Irish Writers, Anthropologically Speaking: An Interview with Helena Wulff
Anthropologist Helena Wulff has been conducting research on youth culture and multiple art worlds (especially in Western Europe) for over thirty years.
Wulff’s recent book, Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature (Bloomsbury, 2017), brings an anthropologist’s questions to the world of contemporary literature.
In a review of her new book for the Irish Times, Irish literary critic, Anna Fogarty, writes:
Her pioneering investigation nicely balances an advocacy of aspects of Irish cultural traditions which may be taken too much for granted by those living and writing in the country with a shrewd and timely critique of the inbuilt sexism of our public institutions and the provincialism of our general outlook.
You can discover more about Helena Wulff’s work on her website here from Stockholm University, where she is a professor and deputy head of the Department of Social Anthropology. Wulff has also held visiting professorships at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, National University of Singapore, University of Vienna, and University of Ulster, as well as a Leverhulme visiting professorship at the University of East London.
You can find downloadable PDFs of many of Wulff’s published journal articles and book chapters here. Beyond her many scholarly publications, Wulff also occasionally writes popular articles for newspapers and magazines in Sweden and the UK.
With Deborah Reed-Danahay, Wulff edits the new book series, Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology, and with Jonathan Skinner she edits another book series, Dance and Performance Studies, for Berghahn Books.
She has served as Chair of the Anthropological Association of Sweden and is a member of the board of the five-year, multidisciplinary research program in Sweden, Cosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics in World Literatures. With Dorle Dracklé, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, the journal of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), and was also Vice-President of EASA.
We recently had an e-conversation about her new, pathbreaking book about Irish writers. Read the interview below.
HW: Helena Wulff
AG: Alma Gottlieb
AG: In your previous work, you’ve written about lots of different topics–dancers, emotions, youth, and ethnographic writing and research practices, among others. This book is about a subject that’s quite unusual for an anthropologist. What inspired you to write a book about Irish writers?
HW: My love of literature goes back to my childhood and youth. I grew up in a home where reading fiction was a central activity, as well as, importantly, talking about it. The fact that my mother preferred reading stories to me and my brother when we were small, rather than cleaning the house, made a lasting impression on me.
I was soon a voracious and precocious reader. Not only did I devour European classics early on, such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but also, in secret, novels my parents said I was too young to read. Literature was my way of finding out about life, history and the world, although my literary horizon was limited to Europe and North America. This was before the idea of “world literature” would include the circulation and translation of literary work from regional or national to global contexts (which I’ll come back to, as that’s my current research.)
Both my parents had been students of comparative literature. As this was such a strong interest also for me, comparative literature was the only subject I wanted to study when I enrolled at Stockholm University in 1973. I had a fabulous year, but towards the end I realized I wanted to do something different from my parents, to develop on my own.
I had learnt from friends who studied philosophy that there was something called social theory, which seemed useful as a way to understand the world around us. So I took up philosophy. On the whole, I enjoyed it–but I missed attention to empirical evidence, and the link between theory and the empirical world. That was when I found anthropology, a discipline that included both empirical evidence/ethnography and theory–and everything fell into place. I became an anthropologist–first focusing on youth culture, and later on ballet and dance as a transnational occupation. My first study of the dance world (published in 1998) was Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers.
Then Riverdance, the Irish dance show, made a global splash. I was intrigued by its success in very different countries and cultures. So I set out to do a major study of dance in Ireland–a country that, with its difficult history, artistic vein, and eloquence, was a most rewarding place for anthropological research.
In addition, it was easy and cheap to get there from Stockholm. It didn’t take long before I was doing what I came to think of as “yo-yo fieldwork,” going back and forth between Stockholm and Dublin on a regular basis. I spent one or two weeks at a time in the field—altogether, eight months. My study was published in 2007 as Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland.
It was during the research for this study that I spotted the novel, Dancers Dancing by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, in a Dublin book shop. Thinking it might be relevant for my study, I bought it, read it with great delight, and then was able to interview the author. This was my first contact with the contemporary literary world in Ireland.
I started reading work by Colm Tóibín, Colum McCann, Anne Enright, and Joseph O’Connor–all award-winning writers–and couldn’t stop.
Colum McCann (photo by Bryan Schutmaat for The New York Times)
I was impressed by the style and the stories, and I identified an ethnographic presence. I noticed that Roddy Doyle was publishing at a high speed. And, suddenly, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was everywhere, selling like hotcakes.
Pulling together my lifelong love of literature with my anthropological experience of Ireland, I was thrilled to see a new study emerging: one of Irish writers in terms of their craft and career. It was triggered by one basic question: How come the Irish are such skilled writers? This was followed by two more: How do they learn to write? What does the Irish literary world look like—not just the world of writers, but also publishers, with all the attendant breakthroughs and competition?
AG: I’m struck by how seamless your move from one project to another has felt to you, even though all these projects might appear so different from one another to a casual reader.
