A Call for the Short Story

The Bell Magazine

Elke D’hoker

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Over the last few decades, literary scholars have come to recognize the seminal importance of literary magazines for the study of literary traditions as well as the history of ideologies and ideas. This “rise of periodical studies” [1] has been influenced by the cultural turn in the humanities, which expanded the field of literary studies beyond the study of canonical authors and texts, and by the development of new digital databases, which considerably facilitated archival research. Nineteenth-century periodicals were the first to benefit from this new approach, but modernist little magazines quickly followed suit. While digitization plays a major part in both these fields [2], their approach to periodicals has developed along different lines. Research in Victorian periodicals foregrounds a cultural-historical approach to magazines, reading them in the light of the ideological and intellectual debates of the period. Scholars working on modernist little magazines, on the other hand, often focus on the literary networks and artistic coteries that cohered around these short-lived, avant-garde publications and on the aesthetic innovations they propagated.

More recently, short story scholars too have started to pay more attention to literary magazines, adding yet another critical angle to periodical studies. They emphasise the importance of literary magazines, such as The Strand and The Yellow Book, in the development of the modern short story in the late nineteenth century as well as the unprecedented popularity of magazine short fiction in the early decades of the twentieth century. [3] With its brevity and condensation, indeed, the short story is ideally suited to be published in magazines and for most of its history, the fate of the modern short story has been intimately bound with the rise and fall of the periodicals in which it appeared. Periodicals too have often looked towards short fiction to fill their pages: in a miscellany periodical, the short story forms a welcome addition to the heterogeneous mix of journalism, poetry, reviews and essays; in a little magazine, short stories can offer exemplary displays of new aesthetic concerns; and even newspapers or more academic reviews often publish short fiction to provide diversion for the readers. Still, the entanglement of modern short fiction and periodicals has only recently become the object of scholarly attention  and further research is necessary to fully assess the importance of magazines for the production, publication, reception and canonisation of short fiction. This holds true for the Irish short story as well, especially given its promotion as a “national genre” in the course of the twentieth century.

In general, scholarship on Irish literary magazines has largely drawn on the approach developed for Victorian periodicals. It has been primarily interested in the political, religious and ideological bent of Irish literary magazines, ever since the eighteenth century. [4] For the twentieth century, in particular, both Frank Shovlin’s groundbreaking The Irish Literary Periodical, 1923-1958 and Bryan Fanning’s The Quest for Modern Ireland: The Battle for Ideas investigate the way the nature and future of the new Irish nation was hotly debated in various periodicals. In both studies, O’Faoláin’s The Bell Magazine is accorded due importance, because of the cosmopolitan, inclusive and liberal view of Irish identity it sought to offer over and against the conservative ideal propagated by de Valera. This is also the perspective of Kelly Matthews’s detailed and enlightening study of The Bell from 2012[ 5], while Niall Carson’s Rebel By Vocation. Sean O’Faoláin and The Bell brings the modernist little magazines’ perspective to bear on the magazine, mapping out the alliances, rivalries and aesthetic debates among the writers, critics and intellectuals associated with The Bell.

My own interest, however, lies with the short fiction published in The Bell and with the magazine’s role in the formation of a canon or tradition of the Irish short story in the mid-twentieth century. For although The Bell has primarily been read as a political magazine, it was first and foremost a literary journal, “a magazine of creative fiction” as its original subtitle put it. The Bell was founded in October 1940 by Séan O’Faoláin, who enlisted the help of fellow writers Frank O’Connor and Peadar O’Donnell. O’Faoláin wanted to fill the gap left by the demise of AE’s The Irish Statesman in 1930 and to provide Ireland again with a serious and wide-ranging literary magazine. He also found inspiration in the British literary journal Horizon, edited by Cyril Connolly whom he had met during his London years. More in general, The Bell follows the model of the miscellany periodical [6], offering a rich mix of creative writing, essays, reviews, literary criticism, autobiographical accounts, journalistic pieces and advertising. Typical for the miscellany genre is a strong editorial presence and this certainly holds true during O’Faoláin’s reign over the magazine. Apart from his long opening editorials, he contributed many short stories, book reviews and essays to The Bell and his aesthetic and political views can clearly be traced in the 11 volumes he edited between 1940 and 1946. Peadar O’Donnell, who took over as general editor in 1946, was a far less domineering presence in the magazine and appeared content to let the magazine reflect the creative scene in Ireland, through poetry and, primarily, short fiction. Publication was suspended for two years in 1948 but was resumed thanks to the efforts of assistant-editors Anthony Cronin and Val Mulkerns. The monthly magazine became a quarterly publication for another four years, before finally folding in 1954.

