In an age in which reactionary, knee-jerk journalism regularly wields the weight of public opinion with it, it certainly feels as if our society could do with a little more space to think. As readers, we remain aware that well-researched, and well-reasoned arguments take time to formulate, and yet regularly settle for half-baked opinion pieces and rolling headlines for fear of delaying our own gratification. Yet content lacking form is, in Immanuel Kant’s book at the very least, wholly irrational, if not blind. Information without analysis loses meaning, particularly if that information is false, or unverifiable. It can be misleading, misinterpreted, and manipulated. In short, information alone, even in the vast swathes in which it is currently available to us, is no substitute for critical thought.
The essay then, still sits as a means by which we might still be able to self-reflect on our culture, our values, and on those of others. It allows for the examination of the past, along with offering some of the room required in order to truly influence the future. When well executed, it can provide a persuasive case for the adoption or rejection of ideas. Certainly it might showcase a writer’s particular area of interest or even betray areas of their disdain in a way we have come to reject from our current trusted sources of information, but this unmasked and accountable essayist’s agenda is auspiciously evident in their work. In times of uncertainty, the essay can guide a society in the pursuit of truth. Happily, in addition, it can cement a city’s reputation as a bastion of critical thought, creative minds, and esteemed writing.
Enter the Dublin Review of Books. Established in 2006 by Maurice Earls and Enda O’Doherty, the DRB, Maurice tells me, was largely founded on the basis of a hunch. That an appetite for long form essays across a range of subjects existed, the pair were sure, and that there were writers, both compelling and willing, seemed equally likely. From the start, the journal had a specific remit in its promotion of good writing, about good, or at the very least, intriguing ideas. Whatever the particular expertise of the writer, the essays would need to be wholly accessible in order to support the journal’s position against the cultural fragmentation which can follow in the wake of specialisation. Submitting essays loosely based around a recently released book, the task for contributors then, is to write a comprehensible piece that is likely to be of interest to the reader, without dumbing down the intricacies of their content.
That original hunch swiftly proved well founded and over the last ten years, the DRB has accepted work from over 360 writers on a largely pro bono basis. It boasts a vast, and world-wide readership, with its content regularly featured on sites such as Arts & Letters Daily, allowing the journal to permeate amongst American readers far beyond the confines of the Irish Diaspora. Maurice himself holds a doctorate in early 19th Century periodicals and newspapers, and is well aware of a literary landscape so frequently punctuated by short-lived publications. Though he would love to see the DRB in print in addition to its current manifestation online, he suspects the medium allowed the journal to transcend some of the difficulties traditionally facing print-based periodicals, as well as increase and maintain such a far-flung audience.
Thematically, in addition to a literary focus, the DRB collates works based in both hard and human sciences, and in economics, positing questions as to how a country might make a living and best survive in the world. For Ireland, at a time when both major trade partners have publicly declared their inward focus, in unnerving early steps toward isolationism, the role of the journal may well prove particularly pertinent. Amongst its collection, the DRB contains essays forecasting the tone of our current environment, warning of an over-reliance on our neighbours and arguing the need for an investment in indigenously based exports, testament to both its foresight and self cognisance.
I was curious as to whether Maurice’s own area of expertise and emotional investment in the Irish publishing tradition might cast a long shadow in which the DRB had to succeed, but his confidence in the strengths of the journal are so apparent from our discussion, that he quelled the need to ask. Yet the DRB remains aware of its position as part of a cultural continuum. Whilst societally we might regularly default to the assumption that we’re somehow remote from our predecessors, the topics that so fascinated writers and poets a century ago continue to do so, and the books born out of these ideas inspire essays that ferment and echo throughout the history of the journal as we continue to self-reflect. Evidence suggests that at the very least Dubliners will forever be inclined to obsess over questions around the Irish and the English and that a shortage of monetary dilemmas worth examination is also unlikely. Perhaps more than its contemporary peers, such as the London Review of Books or The Paris Review, the DRB is also refreshingly outward-looking in its sources of inspiration, which allows for a broader scope of articles, and logically then, a wider appeal internationally. Whilst Dublin’s reputation as a hub of creative writing needs no further evidence, the DRB’s role in promoting the city’s status as a centre with a long tradition of creative thinking has been paramount. Fitting then, that the offices for the journal should sit on D’Olier Street, a longtime nucleus of the Irish publishing industry, above Maurice’s separate endeavour and much loved bookshop, Books Upstairs.
