Author Rosemary Jenkinson has denounced her former publisher, Doire Press, for withdrawing its offer to publish her first novel. The Galway-based small independent press made the decision after the Belfast writer penned a controversial article in Fortnight magazine last October wondering why his fellow writers in the North were ‘reeking more than ever on the corpse of the Troubles’ and advocated that they “modernize [their] concerns”.
Jenkinson suggested that the success of Anna Burns’ Booker-winning Milkman and Lisa McGee’s Channel 4 comedy series Derry Girls had encouraged imitators to “peddle that narrow-minded Belfast Noir”. The article drew an outpouring of criticism on social media, although Jenkinson says she also received plenty of support, including from writers Mike McCormack and Anne Devlin. Crime writer Sharon Dempsey responded with an article in The Irish Times, titled Don’t Mention the War: Why Writers Shouldn’t Tackle The Troubles?
“Whatever you say, say nothing – the old refrain by which we lived and were silenced,” Dempsey wrote, “is still brandished, except this time it’s by a writer [Jenkinson].” Dempsey argued that Northern writers had in fact had to overcome enormous resistance to have their stories of the Troubles published and continued: “In the absence of a truth and reconciliation process, fiction offers a space to determine how we navigate the past in order to move forward.”
Within days, Jenkinson said, Doire Press emailed him advising of their decision to rescind their offer to publish his novel. “There was no prior conversation; no phone calls to discuss their concerns; no right of reply was granted to me. They had agreed to publish my novel and scheduled it, but wrote that after reading my article in Quinzaine, they were “not ready to take the risk of publication”. You seem to have chosen to upset the majority of your Belfast peers. They added: “You are entitled to have your opinions and express them as you see fit, but with all the work that a book is and how difficult it is to sell them, we need writers who will try to expand their audience, not shrink it.
Jenkinson, whose Doire Press Lifestyle Choice 10mg short story collection was shortlisted for the 2021 Edge Hill Prize, said it was “ludicrous” to suggest her readership had dwindled or that she had upset the majority of writers north. -Irish. “If, as my (former) editor said, I have the right to express my opinions, they should have continued to support and promote my work when I did. They have every right to disagree, or even get angry under the collar of what I write, but their action was disproportionate.
“This email shook me and I wonder: what exactly is the function of writers these days? Is it just about writing congratulatory tweets and keeping quiet about the relevant issues of the day? I have always admired fearless explorers of society and politics like Milan Kundera who refused to limit himself.
John Walsh and Lisa Frank, editors at Doire Press, replied: “The decision not to go ahead with Rosemary’s novel was not a matter of censorship but was financial. From the start, we knew that Rosemary was controversial in her opinions and in her writing, which we never hesitated and, in fact, encouraged.
“With the exception of a novel published in 2011, we only publish collections of poetry and short stories, so publishing Rosemary’s novel had to be a very big step and a very big risk for us financially, because we are anyway such a small operation, and especially after the growing difficulties that the Covid is causing us.
“That said, we’ve always made it very clear to our writers the importance of expanding a writer’s audience and viewed it as a partnership. That’s why we used all-expenses-paid reading tours and paid workshops, which Rosemary benefited from.
“So we were extremely concerned about Rosemary’s article in Quinzaine. We felt the piece was misguided. We also felt it was likely to alienate a significant number of people who would be the core readership of Rosemary’s novel. Rosemary of course has every right to express her opinions publicly. However, in our opinion, the effect of the play was likely to reduce his readership rather than expand his readership, and so we decided that we could no longer afford to take the already significant financial risk of publishing his novel.
“We also felt that we could no longer afford to devote the necessary resources to the full publishing of Rosemary’s novel due to the now very questionable financial return. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, we thought Rosemary would be better off with another editor. (We knew that Rosemary had published a collection of short stories with a different press and we had already wished her success with this publication).
“Rosemary agreed in November that it was best for us to part ways, we did so without acrimony. We are very proud of the two Doire Press books published by Rosemary, and wish her well in her future career.
Jenkinson is currently writing a play for the Abbey Theater called Manichea, which she says contrasts today’s ‘cancellation culture’ with our 1960s past. “What people don’t realize, it’s that being censored for holding certain ideas is very much alive in Irish literature.”
“Imagine if Colm Tóibín was dropped by Viking for his commentary on genre fiction; whether John Banville was shown the door by Faber & Faber for saying he despised the revival movement; if John Boyne was released by Penguin for expressing his trans views,” Jenkinson said. “If that were the case, publisher slander and free speech petitions would no doubt ensue. The majority of people assume that the suppression and punishment of free speech is a rare thing and belongs to the least tolerant nations of the world. Surely, they think, this could not happen in contemporary Ireland, north or south.
“Irish publishers have great power due to weak competition, but they should refrain from abusing it. Ultimately, if an editor lets an article trump an author’s passion for writing, it strikes at the heart of what writers do. This clearly demonstrates how power can be misused. In contrast, Alan Hayes of Arlen House has fully supported me in writing what I believe to be true, as he was a strong advocate of free speech for many decades. I’m lucky to have future plans with Arlen House, but the danger is that for some writers, being fired for expressing opinions can spell the end of their publishing careers.