Irish publishing culture has been a bit lacklustre of late. It is easy to blame this slump on the tyrannical grip of online media, where traditional cultural and literary criticism has become just another facet of the reader’s abbreviated, Twitter-generated attention spans. But it would be wrong to assume that there’s no market for more traditional print media, it is just that, in Dublin at least, there appears to be no space for it, no medium. Ireland is, perhaps, happy to export their rising authors and critics, let them be published elsewhere and then claim them as definitively “Irish” in their style and content. Recent developments, however, have seen a push back against this tendency. Tom Morris, editor of The Stinging Fly, a pioneering publication in the re-crafting of Irish literary identity, has been optimistic about what’s happening in Dublin of late: “It feels to me like new blood is being spilled. And it’s exciting to see the formation of a new publisher like Tramp Press, or the journal gorse, or the on-going good work of The South Circular.” Earlier this year Susan Tomaselli and David Gavan produced gorse, a new and hugely successful magazine devoted to art and literary criticism, fiction, poetry and the free-from essay.
Gorse is a strangely innovative creature. In a way it’s a getting-back-to-basics for print media, a move away from the formless, extensive mass so many online literary journals provide. The journal was born out of an appreciation for and a reaction against the growing online tendency in global literary culture. Susan Tomaselli, co-editor of the journal, has worked extensively for prominent, radical — and exclusively online — 3:AM Magazine and 3:AM Press, whose tagline is “Whatever it is, we’re against it”. Tomaselli’s decision to make a start with gorse came from a particularly unfortunate moment at 3: AM where the servers went down: “It just made me realise the impermanence of the net, basically, and I thought it would be nice to produce something slightly more lasting.”
Literary culture’s current relationship to the Internet is a complex one. In a sense, online magazines have created a globalised literary community, a freedom of form and subject, which frees writers from the tyranny of “house style”. “That’s the beauty of the internet, bringing different writers together… I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a national literature anymore,” Tomaselli details. This post-national view of literature is something that may seem jarring to Irish literary culture, which is undeniably founded upon finding the Irish influence in almost everything. Tomaselli’s comment echoes that of author and contributor to gorse, Rob Doyle in his recent interview with tn2, “The new kind of online life feels post-national and ahistoric, and it’s hard to know how literature is going to work with and represent that, but it will have to if it’s going to keep up with how people are living now”.
“Tomaselli and Gavan are hugely aware that something like Finnegan’s Wake or the writings of Paul Morely or William Trevor would not be publishing in today’s commercial market.”
Gorse appears to be crafting this idea into print, and indeed, it’s a necessary adaptation that many publications have had to make. Like The Stinging Fly, gorse stands for a much more nuanced crafting of “Irish” identity, a middle ground between Irish essentialism and what Gavan calls the culture of “aping London”. Both Gavan and Tomaselli are hugely concerned with the establishment of a more vibrant, literary community and ethos in Ireland to stave off intellectual and literary emigration. Perhaps, part of this new identity is the recognition of its limits, the need and desire to go elsewhere in order to reflect on what can be produced here. “I’m proud to be Irish, but I think it’s Kevin Barry that said that Ireland is this dark little rock on the corner of Europe, and I just think that’s a great image,” Tomaselli mused.
In addition to this releasing of national identity, there is a relaxing of literary expectation. The first issue of gorse operated almost entirely on a commission basis, with Tomaselli approaching writers whose work she knew and admired. In this sense, gorse’s aesthetic was very consciously constructed but not with the strangling specificity that governs many online or established journals. “I think also a lot of magazines have a very strict house style, whereas from my experience working with Susan at 3:AM it’s just essentially anything that’s good, really strong and good… it doesn’t have to be anything other than good. And that helps enormously, just if you really are behind what you’re doing and believe in it and you’re competent then that’ll get you published, which is excellent… We miss a lot of things in the popular press that don’t get published because they’re not shiny enough,” Gavan stated.
The journal’s emphasis on the free-form essay is undoubtedly a part of this reaction against the streamlining of modern cultural criticism. Both Tomaselli and Gavan are hugely aware that something like Finnegan’s Wake or the writings of Paul Morely or William Trevor would not be publishing in today’s commercial market. Gavan, in particular, reels against the sterilisation of today’s criticism, “I mean they say if you’re doing a theatre review don’t be intellectual… but a theatre experience is intellectual.” While the internet has undoubtedly democratised new forms of writing, it has demanded its own standard of writing to which subsequently print media has begun to pander, what Gavan calls “postmodern pick n’ mix”.
In this way gorse invariably fills a gap, or rather in Tomaselli’s view, “I think we’ve made a gap. It may not have been there before.” In any case, it provides a platform for writers at home and abroad and demonstrates a burgeoning commitment to an important hybrid of traditional and contemporary influences. One thing which Tomaselli and Morris both stress is the centrality of the reader, Tomaselli’s ambition for the journal was that it would be “something I would want to read myself… I don’t want it to be a writer’s journal, you know, I want to connect with readers”. The focus here, however, is on “excellence”, not an active assumption or rejection of national identity, nor a vendetta against the internet; it is about finding a medium within which literature can pervade. As Morris says of The Stinging Fly and which Tomaselli and Gavan corroborate, “We’re really just looking for it to be excellent — regardless of its origin. And though, ‘excellent writing’ is something of a nebulous phrase … we really do try to broaden and surprise our tastes as often and as forcefully as possible.”