Julian Ruck has been quoted in the Western Mail today. In the piece, he attacks Welsh writers and publishers.
Mr Ruck rather puzzlingly declares that ‘since the 1950s there hasn’t been one single Welsh writer of any national or international note to hit the tarmac beyond the Severn Bridge.’ Well, this is evidently not true. I need only quickly mention Sarah Waters, Iain Sinclair, Philip Pullman, Robert Minhinnick, Dannie Abse, Gillian Clarke. There’s also the matter of a little-known poet called… R.S. Thomas. And there’s a host of brilliant writers regularly shortlisted and longlisted for major awards. Sometimes, they win, too.
But why are indies important?
Once upon a time, Parthian published an unusual title called The Long Dry by Cynan Jones. It was a title that would have been unlikely to have passed muster at the marketing department of a major commercial – because, yes, devastingly, this is how the world works now. But, guess what? It was wonderful. So wonderful that it won the Betty Trask, one of the most enduringly credible of all the literary prizes in the UK. Once upon a time, a young and highly gifted writer called Rachel Trezise was picked up by Parthian, with her novel In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl. She was brilliant and gutsy, and she was just 22. Her novel went on to win an Orange Futures Award. She subsequently won the £60k Dylan Thomas Prize with her collection of short stories from Parthian, and went on to be picked up by HarperCollins imprint, Blue Door. Her life changed – and thank goodness it did, for she just gets better. Deborah Kay Davies published the astonishing Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful with Parthian. It won Wales Book of the Year, and she was soon snapped up by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in the US, and by Canongate in the UK. I could go on about our successes and risk-taking. But I have enormous respect for all the publishers in Wales, each of whom could boast similar success and passion for what they do. When I was growing up, I barely had contact with any Welsh writers, let alone female Welsh writers from our tradition. The Library of Wales has unearthed treasures. The hard work of Honno means that female Welsh writers of the future can feel less alone and feel themselves connected to superb writers until very recently unjustly written out of our culture. And Seren – well, personally, Seren changed my life. I was approached by the editor there as a young poet. She sent me a wonderful letter, and she asked me if I might like to submit a collection. I took her up on it. Seren accepted the book – a modest 60-odd pages that was my attempt to grapple with my Welshness, as much as anything, and to say something about a time and place I knew that I thought might interest some people. Seren believed in me. Such gratitude I feel. The book got nominated for the T S Eliot Prize – a major event on my timeline. I wept for a few hours. I was finally able to immerse myself in literary pursuits. And I like to think most of the work I’ve done since has been an effort to put something back, to help other people, in some small way, develop, and, occasionally, to enable a few well-earned dreams come true. Seren continues to have enormous success with its poetry list, but also with its fiction. Patrick McGuinness has recently been nominated for the Man Booker for The Last Hundred Days and many other prizes – and took the Wales Book of the Year for work that now seems quite remarkably timely.
But it’s not Supernova Heights for any of us. We’re all grateful to the Welsh Books Council, who help us to keep our literary renaissance in momentum. But we are none of us rich. Editors work hard; editors work on the weekends; editors work and worry even in their sleep. Like most of my peers, I’ve punched the air in joy; I’ve also cried real tears. We do so on little pay, but enormous reserves of passion and faith. Our writers receive very modest advances, but they get our love through the process. We help them to create attractive, compelling and original books. We are there for them, through good and bad. If and when the time comes for them to spread their wings and leave us for bigger publishers, there are never any hard feelings. We like to think we’ve played a part in the creation of valuable work and valuable careers. We like to think we’ve helped to show the world just how great and vibrant Welsh writing is. We continue to cheer them on, because we’re also cheering on something bigger again.
Independent publishing is difficult; it’s getting harder. Commercial publishing for the literary imprints is also difficult. Bashing it all can be so very easy. But I believe there is a place for beautiful writing – and beautiful writing that can help us to make sense of our increasingly messy and complicated lives, and a shifting world. Who can argue otherwise? And, then, it is also especially important that we have access to writing that reflects our culture back to us and helps us to interrogate it. To find out who we were and where we might be heading. It seems to be stating the obvious, but evidently it’s necessary. Far from being spongers, I’d wager Wales – and the literary culture of the UK at large – would be immeasurably poorer without us.