WHENEVER SHE TAKES a gander through a bookstore, Sinéad Gleeson (pictured above) – arts journalist, editor and voracious reader – keeps an eye out for anthologies.
The collections of short stories are always a draw for her, with their promise of snatches of worlds explored over a handful of pages, and the chance to encounter new and unfamiliar writers.
But she has always been struck by the dearth of women in these collections, both in terms of the authors and editors involved. Now she has taken her own steps in rebalancing this situation with The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s writing published by New Island.
“I think they’re a real gift for a reader,” said Gleeson of short story anthologies. “If you’re busy and have got no time to read, you’re literally given a hand-picked collection of stories. You can read without having to wade through 300-page novels.”
It was while studying English in college that Gleeson first noticed the absence of women in such anthologies. It was staring her in the face every time she picked up the impressive but male-heavy core text edited by William Trevor.
Then, while working at RTÉ, a book called Cutting The Night In Two made its way into her hands.
Edited by Evelyn Conlon and Hans-Christian Oeser, it brought together 34 short stories by Irish women writers like Mary Lavin, Edna O’Brien and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. It confirmed for Gleeson what she suspected:
There were hundreds of women writing – they just weren’t being put into anthologies.
“I don’t for a moment think it’s because the work is lesser or not as good,” said Gleeson, venturing that perhaps “it just didn’t occur” to the male editors to include more women.
The default, whether it is in politics or family life or the courts, for a long time was male and I think it was the same in literature.
The Long Gaze Back “wouldn’t exist” without Cutting the Night In Two, not least because it was Gleeson’s introduction to writers like Juanita Casey and Norah Hoult.
It also wouldn’t exist without Maeve Brennan – the title is plucked from her novella The Visitor. Brennan was an incredibly talented and successful Irish export who wrote for the New Yorker, and Gleeson describes her absence from many Irish short story collections as “staggering”.
New and old
There are many well-known names in Long Gaze Back, as the editor “can’t for a minute assume” that readers are familiar with Elizabeth Bowen or Mary Lavin. But she has made an effort to highlight women who “needed to be rescued”, like Hoult, author of 25 novels, just one of which is still in print.
Some of the stories, like Hoult’s, were found by trawling through the National Library:
It was a bit of a treasure hunt, in a way.
“What I did find was the more I looked, the more I found it snowballed,” she noted, adding she was given lots of personal recommendations. “There could be another book of 60 women.”
It became clear to Gleeson that in order to get a true picture of the types of writers who are out there, you have to open your mind – and dig deep.
“It’s just made me more aware that you have to look beyond what you are being sold in shops or reading in newspapers. If you are interested in writing, you really have to go and look yourself,” she advised, quoting Patrick DeWitt’s advice: “Don’t read what everyone else reads”.
Long Gaze Back comes on the heels of #readwomen, an online campaign to – as the hashtag suggests – get people to read more work by women.
“What I love about that campaign is it started a lot of other conversations going as well,” said Gleeson, giving the nod to Ireland’s own Tramp Press and their hard work in publishing women writers.
Gleeson believes that literature is “enhanced by diversity”, and encourages people to look at their own bookshelves for inspiration.
It’s about looking at [the] books [you own] – how many are by women, how many are by LGBT writers, how many are by people of colour. It’s about constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Writing a life
With over 30 women’s stories in The Long Gaze Back, did Gleeson notice any similarities in themes?
“With an anthology, you’re going to get a mixed bag,” she said of the subjects covered within. ”If this was a collection of 30 men, I don’t necessarily think the themes would be that different.”
Everyone is focusing on their own experience, whether that’s autobiographical or not. I feel that a lot of the work is trying to engage in what we have now. People can ask why we read books, or why we bother. It is about trying to make sense of the world. We can learn so much from fiction novels about human experience.
When men write about themselves, their sex life, their domestic life, their relationships – it’s [considered] the human condition. When women write about that, it’s often considered a domestic story.
Even the stories about motherhood, to focus on one theme common among some stories, are diverse – some are about new motherhood, one is about losing a child, one (by June Caldwell) is even told from the point of view of a foetus.
Some of the inclusions play with the traditional short story form too, which Gleeson pointed out shows how Irish writers aren’t afraid to be experimental.
Most of the writing in The Long Gaze Back will be brand new to readers. Some of the omissions – like Edna O’Brien and Claire Keegan – were for this reason, in that they didn’t have any new material they could contribute, due to working on other projects.
‘We’re holding our own’
When it comes to the presence of women writers in Ireland, Sinéad Gleeson is encouraged by the fact that there has only been one week this year where a woman wasn’t at the top of the Irish book charts.
“I think that we really are holding our own,” she said. There’s a “glut” of women writing in Ireland, from established writers like Anne Enright to newer scribes like Eimear Ryan, Mary Costello and Niamh Boyce.
For its editor, Long Gaze Back is “about celebration” – of the stalwarts, the women who they passed the baton on to, and the newcomers.