The May/June issue of Books Ireland magazine appeared in my mailbox the other day, and by midnight I’d read all but a couple of reviews (of books I’m planning to read).
That got me wondering, why don’t we review magazines routinely? Maybe not every issue (that would get ridiculous in the case of something published weekly) but we could occasionally write something a little more in-depth than a tweet about how we loved or hated this week’s New Yorker short story?
So, here’s a quick consideration of the revamped Books Ireland, which has just embarked on its second year of publication since being resurrected by Wordwell Books. Full disclosure, they published a review by me last year.
Books Ireland is the only magazine dedicated to “books published in Ireland and by Irish writers,” according to editor Tony Canavan in the most-recent issue — although in practice they deviate from that standard with brazen joy, as witnessed by an enlightening two-page write up about a new biography of Archbishop Daniel Mannix, the Irishman who was primate of Australia for decades, which is so far only available in Australia. (Doubtless, the resourceful folks in Dublin’s fab Gutter Bookshop will be able to import it, as they mention doing selectively in an interesting short article.)
With this remit in mind, the magazine staff set out to cover all genres and types of books — professionally and self-published, literary and popular fiction, academic studies and comedy — and are doing a commendably thorough job. Other magazines that try to summarize a genre or literary scene often resort to endless lists of books submitted and dueling reviews of the same big-name authors, but refreshingly Books Ireland doesn’t try to review everything. Their reviews cover a representative sampling of new books in many genres, and there are a large number of articles about and interviews with Irish writers, so it doesn’t feel like reading a trade magazine with endless ads and stories that feel sponsored.
I don’t know if the Irish literary community is supportive and welcoming or fractured and factional. A recent interview with Anne Enright on BBC Radio 4‘s “Open Book” program painted it as very collegial at the moment, but acknowledged that it may not always have been.* But the pages of Books Ireland seem prepared to offer all a welcome.
The May/June 2015 issue of Books Ireland has articles on literary Ireland past (the Yeats’ life and legacy, a remembrance of Walter Macken, and the rediscovery of Mervyn Wall), present (a piece on Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman that made me move it up the to-read list; Monica Carroll on her family history behind her memoir Gathering Carrageen; and, self-published thriller writer Gary K. Byrnes musing about the writing process) and future (sidebars on a youth book club and Robert McMillen’s hopeful views on the future of Irish-language writing). This issue is not the only time Books Ireland have given self-published writers a platform, and it’s refreshing to see them being embraced as part of the Irish literary community — it certainly doesn’t happen here in the US!
As my current day-job involves a great deal of writing about antiquarian books, I enjoy George Cunningham’s regular Fear Leabhar column on old and rare Irish books, although it can be a little digressive and random. I’d like to learn more about the publishing fashions and trends of the past, and what we might learn from them — there was an intriguing piece on the libraries of the big houses in the July/August 2014 issue — but that might require more space than the magazine can routinely provide. Again, it’s nice to see the embrace of the antiquarian trade, as here in the US the mainstream publishing and the antiquarian book trade tend to keep very separate, in part because trade publishers and some authors resent that they get no percentage of used book sales.
In terms of influencing purchases, this issue has convinced me to read Monica Carroll’s Gathering Carrageen, the re-issue of Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey, to re-read Yeats, and finally dip into Walter Macken. (Which strikes me as a male-heavy list, but in my defense I have a stack of recent and forthcoming novels by Irish female authors demanding my attention and review, so maybe this is my mind’s way of periodically balancing the scales?) It’s also made me quite disconsolate to be missing the Hay Festival, Kells (particularly as I grew up just a few miles away) and the Yeats 150 celebrations — maybe I’ll content myself with reading Roy Foster’s epic biography? After all, I’ve had the second volume sitting on my shelves for years, unread!
Room for improvement?
Looking through the several issues I have to hand, Books Ireland achieves gender balance in terms of its contributors about half the time, but the books reviewed tend to be male-dominated, especially the non-fiction. (A reflection of publishing trends within Irish academic publishing, perhaps?) The most-recent issue is commendably even-handed, with 11 male and 11 female contributors, and 9 books by female authors reviewed alongside 10 books by male authors. With the sheer number of exciting novels by female Irish authors already released or forthcoming this year, I expect this balance will continue.
As the only source that collects information on new Irish books in all genres, Books Ireland is to be celebrated and not taken for granted. Ireland’s national newspapers review a lot of books, but Irish authors compete for space with the cream of foreign writers, so they can’t provide comprehensive coverage. The plethora of literary magazines that review and publish Irish writing is another positive trend, but their primary focus is getting new creative work out there, rather than reviewing or publicizing it. So, there’s a role for a magazine like Books Ireland to fill.
I’m really getting up on my soapbox now, but those of us who are interested in Irish writing need to support Books Ireland; use it or lose it. Each subscription gives give the publishers a vote of confidence and a tiny measure of security. (And I’ll say the same for The Stinging Fly, The Penny Dreadful, Banshee and other Irish literary magazines that are helping to get writing careers started.) If the current Books Ireland isn’t to your taste or isn’t covering your patch of turf, get involved. They’re looking for new writers and reviewers, contact the editor and pitch him your ideas.
Books Ireland is well worth your time and money!
- I attended a fabulous event in Dublin last summer, which featured experts and authors from several different genres and levels of experience discussing the alternative paths to publishing, including everyone from the owner of one of Ireland’s largest publishers, to at least one traditionally published author, to a self-published author who teaches writing and publishing to school groups. I have no idea if that was a one-off or par for the course, but it was a fascinating night’s discussion and a good example of the sense of community in literary Dublin that Enright was talking about.
Books Ireland is published bi-monthly by Wordwell Books, who also publish History Ireland and Archaeology Ireland.
Short Story Competition: Books Ireland is running a short story competition. Deadline for enteries June 30, 2015. More info here…
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