Can you talk about the interview process you’ve experienced across these projects? For example, dancers are notoriously reluctant to speak about their art. At least, many dancers I’ve known have often said something like, “If I could tell you about it, I wouldn’t need to dance it”! By contrast, for writers, verbal language is their chosen medium. Were the Irish writers you’ve interviewed happier than other interviewees to keep talking and talking?
HW: I wouldn’t say that the writers were happier than the dancers to keep talking and talking . . . but they were more difficult to get an appointment with, in the first place! (The dancers were easier to get hold of, as I spent many months with their companies, so I was around them on a daily basis.)
With the famous writers–just like the famous dancers–once I had them in front of me, I had to break through their shield of expectations, which inclined them to provide routine answers to journalistic questions that weren’t necessarily well-informed. This shield entailed a risk that they would be indifferent to the situation. I had to surprise them in order to get their engagement.
Asking John Banville, one of the most prominent and prolific contemporary Irish fiction writers: ”Why do you write?” was such a moment. He was taken aback and started thinking out aloud, off track. By then, I had established rapport with him.
I didn’t experience any significant differences between interviewing Irish dancers and Irish writers. There’s definitely a fascinating truth in Isadora Duncan’s famous observation:
“If I could tell you what it means, I would not have to dance it.”
But my questions for the dancers would mostly be about the social organization of the dance world–ranging from ”How come you started to dance?” and ”What is good dance?” to ”What do you think of dance critics?” and ”Tell me about camaraderie as well as competition in the dance world.”
I think it also mattered that I used to dance (ballet), myself. That meant that I had the vocabulary and general understanding of ballet culture, which the dancers appreciated. They often see themselves as misunderstood by other people.
AG: That aspect of “native ethnography” was also relevant, to some extent, in your research with the Irish writers. But they may have also perceived themselves as “native ethnographers” of you, as well. Did you ever find yourself reversing roles with them? That is to say, did you ever fear that the writers might end up interviewing you (or just observing you), to make you into a character in one of their books?
HW: Unlike most Irish writers, who are eloquent speakers as well as sociable people, there was one writer I interviewed who told me beforehand, on e-mail, that she was ”a reserved, private person,” and that she didn’t think she’d be able to contribute all that much to my study. But she agreed for us to meet up in a café in Dublin. I told her that I, too, used to be a shy person. I found her really pleasant, and we did connect, even though the interview was a bit slow in the beginning, as I felt I had to be careful. She kept her low-key approach but seemed to appreciate my questions. Then suddenly, she took charge! Amused, I realized that I was replying to her questions–about anthropology, my research, my writing, and my own family–in a more detailed way than I’d ever done before in an interview I was supposed to be conducting. It was funny and revealing to me. I remember thinking that she seemed to be taking the opportunity to do research for her own writing.
I haven’t come across myself as a character in any of her books yet. But I did notice that John Banville featured an anthropologist as a minor character in one of the books he wrote after I interviewed him!
In a similar vein, I did a pilot interview with Éilís Ní Dhuibhne for my research application for the project on Irish writers that I submitted to the Swedish Research Council.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
I was delighted to be awarded three years of funding for the research. Talking to Éilís about my plans for a study of writing as career and craft in Ireland turned out to give her an idea for a novel on the social organization of the literary world in Dublin, with all its collaborations, competitions, and even plagiarisms. It was published as Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow by Blackstaff in Belfast in 2007.
While inspired by certain circumstances in the literary world in Dublin, the novel does exaggerate, in order to make some points–as novels are allowed to do.
Such artistic license is also prevalent in Éilis’ short story, ”A Literary Lunch” (2012), where she satirizes the work of a board that awards literary prizes. In my book, I discuss how literary prizes are considered an important part of a writer’s career, not least because their publishers regard them as evidence that they have selected the right book to publish.
AG: Few anthropologists have chosen either writers or literary texts as their research subject. In the preface, you summarize some of the main points of overlap between anthropology and literature. Any further thoughts about anthropologists who influenced you in your decision to take on this project?
HW: As a student, I was already aware that Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz had an interest in literature, which I found reassuring. Later, I learned that James Clifford did as well. And when my contemporary, Nigel Rapport, wrote in 1994 about the ”prose and the passion” in the writings of E. M. Forster, I was intrigued and felt an affinity.
Even though I was deeply involved in my fieldwork and writing on ballet as a transnational occupation at the time, a desire to do an anthropological study of literature had already sprung up. It would have to wait, though, until I had completed my study of dance in Ireland. Then it was just a matter of course to stay in Ireland, but move to another topic, a prominent and influential topic in Ireland-–its writers. It made a lot of sense.
This was also when I started attending sessions on literary anthropology at the American Anthropological Association, sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.
