Selina Guinness’s Interviews John Carey

If you know John Carey your heart beat a little faster when you heard he was coming to Dublin for the Writers’ Festival. If you don’t know John Carey you haven’t been paying attention.

Professor Carey is a literary critic, author, and Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. He has chaired the committee for the Booker Prize, reviews books for the Sunday Times and is a frequent guest on television and radio. In her introduction, interviewer Selena Guinness (author of “The Crocodile at the Door”) described her guest as an iconoclast writer and figure in literature. All true. Yet in person he isn’t at all what one expects. An iconoclast ought to be gigantic, imposing, a bit, well, in your face. Not so Professor Carey. He is softly spoken and genial. His intelligence and critical skills hum like a dynamo in the background, but are never showy. In many ways he is a perfect example of his message, which is: the real worth of anything, whether it’s a human being or a work of art, is not always immediately apparent to the casual eye.

For a man who has spent his career challenging elitism both in terms of class and of education, Professor Carey sadly admits that some of his own literary heroes were elitists. Carey cites a letter D.H. Lawrence wrote in 1908, in which he fantasised about building ‘a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace’ for ‘all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus”.’ Lawrence further suggested that ‘All schools be closed at once’ because ‘The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.’ Carey sums up this philosophy, saying, “His ideas lead straight to Auschwitz.”

Other greats of the modernist period, Woolf, Eliot and Pound, were also intellectual snobs and it is this sense of the perceived superiority (by themselves, at least) of the elite that raise Carey’s hackles. And yet, he tells us, one can enjoy the works of Lawrence or Woolf yet remain appalled by their elitism.

Carey related a story about fellow university student, Sir Roy Howard, who once dismissed him as ‘nobody’. The term rankled and, one suspects, continues to wound. It was this elitism both in terms of class and of education that has made Carey a determined advocate for art that speak to everyone. It was a philosophy he brought with him to Keble University, where he first taught. He made it his mission to bring in grammar school children rather than those who had been nurtured exclusively in public schools. This attempt to change the class system met with some degree of success, Carey says matter-of-factly. That such actions should ever have been considered extraordinary seems bewildering now, decades later.

In books like “What Good are the Arts” and his current work, “The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life”, Professor Carey has removed much of the mystique from both the institutions in which he functions and the artists he has spent his life studying. Art, he tells us, should be accessible to all. Taste is relative and is determined by education and background, by what we’ve been taught.

He denies that it is impossible for a work to be both literary and popular. “Lord of the Flies” was popular with 20m copies sold, he says. But it also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What better example of a work that is both literary and popular? He adds that many people consider Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to be major poets.

The sum of the event served as no more than a teaser for John Carey’s work as an erudite and highly educated man whose life’s mission is to make art accessible to all comers, regardless of background, education or social status.

Interviewer Selena Guinness did a fine job of introducing the audience to the professor’s life and career. They share a history and an easy rapport. One in of her final questions was obviously designed for those students who were present. Ms Guinness posed a question about heuristics touching on Barthes and New Historicism. No doubt the students were delighted. Still, it was evident more than a few of the non-elite members of the audience were bewildered by the question.

Oh, the irony.


The City was Us

The City was Us: 1000 Years of Dubliners at Smock Alley Theatre last Wednesday wasn’t so much a reading as an event.

Author David Dickson, Professor of History at Trinity College, introduced the audience to this extraordinary portrait of the city as told by its citizens. These were, for the most part, ordinary men and women who lived in Dublin at various times over the past millennium. There were business men and convicts; politicians and satirists. We heard twenty-two excerpts from speeches, letters, articles, and diaries. The tales they told were, by turn, hilarious, terrifying, and sad. One wonders how the author narrowed his selection from the vast store that fills his book.

Professor Dickson related the background of each of these people and put their stories into context, while the excerpts were brought to life by Melissa Nolan and Cathal Quinn. It would be unfair to call Ms Nolan and Mr Quinn mere readers. They gave us performances full of verve and wit. Through them, the voices of these individuals came fully alive and left me longing for a fuller account of these feckless and fervent Dubliners of the past. Isn’t that exactly what you want from a book reading?