Certainly, Maurice gives the impression that the desire to print a collection of sorts, if not each issue of the journal, had been a pressing one. Space to Think was published in October, and heralds the realisation of those plans, collating forty-two longform essays previously printed online by the DRB. A fitting commemoration of the DRB’s first ten years, Space to Think is an anthology as aesthetically charming as it is rich in content. Maurice clarifies that this was no happy accident. The book had to be elegant enough so as to acknowledge the quality of the writing within, and that everything, from the weight of the paper to the impression of the type, was subject to careful consideration, resulting in an altogether beautiful collection. He’s keen to emphasise that Space to Think is by no means a “best of”, and that the length of the pieces included was a huge factor in their selection. The hope is that the essays included would be representative of the range of topics touched upon within the DRB archives, and that the book’s title would indicate what, at its heart, the DRB hopes to do, that is, to give writers the space to develop an argument and their ideas.
There is a lot to be said about the joy of finding one’s own way through an anthology. Some select a few choice cuts to begin with, others saving the best, or most appealing titbits till last. This seems to me, to be half the fun, rather than the more puritanical cover to cover approach. Whilst to roadmap Space to Think in its entirety here would be excessive, as each segment of the book includes a brief but articulate introduction to the essays, there are plenty worth drawing attention to for their originality, analysis and even their wit.
“No Poppy Please: Why we should not celebrate war” is a wonderful example. Pádraig Yeates crafts a wholly accessible essay that simultaneously stirs sentiment and prompts critical thought in the reader, with just a touch of anecdotal humour, resulting in a charmingly persuasive piece.
Similarly, Enda O’Doherty’s “The Romantic Englishman: George Orwell’s political trajectory” made for timely reading. O’Doherty paints a comprehensive portrait of Orwell’s flaws, both as a writer, political commentator, and even as an observer. He concludes that Robert Coll’s observation that “a night out in Blackpool would have done him (and English literature) the world of good” seems a fair recommendation for the dour Orwell evident in his writings of that time, who recognised very little of the fun or sociability evident in early 20th Century Yorkshire. Furthermore, O’Doherty is clear that the quality of Orwell’s political judgement and forecasting remains questionable, positing that had he been a gambling man, he would have quickly lost all of his money. There might be a case made, however, that Orwell’s predictions were no less insightful than the modern polling techniques that seem to also have lost their accuracy and insight of late.
Certainly, Space to Think provides plenty of content for the literary reader to mull over. In addition to considering the sentimentality bound up in Orwell’s Englishness, Carol Taaffe’s brilliant essay “Behind the Curtain: Colm Tóibín and Henry James” really gets under the skin of both writers, whilst Joseph M Hassett’s “The Trial of Ulysses: Art, beauty, obscenity and the law” provides insights into the failed arguments and flawed characters first charged with the unenviable task of defending the book in court.
Maurice’s own contribution, “One Onion, Many Layers: Educating the Catholic Elites” shines new light on a frequently overlooked subject matter, whilst his brother, the late Brian Earls, to whom Space To Think is dedicated, explores the eccentricities of Irish filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst under his pen name, Éamon Ó Cléirigh. The time is taken, within the essay, to sensitively elucidate upon Hurst’s reconciliation of his sexuality with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, into which he chose to be baptised. Hurst was probably, advances Ó Cléirigh, a member of “the last generation of gay Catholics to be allowed this luxury” of such reconciliation, which owed a lot to “homemade theology and a sympathetic confessor”. Finally a series of shorter contributions from the Editors under the header “In The Post” serves as a miscellany of warm and witty snapshots of prose and commentary that closes an engaging first collection.
Space to Think has been well received, and the DRB is optimistic about future anthologies. Ideally, the next step would be to roll out a yearly edition, perhaps with room to include one or two of the longer essays that Maurice and Enda were unable to select for this first project. Maurice conveys that the team may require some expansion if they are to go down this route: “Yes, the infrastructure that produces the journal, that is to say, myself and Enda, was severely stretched, and putting the book in on top… the timbers certainly began to creak a little bit!”. Until this point, the busy lives of the editors have prevented the DRB from focussing on fundraising, and though monetary gain is by no means an aim of the journal, it would certainly allow Maurice and Enda to grow the team and indeed, the DRB’s potential. With such a spike in production values over the last decade, it’s a great time to be looking to print, and a golden age for journals of a high standard. “There’s just a wonderful energy around, full of people who have decided not to devote themselves to making money but instead to do something that moves them!” cites Maurice. The great pains that have been taken in the writing and editing of the contributions featured in Space to Think are justly rewarded, and in many cases, serve to elevate the humble and oft overlooked essay, to a higher station.
In their dedication to their own expertise and areas of interest, the contributors have created works that stand alone in their rich analysis and well-substantiated claims. Unlike much of the information available to us, these essays will remain relevant long after the headlines of the day change. At no point in the future, will they simply cease to exist or offer meaning, for here they are, immortalised in an anthology that does justice to its content in its sheer dedication to the celebration of the form, and in addition, in commemoration of ten years of the Dublin Review of Books.
Space to Think, edited by Maurice Earls and Enda O’Doherty and published by the Dublin Review of Books is available in all good book stores now.
Words: Julia O’Mahony
Photos: Killian Broderick