The personal essay is, by definition, a self-portrait of the writer. Who can you trust to really paint yourself? Only, I suspect, people who have done their best to realize who they really are, i.e. people who have tried to see themselves without evasion or illusion, and therefore write without unconscious purpose on the reader (i.e. their prose does not helplessly cry out, “Like me! Envy me! Have mercy on me! Love me!”).
The personal essay is therefore not necessarily the ideal mode for young writers, who often have unconscious designs on their readers. Also, learning who you are takes time. To write convincingly about yourself, you must have done the longitudinal study.
All of this begs the question: why write personal essays in the first place? Why read them? Well, gossip is always fun; and there’s never a shortage of attention hunters ready to admit their worst. But to read the ideal — the Platonist — personal essay, is to feel strangely like the recipient of a gift. You read someone else’s account of an experience and you see yourself; know each other better. Denominational envy is cheap. But the desire for an honest communion with the reader is very close to the artistic impulse – it may in fact be the same thing.
These thoughts come to me because I read show your workan anthology of essays Dublin Review — the journal responsible, more or less alone, for launching the Irish revival of personal essays. For 22 years now, the Dublin Review appears four times a year in its quarto volumes covered in pastel. It is austerely designed. There are no illustrations, inside or out. No editorial material appears anywhere in its pages. No advertising either. Just essays and news, no frills.
The news is generally good. But, with my apologies to some extraordinary writers, no one reads the Dublin Review for his news. You read him for his personal essays and his journalism. I can’t remember the last time I took a number from Dublin Review and failed to find at least one outstanding piece of what MFA courses now call “creative nonfiction.”
A short list of writers who have appeared in the publication show you how indispensable it has become to our sense of 21st century Irish writing: Sally Rooney (her very first essay appeared there and is collected here), Mark O’Connell, Kevin Barry, Anne Enright, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Rob Doyle, Roisin Kiberd, Caelainn Hogan, Patrick Freyne, Arnold Thomas Fanning, Adrian Duncan, Sara Baume, Nicole Flattery… many more. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I published an essay in the Dublin Review myself, although my contribution was for some reason not included in this collection of his “best essays”.)
Brendan Barrington, who edits the Dublin Review, is the best type of editor. He has taste. He is heroically patient, often helping writers through several drafts over months or years until the piece is correct. And he is discreet. The magazine is not about its publisher. It’s not even about the writers it publishes. It’s about work.
Writers like to write for the Dublin Review. And readers love to read it. It is to be hoped that show your work finds the magazine new readers (and new subscribers—literary magazines are always on their financial nails). It should; it is a book full of gifts.
Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Essay rough sleeper, of the Winter 2016 issue, is one. The piece later became part of his excellent book mind on fire (2018); it’s an account of the few months he spent homeless in London during a decade-long string of psychotic episodes, and it’s both coldly compassionate and incredibly ruthless.
by Brian Dillon RB and meof the winter 2010 issue, is another gift: a portrait of the literary critic as a young man (orphaned in his late teens, frantically pursuing an academic career at the expense of his mental health – the “RB” of the title is Roland Barthes ), it achieves a remarkable honesty without conception.
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by Kevin Barry The skin of anxiety (Winter 2012) is an internet autobiography; Barry belongs to that generation that clearly remembers a time when you didn’t compulsively check your notifications every five seconds. This is what allows him to wonder if the Internet is not “a skin of anguish that stretches over the entire surface of the world […] What if we could never, ever escape it?
at Sally Rooney Even if you beat me (Spring 2015), about her pre-writing career as a champion competitive debater, is generally adroit; it is also obviously the assertive work of a young writer (Rooney was 24 in 2015), and of a fascinating revelation: “I did it. I got everything I expected to get.
show your work also contains exceptional reports. Let Susan McKay Easter in Ardoyne (Summer 2014) represents them all – it is a closely observed account of the suicide epidemic that has plagued the Catholic working-class area of North Belfast since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. This is the kind of journalism that takes time, patience and integrity; it shows us something we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
But in these pages, McKay is simply first among equals. show your worklike the magazine it celebrates, shows you how it’s done.
Essays: show off your work. edited by Brendan Barrington
Dublin Review Books, 274 pages, hardcover €20