an essay on Austen's novel-construction skills, now a class plan for Pedagogy, a work-in-progress scene to write, a chapter to edit, a classmate's chapter to provide feedback on. And last Monday evening, a reading. Read my story Auslanders at speed... Reading's a skill too, it turns out. It was great to hear the quality and range of work being produced by the MAs and MFAs, and thanks to Eilis Ni Dhuibhne for doing the organising.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Getting on the first rung of the publishing ladder

How to avoid the slush pile. To 'e' or not to 'e' (publish). What do editors want? These, and other interesting questions are asked of publishing professionals in The Irish Times today.
Getting on the first rung of the publishing ladder

Monday, 5 November 2012

Why The Growth In Creative Writing Courses?

Is the current proliferation of creative writing courses nothing more than a big Ponzi scheme? Benjamin Markovits ponders the question in an interesting article in the London Review of Books.
My comment on his piece observes that many university arts courses could be seen as self-perpetuating, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing (unless one believes that society does not need to concern itself with human culture). But there are other factors too which have led to the growth of creative writing in the academy, privately, and in some publishing houses (e.g. Faber), not least the changing face of publishing itself.

Back in the nineties, I interned in a small Dublin publishing house, where I ran errands and worked through the 'slush' pile for free, as a possible first step to working in the industry. I realised that (in a small publishers, at least) the job of the editor was as much about market trends and balance sheets as it was about actual, line-by-line, editing. The Editor as time-rich mentor seemed already to be a thing of the past, and this seems to be the case much more so today. The Agent stepped into the breach, to an extent, until she too found herself under pressures of other aspects of the job. Enter the Creative Writing Course. Graduates of these courses produce books that have been workshopped and, to a large extent, already edited; the more 'ready' the book, the easier the job of the agent. Hence regular agent visits to university and publisher courses, and ever increasing demand for those courses.

Creative writing courses seem to me to be both a response to student demand (Ponzi-like or not), while also meeting demand from the publishing industry itself.

Saturday, 27 October 2012


Delighted to see my story, Auslanders, in The Ofi Press Literary Magazine, Issue 22, October 2012 (a fine magazine, with a great interview with George Szirtes in this issue).


He sees them approach from North Clark out of the corner of his eye, another couple, another state-of-the-art stroller. Lincoln Park is full of them. Chicagoans, mindful that brown slush and six-foot drifts are never far behind and never too far away, embrace the Summer. These two are not enjoying themselves though. He can see by the way she is holding her arms across her chest, and the way he is determinedly pushing the stroller towards his Farm Fresh stall, not looking left or right.

            - That's eighteen dollars to you. Enjoy. Yes Sir, give it a try and taste the difference for yourself. All organic. No pesticides, no artificial fertilizers. Mother Nature the way she should be. Thank you sir. And your change. Can I help you, Ma'am?
He reminds himself of the snake-oil man with his fast talk and quick sales

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Thoughts on The Preparation of the Novel by Roland Barthes

The haiku, Barthes says, is the short form which best represents the present. It is tangible, particular. It creates the effect of the real, which he explains: 'language fading into the background, to be supplanted by a certainty of reality: language turning in on itself, burying itself and disappearing, leaving bare what it says.'

The titular Preparation of the Novel is a transcription of two series of lectures (1978-80), which Barthes completed just weeks before his death. It's a difficult read, with multiple allusions and covering many fields of knowledge and, despite Barthes' caution to his audience not to underestimate what the layout of speech on the page can do, the pages of this book are peppered with off-putting symbols and endless parentheses. However, his oratorial style- confident, bordering on arrogant, but also self-disparaging and funny, and the poignancy of his death- he was knocked down by a van outside the college and died a few weeks after the course ended, together with the fascinating questions he posits, make this book compelling.

Barthes forces his audience/reader/the would-be writer to think, and to think specifics. Finding the right word; putting the words in the right order, taking into account sound and syntax; creating rhythm within the sentence and within the paragraph; ordering paragraphs; ordering chapters, creating rhythm within the work as a whole: these are our concerns, because we want to create the effect of the real, at least those of us who are writing realist fiction. The job of the writer is to weave words so, like fine cloth, the work, the craft, the word itself, becomes invisible, leaving only the effect. Haiku, for Barthes, 'sets a bell ringing': the effect has been created.

