Thursday 17 January 2019

Con Houlihan: How to make a mark in print

At the age of about 25 I decided to quit formal teaching and on a momentous evening in a pub in Ballinhassig told my principal; when he recovered from the shock we parted in a haze of goodwill.

After returning to Kerry and settling down, not to be a good writer but a great writer, many pieces were sent to magazines and publications. The result was a flood of rejection slips. Some people didn't bother to answer at all.

All the while I was writing for The Taxpayers' News and The Kerryman but longed to have my work published in a national newspaper. Then David Marcus entered the scene. He was a few years ahead of me at Cork University and we often sat near each other in the City Library but we never spoke. We were both very shy. Then David published a brave new magazine called New Irish Writing in conjunction with a fellow spirit, Terry Smith. It was in this magazine that some of Samuel Beckett's work first appeared in print. And yet the venture failed. David went to work in London in, as far as is known to me, an insurance office and for several years disappeared from the literary scene.

There are as many stories about his return as there are myths about the coming back of St Patrick. The most likely is that while on holiday he chanced to meet Sean Mac Reamoinn, who told somebody in The Irish Press that David was back and looking for work.

Thus began the page in the morning paper called New Irish Writing. Every Saturday it published an original short story, a piece of original poetry and little essays about different subjects. It was a revelation, a breakthrough in Irish journalism.

One day I received a copy of a book called The First Circle, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and a letter from David asking me for a review of 1,500 words. Nothing could have delighted me more. The book was read over and over and my heart and soul went into writing a piece about it. Then one Saturday my mother brought home, of course, a copy of The Irish Press.

I opened it with trembling fingers and there to my joy and surprise was my review, well laid out and with a brave heading. It was already known off by heart by me but it was read and reread. It was the first of many reviews done by me for New Irish Writing. I also wrote some of the little essays and it was one of the happiest periods in my life.

It was good to be appearing regularly in a national newspaper and was expanding my fame. Then one Saturday, without any warning, the page appeared but it was a different page. The story of David's exit from The Irish Press is as puzzling as the stories about his comeback to Ireland. He didn't retire from writing. He went to work with Poolbeg Press. Somebody took over the page and I never again got a book to review. It was hurtful but in journalism you must be thankful for small mercies or no mercies at all. It wasn't a tragedy: the breakthrough had been made. I might have been the oldest swinger in town or the oldest kid on the block but I could say: grow old with me the best is yet to be.

Book reviewing is a strange business: if the author does not get good reviews, his or her work will not sell. That isn't always true: my first book, Come All Ye Loyal Heroes, sold very well even though it got no review at all. For a few months it was at the head of the bestsellers. Then it was passed out by the life story of Albert Pierrepoint, who was Britain's official hangman. It didn't matter as the company was distinctive.

One of my books, Windfalls, got no review either but it still sold fairly well. Then I decided to publish my next book myself.

There was a great launch in Mulligan's and we broke with tradition in having a second launch. This time it was in The Lower Deck in Portobello. Both launches went well but the book got no reviews. It was called The Back Page and, in my humble opinion, contained some of the best sporting essays published. It made a tidy profit.


Then came A Harvest. It got several reviews. They were nearly all very weak. One reviewer obviously didn't read the book but that is quite common in the Irish literary scene. He gave the impression that the book was a collection of sporting pieces. There are only four in the book. The book is mainly about art and artists and writing and poetry and nature. It sold reasonably.

It got two good reviews from Dermot Bolger and Rosita Sweetman. They understood it but they came out too late to help sales.

In the meantime, Liberties Press had published a collection of my sporting pieces. Mary Hannigan in The Irish Times gave it a glowing review. It was headed Stars Plucked From The Sky. Getting a good review in The Irish Times meant that the book sold very well. It was called More Than A Game and made a handsome profit. This was the foundation money of Liberties Press and gave me immense satisfaction.

When I am reviewing a book I give it a favourable review or an unfavourable review. Thus a few friends are made and a few enemies.

There is another angle to reviewing: the big publishing houses do their best to have their books reviewed and to have them well displayed. The small publishers get no such breaks.

Nevertheless, we carry on hoping that the best will come to the top; it's very hard to keep a good man down but very often we see a bad man kept up.

Fogra: A very big welcome into this world for the safe arrival last Wednesday of Molly Carolan, daughter of Elaine and Ruairi

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