Both O’Faoláin and O’Donnell relied heavily on their extensive literary networks to fill the pages of their magazine. The first number of The Bell, for instance, contains new material by several of the most prominent Irish writers at the time: Patrick Kavanagh, Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O’Brien, Lennox Robinson, Jack B. Yeats, Brinsley MacNamara, Frank O’Connor and, of course, O’Faoláin himself. Other established writers who contributed to the magazine in the first few years were Maura Laverty, Hubert Butler, and Liam O’Flaherty, as well as the poets Austin Clarke, Louis MacNeice and Geoffrey Taylor. Even more important was The Bell’s commitment to fostering a new generation of Irish writers. For many aspiring writers, being published in the pages of The Bell was “the most obvious route to literary recognition in Ireland”. [7] The Bell was thus instrumental in promoting the careers of writers like James Plunkett, Sam Hanna Bell, and Bryan MacMahon, who contributed many stories to the magazine [8], but also early work by Mary Lavin, Val Mulkerns, Brian Friel and Brendan Behan was selected by O’Faoláin and O’Donnell for publication. 

Even though The Bell’s focus was very much on Ireland and Irish writing, O’Faoláin was keen to flag his inclusive understanding of these terms. He ran a series of essays on the “five strains” of Irish heritage (September 1942) as well as on the different religious traditions present in Ireland (the “Credo” series, 1944). He also published two Ulster numbers which showcased writing from Northern Ireland (July 1941 and July 1942). In his editorial to these Ulster numbers, O’Faoláin praised the greater vitality, contemporaneity and immediacy of writing from the North, compared to the insularity and nostalgia of writing from the Republic. International writers too found an occasional place in The Bell. Exasperated with Irish isolationism during the Emergency, O’Faoláin set up a series of three “International Numbers” in 1943, a project that met with severe challenges in the strict Irish censorship measures during the war. [9]

While O’Faoláin wanted to open the minds and broaden the horizon of his countrymen, he was also committed to opening up his magazine to contributions from its readers. His opening editorial, entitled “This is your magazine”, has become famous for extending an invitation to participate to all readers: “Write about your gateway, your well-field, your street-corner, your girl, your boat-slip, pubs, books, pictures, dogs, horses, river, tractor, anything at all that has a hold on you.” [10] On the one hand, this call is reflective of the community-building enterprise of The Bell, as it sought to foster a community of like-minded – i.e. liberal, educated, middle-class – readers across the country. On the other hand, it also reflects O’Faoláin’s commitment to fostering realist writing about contemporary Ireland. He wants the magazine to offer “a bit of Life itself”, to represent Irish lived reality rather than the worn-out romantic symbols and myths that, according to O’Faoláin, continue to have too strong a hold on the Irish imagination. O’Faoláin’s promotion of “documentary realism” in the pages of The Bell, especially through testimonies about the underside of Dublin life, such as “I live in a slum”, “Slum pennies”, or “A day in the life of Dublin mechanic”, has been hailed as an important innovation in Irish journalism[11] and as testimony of the Bell’s urban, cosmopolitan and progressive ideology.

Yet these pieces appear to have been a minority in the writing that readers submitted to The Bell. Already in the second editorial, O’Faoláin sounds a cautionary note: “It would save the Editor a good deal of heart-burn – for editors hate returning manuscripts – if contributors would study the magazine. Note, especially, how every contributor in the present issue writes from actual experience.” While O’Faoláin hoped this experience to reflect modern Irish life, many readers submitted reminiscences, anecdotes or yarns drawn from traditional, rural life and shaped by the conventions of storytelling tradition. Subsequent editorials show O’Faoláin’s growing exasperation. He asks his readers why they do not write about modern Dublin life, “here is an array of new material in this new capital asking to be recorded”, and castigates them for not really seeing reality: “nine out of ten people who send us things do not want to, or evidently cannot, see things at all. What they write is not so much the things as their ideas about it – or, alas, all too often reach-me-down ideas borrowed from somebody else”. [12] As his editorials become longer and longer, O’Faoláin also becomes increasingly didactic in his approach. From welcoming all input from his readers, he takes to instructing his readers in the proper way to write about contemporary life.