The Haiku, Barthes contends, outwits the desire to interpret, whereas a story has causalities, consequences. A haiku is like a photograph, but without the excess of meaning a photograph contains. The writer is forced to be selective: what we choose to take from reality in order to give the effect of the real. Language, like the world, can be divided indefinitely, but it is a question of what point one decides to set it down.

To move from haiku to narration, since haiku is impossible to extend, Barthes looks to epiphanies, 'the sudden revelation of the quiddity of a thing', and to Joyce's Stephen Hero, as a linked chain of moments. This prompts him to consider the possibility of studying a work starting with its moments of truth, which in turn forces the reader-writer to consider her own novel in the same way.

Barthes (and his reader) wonders where the desire to write comes from; it comes from the pleasure of reading. But then he wonders who the readers are who don't write. He does not speculate, instead leaving us to reflect on what makes a creative person, a person creative: material for another course of lectures, at the very least.

Much of the second series focuses on finding time to write, or the life of the author, and Barthes considers seeming insignificant issues such as solitude, secrecy, schedules, regimes of food and sleep, whether or not to read while writing, and so on. I found it less interesting than the first series, perhaps in part because it is speculative, since Barthes has not yet begun writing his novel. He wonders: 'how to get out of this situation?' (of having a few notes, fragments plus the fantasy of the work), and answers: 'I've no idea because it's the state I was in on the day I drafted this course.' However, I did note that the methodical life of the writer seems to refer exclusively to the male writer, and that there is not a child in sight.

Barthes' undertaking these lectures was both generous and brave; most writers do not dare to poke too much at the elusive and easily frightened animal that is the realm of ideas and inspiration. Whether he sabotaged his own novel, Vita Nova, in the process, we do not find out. Eight pages, reproduced in the book, are all there is of it. However, at the end of his course he does admit: 'It's not even clear to me... that I'll write anything else... Because the bereavement (the death of his mother) I evoked two years ago, at the beginning of this Course, has profoundly and obscurely altered my desire for the world.'

Thursday, 18 October 2012

In Defence Of Quiet Writing

Landscape of the Four Seasons, Muromachi period, early 16th century

Is there anybody out there who does not need bloodshed in the first paragraph, a body in the second, and a threat to national security if not an outright national disaster before the end of chapter one? There is an argument that new media has shortened our attention span, that we need to be excited constantly, and hence the success of Facebook and Twitter. Even old-fashioned email delivers up new developments in our personal and professional lives twenty-four hours a day, should we wish to check it.

Is this not all the more reason why we should also carve out a reflective space for ourselves, slow ourselves down? Is it not a case for understated prose which explores subtleties of character, which insists on being read slowly and reflected upon, which does not pander to the impatience that fractured modern living engenders (the kind I like to read)? Yet, agents and publishers, albeit with regret, tend to pass on novels they deem 'too quiet' for the market.

Genres that are loud and fast are an easier sell. After all, our lifestyle has us already primed to want them. They lend themselves to the soundbite, the text, the tweet. And they deliver. Car-chases, corpses, and multiple-copulations sell by the truckload. But what about William Trevor, Alice Munro, Anne Tyler? Is the publishing industry telling us that writers like these, in whose books the copulations and corpses do not insist on declaring themselves on the first page, are dinosaurs, past their sell-by date? And that once they are extinct, they will not be replaced?

Is the drama of being human simply not profitable enough any more?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Faber Anthology Launch

Reading one's own composition for the first time is scary, but the thirty or so other eight year olds were a forgiving audience. At fourteen, reading a story for the Year Of The Disabled competition was nerve-wracking but, as it had won a prize, it was also elating. Fast forward many years later to the Irish Writers' Centre, and Conor Kostick's Finish Your Novel course, where participants all read their work before it is critiqued by the group; this act of putting one's best, grown-up efforts before a group of committed peers, was terrifying.

Writers are notoriously insecure, and it doesn't take much to wound their fragile self-esteem. Witness desperate attempts to explain why the group doesn't get what they are trying to say, all the while conscious that, as Ronald Reagan famously said, if you're explaining, you're losing; the work has to speak for itself. This fear of being judged is often what prevents fledgling writers from finishing... anything.