With pleasure, I had long identified a literary sensibility in a number of anthropologists who are well-known for something else. Now, I was excited to meet and read the work by anthropologists such as Paul Stoller, Kirin Narayan, Ruth Behar, Kristen Ghodsee, and yourself, who were fully engaged in literary anthropology.
AG: What difference does anthropology make for a study of writers? Can you talk about how the questions you asked about Irish writers’ lives might be different from the sorts of questions that biographers and literary scholars might ask?
HW: Many contemporary literary scholars consider cultural, political or historical context, but their focus is on the literariness of the text, while anthropologists would focus on the context, while paying attention to the text. Not only for my study of writers, but also for both my studies of dancers, my guiding light has been Howard Becker’s Art Worlds, where he shows that artists don’t work in isolation, but in “art worlds”–in other words, in professional and cultural contexts.
As for biographers, while they might set their stories against a backdrop of culture, politics or history, their focus tends to be on private and/or professional lives. Mine is a study of a profession that sometimes can be understood through private lives–but, even more, through Ireland’s special situation historically.
AG: I’m struck by how you organized the book. In a work about writers, one might have imagined a focus on a single writer in each chapter. Instead, each chapter addresses a component of the literary career, or the social organization of the literary world. Can you discuss what went into your thinking about how to structure the book’s chapters?
HW: The structure of the book is chronological. It starts out with learning how to write, then moves to the making of a writer’s career, breakthroughs, maintaining a reputation, drawbacks, and finally demise. This is also reflected in some writers’ career trajectories, beginning with the local literary milieu in Dublin via varieties of translations of their books into films and musical shows in London and New York; America as hope; and, finally, Irish literature and the world.
AG: Given their literary expertise, are you more nervous about your interviewees reading this book than you have been with earlier projects? Has any of the writers (or agents or others in the publishing world) read it and shared any reactions with you yet?
HW: I’m not more nervous about this book. Ballet dancers, contemporary dancers, as well as Irish dancers were all experts in the fields I was writing about, and I did get really appreciative feedback from dancers who read those books. I felt mutual respect with them, as I did with the writers.
I may hear about other commentaries, but for now I’m very pleased that two of the writers (that I know of) have read Rhythms of Writing and say that they are ”impressed.” Another reaction is a very favorable review in The Irish Times by Anne Fogarty, an esteemed professor of James Joyce Studies at University College Dublin. This was fabulous not only because the review was substantial and very positive, but also because Fogarty, who is a literary scholar, appreciated my anthropological take on her world.
AG: Speaking of reviews: In the book, you profile the structure of the literary marketplace. Do you see any overlaps with scholarly publishing? Any warning signs for us scholars to take note of? Any lessons we scholar-authors might learn?
HW: Yes, there are overlaps between literary and scholarly publishing, not least in the notion of a prestige hierarchy of publishers. Among Irish writers it’s more prestigious to publish in London or New York with a global conglomerate than in Dublin with a local boutique publisher, even though that’s where most writers start.
A warning sign for us scholars to take note of is the rise and impact of the agent. Irish writers who publish internationally all have agents, but I did hear certain reservations about these brokers from both writers and publishers. There were writers who found that they had to revise their texts according to the agent’s criteria, and these criteria would follow the agent’s predictions of the market, rather than the writer’s own literary inclinations. But then, the agent may actually be right.
For publishers, the agents are necessary, as it’s often agents who spot a new talent. Yet one editor was quite frank with me in his description of how agents put their own interests first, in terms of making money for themselves.
There are, of course, already scholar-authors in the U.S. who have agents, and this might well work for them. Still, for those of us who have a firm engagement in writing as a craft, and take a lot of pride in formulating sentences and keep searching for new expressions, the idea to have not only an editor and peer-reviewers but also an agent suggesting revisions, if not enforcing them, seems scary, to say the least. For in the end, who is the author, then?
AG: Let’s end on a happier note! Can you say something about your new research on “world literatures” beyond the Euro-American traditions?
HW: This is an anthropological study of the social world of migrant writers and their work in Sweden. I’ve just published a piece introducing the research–“Diversifying from within: Diaspora Writings in Sweden.” It’s part of a major interdisciplinary research program on World Literatures funded by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. As with my study of Irish writers, I’m investigating the making of a migrant writer’s career–how these writers learn to write, as well as drawbacks, the publishing industry (including the notion of ”the migrant writer”), their breakthroughs, and their role as public intellectuals.
Sweden used to boast an ethnically welcoming policy, but has now restricted its migration and refugee intake. There is also a growing anti-immigration party. Still, these writers are diversifying Sweden from within. Some of them have international reputations. While the Irish writers were surfing on the mighty fame of their predecessors such as James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, migrant writers in Sweden are not associated with August Strindberg or Astrid Lindgren. So, how is it that the writings of Jonas Hassen Khemiri (of partly Tunisian origin) on terrorism and racism in Sweden have become acclaimed in New York, London, Tokyo and many other places across the globe?