Monday, 14 August 2017

If Literature Wales wants respect, it has to earn it.........

Iris Gower, Catrin Collier and Jan Morris -- three giants of Welsh literature, but conveniently ignored.  Could it be that they are too popular?

From recent statements by its Chairman and staff, it appears that Literature Wales has a fairly high opinion of itself.

To what extent is that self-esteem justified? For a partial answer to that question, let’s just look at one of its recent high-profile projects, the “Land of Legends” website produced for Visit Wales as a contribution to the “Year of Legends” tourism marketing exercise.

The text for this project was written by the staff of Literature Wales, who presumably pride themselves on their knowledge of Welsh literature.  They were apparently advised by national parks, some local authorities and assorted academic experts.  The web site is really all about literary tourism, making the link between Welsh books and writers and the landscapes in which their stories (and local myths and legends) are set.  So far so good.

As I have said many times, there is much in this web site to admire.  It is colourful, easy to navigate, and informative — and I imagine that many visitors to Wales will have enjoyed using it.  But what does it tell us about Welsh literature?

On doing some simple searches, there are some glaring omissions.  For example, the web site makes no mention at all of some of the greatest Welsh authors of recent times, namely Jan Morris, Dick Francis, Ronald Lockley, Iris Gower and Catrin Collier. Nor is there any mention of some spectacularly successful self-published writers with book sales (under the radar) in the tens of thousands.  Could that be because they do not, in their writings, touch on matters mythological, or because they are less Welsh than other writers?  That theory doesn’t stand up, since many of the included authors have  even less of a connection with the various worlds portrayed on the site.  Could it be that their writing careers have just been too successful, or that their publishers have been based outside Wales?  Heaven forbid……..

Let’s come closer to home.  Since the year 2000, I venture to suggest that one of the most successful works of fiction published in Wales has been “On Angel Mountain”, published in several editions and with sales of over 35,000.  Sales of the full Angel Mountain saga of 8 novels are now in excess of 80,000.  (To get things in proportion, none of the Welsh publishers reports on sales figures for their titles, but it is widely assumed that the average “best-seller” racks up sales of around 700 copies.)

However, amid the hundreds of references to Welsh authors, novels, and fictional characters, there is not a single reference my own work, to Carningli, to the Angel Mountain saga or to Martha Morgan Country. All of our efforts at “regional branding”, with the help of the local authorities, PLANED and Pembrokeshire Tourism, have apparently gone un-noticed in Cardiff. When I asked Literature Wales staff why they had forgotten all about us, they explained that they deemed the stories to be just “love stories” and that they were inappropriate for inclusion in a project relating to myths, legends and other tales! That’s nonsense — they have clearly not read any of the novels. On the other hand the writings of Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth, Daniel Defoe and assorted other holiday visitors to Wales were of course perfectly appropriate for inclusion, as were the works of many very obscure Welsh authors. The workings of Literature Wales are indeed very mysterious. We who have supported the orgnization over the years have some right to expect recognition and reciprocal support, and we are not amused.

Why the snub?  Well, we can understand why “celebrity authors” are promoted, even if their links with Wales are tenuous to say the least.  But the other cited writers — who are they?  Some will have heard of Alexander Cordell, Richard Llewellyn, RS Thomas and Dylan Thomas.  But I doubt whether any visitors to Wales will be familiar with the works of scores of other featured writers.  It’s inappropriate to give names. But why are they cited and promoted as if they are important or significant literary figures?  I suspect the answer is that most of them belong to (or have belonged to) the Welsh literary establishment which is based in part in the literature departments of the Welsh universities, and in part in the Welsh-language writing community celebrated in the eisteddfodau each year.  I also suspect that they also belong to the growing community of bursary-supported writers and writers published with grant aid by the major Welsh publishing houses. It’s all very incestuous.  I suspect that once a writer has been supported by Literature Wales, there is an imperative to publish his/her work and to demonstrate that the money has been well spent.  So bursary recipients and competition prizewinners are promoted aggressively, regardless of how talented they are and how successful they are commercially.   Somehow they are deemed to be worthy or significant authors who have important things to say about the state of the world and the human condition. 

On the other hand, a cynic might say that these “promoted authors” are very conveniently deemed to be fully paid-up members of a mutual admiration society, while those who have succeeded outside the system can conveniently be ignored.  If an author is self-published, that is even more of a problem………

And who decides which authors will be promoted and which ones will be ignored?  Not a peer group of professional writers, but the staff of Literature Wales.  And let’s remind ourselves that they were appointed to their posts not because of their writing, publishing or commercial credentials but because somebody thought they would be well suited to the provision of services to the writing community. Am I, as a writer with 90 books to my name, expected to respect their assessment of my reputation?

Somebody said to me not so long ago that the thing the Welsh literary establishment hates most of all is a book published in Wales but outside of the “subsidy system” and which then goes on to become a commercial success. That, after all, threatens the paradigm which holds that it is impossible for any book to become commercially successful in Wales without considerable subsidy from the public purse. That view seems to be shared by Literature Wales, the Welsh Books Council, Arts Council Wales and even by the Medwin Hughes Review Panel.

The exclusion of the Angel Mountain Saga from the Land of Legends listing of significant Welsh literature has nothing to do with love stories; it is simply too successful and too inconvenient for those who participate in a vanity publishing exercise on an industrial scale.

Gripe over!!


Catrin Collier said...

Brilliant and succinct, Brian, thank you for having the courage to sat what so many commercial Welsh writers feel. If there is another way to judge a book's worth other than through sales figures, I am unaware of it. As my first agent said to me (an extremely successful London based Welsh business woman) "if you want to write - write - it's a very commendable thing to do. If you want to sell your work find an agent. If it has no value they'll soon tell you."

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Catrin. Agree -- if we have small groups of academics discussing obscure works in seminars and deciding on their "worth", we end up with a pretty cockeyed way of seeing "literary merit." Ultimately it is book sales that give the only guide to whether you have a constituency out there. If you do not have a constituency, what you are doing is joining the vanity publishing club. But getting an agent is not easy -- even if your book has commercial merit. In that case, you have to have the courage to go it alone -- and the reading public itself will tell you whether your book has value!