Whether from finished pieces or work still in progress, eleven brave souls bared all – some more than others, not mentioning any names, Maebh – at the Faber Reading last night in the fabulously retro Vintage Rooms in the Workman's Club on Wellington Quay. Eloquently introduced by Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, we were the Dublin Faber Write A Novel class of 2012, and the purpose of the evening was the launch of our Anthology

We read for agents, our teachers, our peers, and each other. But we also read for ourselves, because standing up in front of an audience and reading one's own piece of creative writing aloud is an affirmation of belief in the work, allowing it to speak for itself. And, if I may modestly say, it - the writing - acquitted itself very well.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Reading Jane Austen

I'm under instruction to read Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. And to read them slowly. Whether a reread of the novels (especially a re-read of the novels) or a frivolous couple of hours watching any of the period dramas, or even Clueless or Bridget Jones's Diary, it is alway a pleasure to return to Jane Austen. Get cosy, open the cover, read:

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,' and you are transported back in time, through your teen or pre-teenage years and your first encounter with Austen, all the way to Regency England.

In novels, Austen tells us,

'the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.' (Northanger Abbey)

But as writers, we also read Jane Austen to try to figure out how it's done - the memorable characters, convincing dialogue, tension, pacing, the lot. Despite Virginia Woolf's assertion that 'of all great writers, (Austen) is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness', we spent a profitable week examining Northanger Abbey - blueprint for aspiring novelists - for clues, and they're all there. Now it's just a matter of putting them into practice...

A couple of points of interest:

In Austen, 'he said' can become 'he cried', whereas in contemporary writing circles the belief is that the plainer the identifier, the better. Austen also uses -ly adverbs: 'he said gravely', 'she said doubtingly'. Personally, I love variety in identifiers, and -ly adverbs too - I was reared on a diet of Enid Blyton, after all ('Timmy barked dolefully') - and feel greatly curtailed when advised to drop 'he murmured, murmuringly'.

The Comforts of Bath, Rowlandson, The Pump Room, 1798
And another workshop favourite, show don't tell, is quite disregarded by Austen, who has no qualms about telling, and even telling us that she is telling:

'It is now expedient to give some description of Mrs Allen... She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, not manner.'

Telling not showing, and a lesson in economy to boot.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Back To School

Fresh faces and voices are milling about the small city that is University College Dublin this Freshers' Week, and I am fortunate enough to be among them as I begin my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Whether writing can be taught has been much debated ever since the first Iowa Writers' Workshop was established in 1936. My position on the matter is obvious, but I can't resist listing just a few MFA-ers in support: Ethan Canin, John Boyne, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Paul Murray, Raymond Carver...

Plenty can be taught, and learned, about writing, but the MFA is about more than just the dissemination of information. As Richard Bausch put it, the MFA is a modern version of the Salon, a place for writers to come together and discuss what matters to them: structuring their novel, finding an agent, finding the time, putting a comma in here[,] [  ]or not. It is part-academy, part-therapy, part-communion. Writing is, after all, a solitary occupation, and an MA or MFA provides support, feedback and encouragement.

Yesterday I met the interesting-seeming people who will be my peers for the next two years, along with stellar teachers James Ryan, Eílis Ní Dhuibhne and Frank McGuinness. At one point there was a conversation about Edna O'Brien and her forthcoming memoir, and since I'm a big Edna fan, even wrote a thesis about her in the past, it was thrilling to realise that some of those present are personally acquainted with her. A glimpse of what it means to be immersed in the world of writing only one day in, and it feels like pure indulgence.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Short Story Workshop with Richard Bausch

Richard Bausch's Short Story workshop at the Dun Laoghaire Mountains To Sea festival was not the kind where participants work feverishly on exercises, wondering anxiously if they will have to read  their on-the-spot compositions aloud. Instead, the amiable Bausch perched on a stool in the midst of the café, ordered a bottle of red for the tables, and began to talk. Two hours later he was repairing with a good percentage of attendees to a nearby hostelry because he didn't want to stop, he was having fun.

As were we. He regaled us with anecdotes about writers and writing, and his own writer's life. He gave advice as succinct as 'strive to be clear', and that 'everything in the story has to contribute to the story'. He explained that the transition from the first dream-like draft through the subsequent drafts, where conscious invention becomes involved, is a process of learning what our story is about, or uncovering the truth in our fiction.

But perhaps even more valuable was his generous encouragement to us as writers, telling us that our doubts 'are the thing itself', the talent, and to 'get stubborn'. He recommended that we find ourselves a literary salon, in whatever its contemporary form - MFA programmes, for example - for the peer support that writers need and have always sought.

As the short two hours drew to a close, he shared his father's words, 'Everybody, one at a time', surely a lesson in compassion that no writer can be without.

The demand for the workshop was so high that Richard will give another tonight.

The Mountains To Sea festival runs from September 4th -9th.