Cathal began by speaking as Richard Stanihurst whose contributions to Holinshed’s Chronicles dated to 1577. Cathal’s delivery reminded me of a young Donal McCann. I can give no higher praise.

His other characters included Sir Edward Newenham, John Beresford, poet Maurice Craig and many more.

I was pleased to see women had a fair representation too and these voices fell to the very talented Melissa Nolan. She was, by turn, Anne Pepper, a woman about to be executed (by strangling and being burned at the stake, no less); satirist May Laffan; and ‘Patsy’, a young mother whose joy at being offered a flat in Ballymun during the 1970s withered in the reality of high-rise living.

The event was pretty well attended for a lunchtime offering. I was intrigued enough by the work to add The City was Us not only to my reading list, but also to my Christmas list for several friends and a couple of sisters. Now if I could only find a way of getting Cathal and Melissa to read it to us too…

How to Write the Great Dublin Novel

To hear a Londoner tell it, there’s no greater challenge facing an author than trying to capture the spirit of their great city. You’ll never match Dickens they’ll tell you.

Parisians will make a similar claim for their metropolis. Ooh, Zola. Ooh, Hugo.


You want a real challenge, consider the poor sod from Dublin who has to toil under the shadow of the mighty Joyce. Or Doyle.

But stop shivering, don’t despair. You, too, can write the great Dublin novel if you just follow these tips.

Continue reading

Stone and Steel and Green: Remembering Dublin’s Great Writers

IMG_1585Dublin does a fine job of honouring her literary children, even the wayward ones who would have spat in her eye when they were alive. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll spot memorials all over the city.

I’m going to tell you about some of my favourites. It’s by no means an exhaustive list. I’ve no doubt Continue reading

The Dublin Bookshop: The Stuff of Dreams

Image-1During the many years when I lived abroad I used to have a recurring dream. The details varied but the theme was always the same: I was in a Dublin bookshop. Usually it was Eason’s but sometimes Greene’s or somewhere else.

I’ve often puzzled over this. What was my subconscious trying to tell me? Even when I lived in some fairly remote, non-English-speaking places, I always managed to find a bookshop, so it’s not like I was being starved of reading material. The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is the Dublin bookshop offers something you just don’t find anywhere else.

Like-minded people, for a start.

Until you’ve been deprived of it, you can’t imagine the frustration of not being able to have a good old chin-wag with a shopkeeper about a particularly beloved volume. Try this: Go into any Dublin bookshop and ask the clerk about the John Banville detective stories that he writes under another name. “Benjamin Black, is it?” they’ll say, and you can pass a good fifteen minutes or more chatting about how The Silver Swan differs from The Sea.

Try that in an American bookshop. Go on. I dare you.

Now, they’ll be willing to help; eager, even. Americans, bless them, have an innate desire to please. But even if they can answer your question, the response is that no-frills sort of information delivered with the sort of smile we’ve come to expect from the staff of no-frills airlines.

It’s just a job, not a passion. If they were selling perfume or shoes they’d bring exactly the same amount of enthusiasm to the task.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There were some great bookshops in, say, Columbus, Ohio. The staff were helpful and reasonably knowledgeable; the supply of books was perfectly adequate—so long as your tastes ran to the American classics or popular literature. And you could find Ulysses and even, if you were lucky, Edna O’Brien, but Frank O’Connor was a bit more of a stretch. As for Flann O’Brien? What did he write? I suppose we could special order it…

I never thought I’d say this, but I missed being able to read as Gaeilge. Now, I’m not trying to kid you: this isn’t something I’d ever been particularly fond of when I was growing up in Ireland. But when you live abroad, when you are the only Irish person you know (despite all popular misconceptions, there are vast swathes of the US where names like O’Reilly and Murphy are unheard of), sometimes you crave things that were part of your youth and education.

