New Island Books - 25 Years a-Growing

In praise of short fiction: a tribute to Maeve Brennan

‘Every publisher has a bee or two in his bonnet and I am no exception. Prime amongst my buzzing irritants is the low regard for short stories in buying offices across the land. The response is near-Pavlovian, “…a short story collection!? By an unknown author? Kiss of death!” and the battle is constant.

Over the years at New Island we’ve been forced to circumscribe gems such as Christine Dwyer-Hickey’s story collection as a Phoenix Park Cycle of Tales or Oisin Fagan’s Hostages as Somehow Interconnected Webs of Novellas. Those subtitles are invented but I’m sure the reader gets the drift. It is as if the prevailing perception is that “those who can, write novels and those who can’t, jot down a short story”.

And yet: shining high among New Island’s recent successes are Sinéad Gleeson’s short story anthologies The Long Gaze Back: Short Stories by Irish Women Writers and The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women from the North of Ireland. Clearly, there is no shortage of either interest or demand.

American short story writer Lorrie Moore believes that “a short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.” Without developing the finer points of her argument I think she is right. At its most intense short fiction allows the reader a glimpse into the furnace of human relationships and emotions not on offer in the traditional novel. The best short stories leave the reader with more questions than answers; short fiction in its various forms is, ideally, a structured set of triggers that set off the reader’s imagination…

All of the above is pertinent to the story of how Maeve Brennan’s novella, The Visitor, came to be published. It’s a story that deserves to be told.

Maeve Brennan, the 100th anniversary of whose birth falls on January 6th, lived life in the extremes. The daughter of a 1916 rebel who was very nearly executed after the Easter Rising, she and the family went with him to New York in 1934 when he became Ireland’s first ambassador to the US. Maeve quickly became part of the glamorous New York literary scene including a brief marriage to managing editor of the New Yorker, St Clair McKelvay. The marriage failed and her course was set to become a homeless drifter, eventually ending in alcoholism and mental illness.

However, before that decline, Maeve had thankfully managed to get some of the attention her talent deserved. Saul Bellow might have had Maeve Brennan in mind when he said that “most writers come into the world blind and bare. A few, a handful in every generation, arrive with nails, hair and teeth, and with eyes that see everything.” And, as Christopher Carduff, the brilliantly congenial editor of The Visitor, says in the afterword: “she was one of the few”.

By the 1960s Maeve Brennan was well on her way to becoming one of the forgotten talents. Clare Boylan, in her introduction to the New Island edition of the book, quotes John Updike: “She is constantly alert, sharp-eyed as a sparrow for the crumbs of human event, the glimpsed and guessed-at, that form of a solitary person’s least expensive amusement”. Unsurprisingly, Boylan comes to the conclusion that the novella is “a miniature masterpiece”.

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

That it was published at all is due to the fact that, in 1982, the University of Notre Dame acquired the business files of Sheed and Ward, the foremost Catholic publisher of its day in the US. Among them was a fair, typed copy of The Visitor. Thanks to the university’s scholars, and to Christopher Carduff’s vigilance and commitment, the book was published in 2000. It caused quite a stir among the Irish-American writing community, arousing such passion that, later that year, Nuala O’Faolain wrote advising me that, if I didn’t “…publish this book I will never talk to you again”.

Nuala, and her Are You Somebody?, had by then provided New Island with its biggest success to date. I would have published a telephone book had she asked me to. A closer reading of The Visitor made it obvious where the attraction came from: Nuala’s father, as well as Maeve Brennan, had been part of a faux gold industry. It is no wonder that one of Maeve’s most enduring fictional characters is Mary Ramsay, the central character in her story The Holy Terror, a ladies’ room attendant at the Royal Hotel for 30 years who kept “…her vigil from a shabby low-seated bamboo chair set in beside a screen in the corner of the outer room”. Is there a more stripped-down version of Social &Personal pursuits?

By that time Nuala had become the voice of Irish women who found themselves in dysfunctional families and she must have felt that The Visitor is a lasting and brilliant example of the stifling mental cruelty and suffering these families engender, written in a form that only this novella can do justice to.

We published the book in 2001, and it has been in print ever since. Maeve Brennan is well on her way to become the most successful of our forgotten Irish authors.

And finally: if Irish Times readers visit a bookshop in the near future could they please ask whether there are any collections of exciting new short stories on the market?’

A fantastic piece by our publisher, Edwin Higel, to mark the centenary of Maeve Brennan’s birthday! Read the full thing over on The Irish Times . 

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