This is also reflected in the “New Writers” series, which was launched in the fifth issue and put the spotlight on a story by a young writer. In his introductions to these stories, O’Faoláin presents them as examples for aspirant writers to follow, much like O’Connor does for poetry in his “Belfry” series. In 1944, O’Faoláin also wrote a series of essays on “The Craft of the Short Story” for The Bell, which would form the basis for his 1948 study, The Short Story. The essays constitute a manual for aspiring short fiction writers, with advice on plot, style, and narrative conventions, but they also reflect O’Faoláin’s personal aesthetics. Mindful of the highly conventional and anecdotal stories he received for The Bell, he cautions writers that “The anecdote is […] the enemy of the writer of stories” and that “emotional or intellectual suspense” should take the place of plot suspense in the modern story. [13]

It was a rather disappointed O’Faoláin who resigned from his role as editor in 1946: “our task has been less that of cultivating our garden than clearing away the brambles […] this magazine did seriously intend, 11 volumes back, to be a magazine of creative fiction. We found that wishful thinking.” [14] Yet, hindsight allows us to correct that negative verdict. For, the amount, quality and nature of the short fiction published in Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century makes it clear that O’Faoláin’s instructions and aesthetic ideas did take root in Ireland. The social or psychological realism found in the short fiction of writers such as Mary Lavin, Val Mulkerns, Benedict Kiely, Michael MacLaverty, James Plunkett, Brian Friel, Julia O’Faoláin and John McGahern, most of whom did publish early short stories in The Bell, clearly reflects O’Faoláins demand for writing that represents the multifaceted reality of modern life, that privileges psychological and emotional tension over anecdote or plot, and that presents a personal rather than an inherited vision of Ireland. Moreover, as one of the most iconic of Irish literary magazines, The Bell itself has been a source of inspiration for subsequent literary magazines, such as David Marcus’ Irish Writing or Declan Meade’s The Stinging Fly, which have similarly left their mark on the shape and success of the short story in Ireland.

[1] Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies”, PMLA 121, 2 (2006): 517-531.

[2] See for instance Gale’s Nineteenth Century Collections, the British Periodicals Online database and the Modernist Journals Project

[3] Dean Baldwin, Art and Commerce in the British Short Story, 1880–1950, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013; Mike Ashley, The Age of the Storytellers. British Popular Fiction Magazines 1880-1950. London: British Library, 2006.

[4] Tom Clyde, Irish Literary Magazines: An Outline History and Descriptive Bibliography, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2003.

[5] Kelly Matthews, The Bell Magazine and the Representation of Irish Identity: Opening Windows, Dublin: Four Courts, 2012.

[6] Malcolm Ballin, Irish Periodical Culture, 1937-1972: Genre in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, 72-76.

[7] Niall Carson, Rebel by Vocation. Séan O’Faoláin and The Bell, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 12.

[8] Plunkett’s story collection The Eagles and the Trumpets was even published in its entirety in 1954.

[9] Matthews 63.

[10] Séan O’Faoláin, “This is Your Magazine”, The Bell 1,1 (1940), 5-6.

[11] Mark O’Brien, Mark, "Other voices: The Bell and documentary journalism", in Periodicals and Journalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland. Writing Against the Grain, eds. Mark O'Brien and Felix M. Larkin, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014, 158-173.

[12] Séan O’Faoláin, “Silent Ireland”, The Bell 6,6 (1943), 458; and “Why don’t we see it”, The Bell 5,3 (1942), 161.

[13] Séan O’Faoláin, “The Craft of the Short Story: When is a story not a story”, The Bell 7,4 (1944), 338; and “The Craft of the Short Story: Instead of Plot”, The Bell 8,1 (1944), 46-48.

[14] Séan O’Faoláin, “Signing Off”, The Bell 12,1 (1946), 1.