You have to remember, this was before the internet put obscure volumes at our fingertips. You couldn’t just ask for a book of Gaeilge poems in the bookshop, you had to have a title, or at least the name of a poet or an editor otherwise you’d get that polite smile and disappointment that they can’t help. Oh you can laugh, but just wait till you’re in the bowels of Idaho and can’t remember the third stanza to Cill Aodain and you’ll know what I mean.
When I came back to Dublin several years ago, Eason’s was one of my first stops. I used to pass it, you see, every day on my way home from school. To slip in for a few minutes—OK, an hour—before I took the bus home was an indescribable treat. I’ve heard Arab nomads speak as lovingly about their favourite oases. Eason’s was where I bought my Enid Blyton books, and the Biggles stories. Then came Nancy Drew and, oh, the Hardy Boys… Later, it was Dickens and Flaubert and Kafka. Oh my.

I hate to hear of bookshops closing. It’s like the death of a relative. One of the nice ones who never gave you socks for Christmas, but an annual like Jackie or the Beano. I’m still mourning the loss of Greene’s of Nassau Street, where I bought all my secondary school books like Soundings.

How lucky are we, though, that many of our bookshops continue to keep their fingers in the dam, holding back the tide of electronic novels? Tell me what happens when you drop an e-book in the bath. Can one cover your eyes against the sun on a beach? How do you get the author to sign it? True, I’d have been glad of even an electronic Antoine Ó Raifteirí during my exile, but I still prefer the touch and smell of a fat volume.

And we still have The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, holding up the end of the Indie bookshop very nicely, thank you. Or if you want your books with a side of nooks and crannies there’s The Winding Stair on the quays. For great staff, comfy seats and an outstanding selection, you can’t beat Hodges and Figgis. For a good bargain there’s Chapters. What else? Cathach Books for unexpected treats and presents, and the Book Upstairs on College Green for a great selection of Irish literature. Each has its specialities and its unique atmosphere.

The Dublin Bookshop. It’s the stuff of dreams.

(G.J. Schear)

Date with an Agent: Do’s & Don’ts to get Ahead

DATEWITHANAGENT (1)This year the Dublin Writers’ Festival is offering a chance for you to pitch your novel to a number of agents through Date with an Agent. The event also includes a panel discussion which will cover the status of publishing and what is currently selling.

Only 75 people will be selected to participate so stop dilly-dallying and enter immediately.

A couple of years ago I had a similar opportunity (as a result of winning the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair) and it was a real education. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts you may find helpful:


Be prepared.
And also, don’t forget, be prepared. But the most important thing is… BE PREPARED.

This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity, and you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t deliver your absolute best.

You’ll have ten minutes with each agent (in a speed-dating sort of format) so put together a succinct presentation and own it.

Write out your summary and polish it till it shines. You should include the basics: Title, length, genre, point of view and a brief introduction to your protagonist, what he or she wants, and what obstacles stand in the way. Try to answer the six questions, who, what, where, when, how and why:
Who is your hero? What does he want? Why does he want it? Where and when does the story take place? How will he triumph? Yes, it is possible to answer all those questions in just a couple of sentences.

Once you’ve written something that ticks all your boxes, memorize it. Practice saying it to other people. Get feedback.

It sounds obvious, but make sure you can answer any questions that the agent may ask you:

• What’s the status of the novel – i.e., who is your target readership? For instance, are you presenting a crime story that would appeal to people who like hard-edged work like Michael Connelly, or ‘cosy’ mysteries a la Agatha Christie?
• Is it complete or are you still writing?
• Over what period does the story take place – a couple of hours or several generations?

I’d be inclined not to pitch a novel that isn’t complete, but if you decide to go ahead, make sure you know two important things:

How long is the story likely to run? And how will it end?

One question that tripped me up during my Novel Fair (and it was asked a lot) was: what’s your next book going to be about? In hindsight, it’s a fairly obvious question. Agents want to back a career and they want to know you aren’t a one-trick pony. Even if you’ve only a vague idea, at least have something in mind, preferably in the same genre. Remember, you’re not committing to writing this book, but you are at least demonstrating an ability to look ahead.

Do your research.

Know as much about the agents you’re meeting as possible before the event. Look them up on the internet. Read their blogs, tweets, books and know who else they represent.

