Richard Ford astutely thinks of the short story as the “high wire act of literature”, but my favourite description is from Irish writer Mary Lavin who called in an “arrow in flight”. It captures the brevity and epiphany of the form and some of the best practitioners – from Chekhov to Lorrie Moore, Katherine Mansfield to Kevin Barry – have fired it into unfamiliar places, soaring over a multitude of themes and ideas. Some are led by characters, others play with language or tone (who can forget the bone chill after reading Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery?) but all manage to distill something terrifying or tender or utterly distinct in just a couple of thousand words.
In the late 1990s, while studying English at university, I took a course on the Irish short story. The prescribed text, The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, edited by William Trevor, contained early Gaelic folk tales and 39 short stories. We had another mandatory course on literary theory and – hurrah! – an introduction to Feminism. Through a burgeoning exposure to Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, I noticed that only seven of the 39 stories were by women. A scan of the UCD library shelves revealed that Trevor’s anthology wasn’t the worst offender when it came to gender imbalance. Almost every collection was edited by a man, and each book I opened – including anthologies from all around the world – was heavily weighted towards male writers. Irish offerings were no different: pick up an anthology of Irish short stories published between 1950 and 1990, and a familiar pattern emerges when scanning the list of contributors. Many anthologies had no women, others had just two or three female writers, and invariably these were the brilliant troika (before that word meant something else in contemporary Ireland) of Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O’Brien and Mary Lavin. In The Lonely Voice, his 1962 brilliant study of the short short, Frank O’Connor wrote that the form’s “submerged population groups” were silenced and marginalised. Looking at the lack of women represented in anthologies over the decades, women could have been included as such a group on the fringe.
Then in 2001, I discovered Cutting the Night in Two: Short Stories by Irish Women Writers. Edited by Evelyn Conlon and Hans-Christian Oeser, it featured thirty-four writers, living and dead – but all female. It proved a point that those library anthologies missed: women writers had been there all along, writing away through the centuries but simply weren’t included in the same numbers as their male counterparts. Why? Maria Edgeworth was well known for her fiction as well as her social commentary, and Charlotte Riddell published over 50 books including many short stories. What of Mary Beckett, Maeve Kelly, Teresa Deevy or Juanita Casey? Visibility still remains an issue, as VIDA statistics, Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen campaign and this piece by Kamila Shamshie suggest, but in compiling The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers, I was spoilt for choice. Writers like Eimear McBride, Mary Costello, Belinda McKeon, Lucy Caldwell and Lisa McInerney (all featured in this book) are part of a palpable energy in the new wave of Irish writing. They all feel the pragmatic pull of the novel, but are still committed to the shorter form.
Several factors ultimately went into the selection of the final 30 stories. I could have chosen 100 women, but my publisher was understandably stubborn about the page count. In opting for deceased writers, I tried to find stories that I both admired, and hadn’t already been heavily anthologised (I cheated in choosing The Demon Lover because it’s Elizabeth Bowen’s best story). Anthologies are something of a gift for a curious reader: a chance to sit down in the company of several writers within one volume, so all work by the 22 living writers is new and unpublished. Writers were given a word count but were free to write on any subject, so there is emigration, pregnancy, loss, Capitalism, motherhood, ghosts, sex, painting, the American frontier and more. This is an unmistakeably an Irish collection, btu the stories move from Ireland’s quiet rural towns to New York, France, Egypt, Germany, Australia and London.
Titles are tricky, but I hope “The Long Gaze Back” – a quote from Maeve Brennan’s novella The Visitor – captures the lengthy arc of Irish women’s writing. And it’s a long arc: there are 218 years between the oldest and youngest writer in the collection. In some ways this anthology is a triptych: deceased classic writers (Somerville & Ross, Kate O’Brien, Mary Lavin) sit alongside feted names from the last decade (Anne Enright) and the next generation of new voices. These voices are all distinct, but there are connective overlaps and patterns, as well as a faithfulness to the canon that came before, and a desire to map new places.
An anthology is a cultural snapshot, and a book must have an endpoint, which is difficult when sharp, new voices – Sara Baume, Danielle McLaughlin – keep appearing on the horizon. Irish women’s writing has never been more expansive, but it started centuries ago, which The Long Gaze Back attempts to acknowledge, while reinforcing the breadth and brilliance of the contemporary Irish short story.
(c) Sinead Gleeson
About The Long Gaze Back
The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, is an exhilarating anthology of thirty short stories by some of the most gifted women writers this island has ever produced. Taken together, the collected works of these writers reveal an enrapturing, unnerving, and piercingly beautiful mosaic of a lively literary landscape. Spanning four centuries, The Long Gaze Back features 8 rare stories from deceased luminaries and forerunners, and 22 new unpublished stories by some of the most talented Irish women writers working today. The anthology presents an inclusive and celebratory portrait of the high calibre of contemporary literature in Ireland. These stories run the gamut from heartbreaking to humorous, but each leaves a lasting impression. They chart the passions, obligations, trials and tribulations of a variety of vividly-drawn characters with unflinching honesty and relentless compassion. These are stories to savour.
The Long Gaze Back is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
Editor Sinéad Gleeson & writer Lucy Caldwell will discuss The Long Gaze Back at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre on October 5th 2015 at 6.30pm.