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BEING DIFFICULT: THE IRISH WRITER IN BRITAIN GERRY SMYTH I. i want to begin this paper with some excerpts from a correspondence conducted during February and March of 1995 between the editor of an English publishing company and an Irish writer/academic living and working in Britain. In late autumn 1994 I wrote and submitted a short story entitled “A Liverpool Encounter” in response to a flier calling for fictional material articulating the experiences of Irish people living in England, such material to be collected and published in a single volume. I am not in the habit of writing fiction. Over the last few years, however, I had developed an interest in the writing techniques of James Joyce. This interest grew out of my doctoral thesis—a large proportion of which was devoted to Joyce’s work and its implication for Irish identity—and out of my work as an academic lecturer, where it seemed to me that a text such as Ulysses was central to any course which brought discourses of writing, reading, and resistance into conjunction. In my story, I wanted to problematize the ability of language to represent reality—playing with narrative point of view, using rapid temporal and spatial shifts to disorientate the reader, employing, seemingly randomly, a number of recognizable social discourses to disrupt the notion of a fixed position from which to read and understand the story, and so on. Although the subject matter of the story (concerning an Irish exile in Liverpool meeting a prostitute, newly arrived from his home town), adhered to the brief, I hoped this assault on “normal” reading relations would formally reenact the experiences of exile, displacement, and alienation I was trying to communicate. These points will be explored more fully later. I should say straightaway that although I disagree with the editor on many points, he was certainly correct in rejecting my story, because it suffered from a horrible BEING DIFFICULT: THE IRISH WRITER IN BRITAIN 41 self-consciousness and possessed little merit as entertainment. While I still believe that it was a useful exercise, in that it allowed me to modify my political-critical claims for Joyce’s fiction, and, I hope, to incorporate these new positions as both teacher and critic, it also severely disabused me of any pretensions I may ever have had regarding the writing of fiction ! Henceforth, all my energies will be devoted to another creative and imaginative form of writing—cultural and literary criticism. This is to anticipate. Over a short period of time, a number of letters passed between the editor of this particular project and myself, in the course of which correspondence it became clear that each party had very different ideas, both with regard to “Irish” experience in England, and the most effective way of representing it. I shall take extracts from each letter in turn, allowing them to speak for themselves (as if such a thing were possible) and saving commentary for afterwards. 3 february 1995 Dear Irish Writer, . . . We felt that your story, “A Liverpool Encounter,” was very promising but in need of some editorial work to make it suitable for publication in the collection. Please let me know if you are willing to do some more work on your story so we can send you some written suggestions on how to develop your story . . . I would just like to remind you that stories should reflect the lives/experiences of Irish people living in England. Although stories may be set anywhere in the world, the exploration of the conflict between Irish and English cultural identities should be a central theme. It is very important that stories embrace this theme because, as well as looking for good writing, we have, at the end of the day, got to produce a package that we can market and sell . . . Editor ß 6 february 1995 Dear Editor, . . . I would be happy to do some work on my story, “A Liverpool Encounter,” if you would care to pass on your ideas and suggestions . At the same time, I feel I should explain the thinking behind the writing of the story, which in turn might throw some light on your reactions and suggestions. BEING...


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