It isn’t a ‘date’ but

Although this isn’t a date as you know it, some of the same rules apply. Arrive on time. Be clean and well groomed. Use deodorant. Keep perfume to a minimum. Have a good supply of breath mints in your pocket.

Be polite and interested in what the other person has to say. While you don’t have much time, a little social exchange before you get started isn’t a bad idea. Stand up, shake hands, introduce yourself, be cheerful.

Where this isn’t like a date, though, is it’s OK to talk about yourself or, more accurately, your work. (Oh, and you probably won’t get a snog at the end of it.)


Arrive drunk or high. You wouldn’t, would you?

Humm and haw. Try to eliminate the ‘sort ofs’ and ‘kinda’s from your vocabulary as much as you can. Naturally you’ll be nervous, but you should still try to be as confident and as professional as possible. At a minimum, you should sound knowledgeable about your own work. I know that sounds obvious, but trust me, when you’re on the spot it’s amazingly easy to forget the basics. Like your protagonist’s name. Have the basics on an index card to refresh your memory if you are worried you’ll go blank.

Argue or be rude. You only have ten minutes with each individual and you want to be remembered as intelligent, talented and pleasant. Winning flies with honey, and all that.

Forget to ask questions. Again, you have limited time so be sensible. Asking what sort of an advance you’re likely to get is waaay too premature. You could ask what sort of work they’re looking for, though and how long it’ll take them to get back to you.

Fail to keep notes. At the Novel Fair, I kept my notebook at my desk and frantically jotted down comments made by each agent I met. It was helpful, but unnecessarily stressful. If I were to do it again, I’d have a sheet of paper with the agents’ names listed and a series of columns that I could either check or put in a 1 to 5 response. The items would include:
• Likes my title
• Likes my story idea
• Likes my plot
• Wants to see the full manuscript (yes or no)

You may think of other items to include. Once the event is over, it’s likely that much of what was said will blur. If you have some sort of notes you’ll have a more realistic idea of what to expect.

Once you have time to read over your notes or your sheet, try to see if there’s a thread. All the agents I met with said they loved my title. That’s a 5 on a 1 to 5 scale. If they weren’t sure about the plot or the saleability of the novel, that might only score a 1 or a 2. Come up with a system that works for you.

Be intimidated. After all, agents get colds, spill coffee and worry about their children just like you do. From personal experience I can tell you the Dublin-based agents are all pleasant, intelligent professionals. They’re hoping you’ll be their next star just as much as you are, so try not to get too stressed about meeting them.

And I’ll leave you with one last DO: HAVE FUN!

(G.J. Schear)

Get the Party Started: The Dublin Writers’ Festival Returns

Audience shot 5Literature is written in Dublin’s DNA the way jazz is written in New Orleans, and politics in Washington, DC.

We have a love of language that’s older than Newgrange stones. The city is pockmarked with blue plaques reminding us that this or that writer was born, lived, or died here. We’re a UNESCO City of Literature.

Let’s face it, we rock.

Being such a thriving centre for all things literary, it’s not surprising that we should express our love for writers and writing in the warmest possible way, which leads me to the Dublin Writers’ Festival.

Such festivals abound, of course, both in Ireland and around the globe. They are the public face of a private art. But there is something very special about the Dublin Writers’ Festival. Yes, yes, I admit it: I’m a Dubliner and a writer so possibly I’m biased. Just a smidgeon.

But, tell me, where else can you find the native Dub and those from afar greeted with equal generosity? Who sets a place for the novelist and the poet, the lyricist and the dramatist? What other festival offers such nourishment to the neophyte writer while acknowledging the legacy of the celebrated?

There’s a place here for everyone.

I can’t wait to sit down with the glitter-literati. There are debates and discussions, lectures and sessions to delight the soul, and something for everyone. The energy fizzes like an over-shaken can of cola.

This year we already have Emma Donoghue, Anita Shreve and Ray Davies of The Kinks to look forward to. Who else is yet to be announced? I don’t know, but I do know where I’ll be come May 17th when the festival kicks off.

See you there?