The Line of Beauty

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.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Line of Beauty

  1. Kathryn — what's your point? OK — we all agree that there have been some famous Welsh authors, and we all agree (I hope) that the independents have published some fine books and have encouraged some excellent "new" authors into print. Some of that might not have happened without subsidy. But surely the key point that the Western Mail article is trying to make above all else is that Welsh publishing is far too cosy, and that it encourages the publication of many books that do not deserve to get into print, and which would not stand a cat in Hell's chance in the competitive publishing world that exists in England and in many other countries. So we all congratulate ourselves on a vibrant and successful Welsh publishing scene? Hmmmmm….. value for money?

  2. Kat

    Sounds like sour grapes. And surely an author and literary festival organiser should better appreciate what funding for literature does and how indie publishing supports new writing!

  3. Dear Brian,Sorry: I only just saw this to moderate and OK. My point should be obvious. That without independents and some subsidy lots of great work would be lost. There is a whole, unfortunate history regarding Welsh authors who have failed to attract metropolitan publishers due to the simple fact of being unfashionably 'Welsh' and other often forgotten fall-outs from the Anglo-Welsh scene. In any case, the metropolitan scene for literary publishing is not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s (arguably a golden era for postwar literary fiction – read Athill's Stet for more on her views of how sorry things have become), in no small part because all the independents were bought by men in suits. This means it is very difficult for a lot of literary fiction to get past a marketing department (who often get it wrong, I might add). The public doesn't even get to see it and make their choice. You think this a good thing? I don't. Subsidy isn't solely practised in Wales. Most of the few existing stellar indies in England receive funding, because the Arts Council believe something valuable but impossible to measure with spreadsheets would be otherwise lost. And they're right. This is not simply a matter of books, but of maintaining a lively, alert and questioning culture. One commercial editor I met told me how much she envied my position to publish high-quality books that I believe in. She has no such liberty. Indeed, the author is often more important than the work they're peddling – for the commercials. They need to have a hook. Beauty, youth or quirky back-story can often play their part. Qualities that bear no relationship to the work. That way, the broadsheets can be attracted and give coverage. Welsh publishing is not cosy in a suspect way. Wales is a small place; it stands to reason that you may see the same names cropping up, doesn't it? How is it more cosy than three publishing companies running the entirety of the commercial scene in Britain, deciding what you, the consumer wants, by anticipated profit margins? I'd rather publishing be run by those who love literature than men in suits – who often give no chance for an author to develop an audience. Most authors, even brilliant ones, will be dropped after the two-book deal. No chance to capture a fan base.Yes, we should congratulate ourselves. Proportional to our size, we do as well, if not better, with plaudits than many of the commercials. Tot up how many noms for the Eliot, Costa, Man Booker and Forward etc Seren receive for their work considering their small output. Tot up Parthian's achievements. Actually, it's very impressive. And our books do sell, actually. The Western Mail article was not making any grand moral point. It was quoting Mr Ruck's press release for an event that never happened (not that the reporter noticed – she didn't even bother to attend to find it cancelled) and one doesn't need to dig deep into the national psyche to see what the motivation was for both Mr Ruck and the newspaper which furnished him with publicity.

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