Monday, 27 September 2010

The Train Coming At Us Across the Plains

If the revolution doesn’t come down the street with its men in bandanas carrying guns then do it with words. Writers the world over have adopted this approach. The past is never good enough. The world cannot be allowed to stand still. Make it new, said Ezra Pound. “The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth.”

Upend what went before, the new is what sings. Never mind the tune.

At Parthian Books, our West Wales base for permanent insurrection, they’ve always had a good eye for this kind of thing. If the revolution doesn’t spin then make it. If the world is content then upset it. If there’s a bastion somewhere then storm it. The latest ruse is their brilliant pitched reinvention of the bright young thing. Four new fictioneers, Wales-based if not yet of entirely Welsh blood, have been packaged and pushed as the rising literary stars. And this year is the one in which they will shoot.

Tyler Keevil, a mid-Wales based Canadian, has Fireball a teenage thriller full of death and car plunges. Wil Gritten, a north Walian who has been round the world twice and is still under twenty-six, contributes Letting Go, a travellers tale that runs from Wales to south America. Susie Wild, habitué of the blogosphere and permanent follower of the Welsh literary event, has The Art of Contraception, short fiction full of the deranged and the fantastic. James Smythe, a Welsh-educated teacher, adds Hereditation, a tale of depravity and philandering in New York.

The set are packaged to perfection and promoted with their own web-wrap of blog, comment and clip ( Is this the literary world actually changing? The books are out now. You decide.

In Cardiff Bay this October the Academi’s Bay Lit literature festival runs episode two of The Shock of the New. This is a celebration of those literary things which deliberately rub against the grain. The new, the left field, the experimental, the strange, the thrillingly shocking, the unexpected and the never before seen. Being new here means being at very least different. Not young, necessarily, but not been round the block too often either.

The 2010 event which runs from the 25th to the 30th is expected to feature workshops with iPad makers Apple, Hannah Silva and Liam Johnson live texting, the curse of celebrity culture, the unknown Tiger Bay, the melding of literature with sound, the Welsh Underground (remember that?) and the Mabinogion rewritten one more time. Watch the web for details.

It’s ironic that at a time when literature in Wales has never been so healthy that the downturn looms. It’s coming like Ashbery’s train, steaming towards us across the plains.

A version of the posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #164

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Book prizes? Still how it all should be?

The Wales Book of the Year - now that the dust has settled should we consider how this Award is doing? Established back in the mists of time this, our premier Welsh book prize, has been presented to cultural winners for several decades now. Book Awards mark out the best the nation can produce and celebrate the chosen in as much style as possible. In a wider-Welsh world that loves TV and rarely opens literature’s covers anything that publicises and popularises can help.

The Award, made with steady even-handedness, goes annually to the best Welsh-language and the best English-language books of Wales. To enter you need to either write in the language, be born here, live here or have the country as a significant component of your writing. The prize is for the best literary title, the best writing, rather than simply the best printed book. It goes to authors and not to editors, translators, ghost writers, or compilers. This means that recipes, sports compendiums, poetry anthologies, new translations of the Mabinogion, and political commentary are pretty much excluded. It also means that picture books don’t make it. Unless they also contain writing of significant quality.

This year both the Welsh and English prizes went, somewhat controversially, to books where the author had worked with a photographer. Philip Gross did this with Simon Denison for I Spy Pinhole Eye (Cinnamon Press), John Davies managed the same trick with Marian Delyth for Cymru: Y 100 Lle I’w Gweld Cyn Marw (Y Lolfa). Was this unfair on the photographers, both of whom undoubtedly made a considerable contribution to the books concerned? The Award’s judges were clear. The Wales Book of the Year Award is a literary prize. It was the quality of the writing that led.

But do the prizes make any real difference to turnover? Sales of Booker Prize titles always go up when there is some sort of controversy or public falling out between judges. I’ve no proof but I’m sure the same sort of thing happens in Wales. What I have seen, though, is evidence that being on the Book of the Year long list does shift more copies.

The perennial problem, of course, is that judges have to gauge novels against books of poetry and sets of short stories against works of literary criticism. How do you do this? Official guidance says that you must but is pretty silent on just how. It’s been suggested that the way forward is to return to the days of category prizes - best novel, best book of poetry, best work of criticism.

But then, in difficult and recessionary times, how might this be financed? And what would happen to the impact a single big win makes? If you have a view do let me know.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #163

Saturday, 18 September 2010


The world is made of numbers. Talk to the mathematicians and they’ll tell you that anything can be reduced to arithmetic. Computer programmers will explain that nothing moves in cyberspace without binary digits changing. The pulse is a numeric value, as is blood pressure and the rate at which air moves into and out of your lungs. Statistics have taken over the universe. When I took a fitness test recently – blow into a tube, run on the spot, have my weight recorded, my body fat index measured, checks made on how easy it was for me to bend and touch the floor - I was amazed by the amount of sheer data that emerged. Reams of the stuff. My life in figures - a portrait of Finch in equation, table, and chart. Everything, it seems, can be turned into numbers.

So too in the world of culture. How many entrants were there to the last Cardiff International Poetry Competition? 10,856. What’s the population of the UK - 61,414, 062. How many viewers did the World Cup England vs. Germany achieve? Eighteen million. A recent episode of Lewis attracted seven million. The TV production of Martin Amis’s super-popular cult novel Money pulled in one point one. As a people we are certainly consumers of small screen culture.

However, it’s not the same when you get to printed matter. Book production may be up with more new titles reaching market now than at any time since world war two but we appear to be spreading their consumption ever thinner. The world’s leading book awards like the Man Booker and the Orange normally get the names of authors and their books into the minds of most literate people. Sale should rocket- and in a way they do. But not as spectacularly as one might hope. Andrea Levy’s Small Island which came out fifteen years ago has to date sold 834,958 copies. Could do better.

Mass market best sellers – beach reads, thrillers, paperbacks with mirror covers that spin on stands at airports and in Tesco – can manage half a million copies in a good year. Literary novels, the more serious ones, sell considerably less. A first novel by a new starter can shift a few thousand copies across the whole of the UK and that is if the author is lucky. New Welsh interest novels do eight hundred or so on average. Poetry, that marker of all great civilisations, sells even less. A new UK promoted poet might sell into four figures but mostly don’t. If you are Wales-based then it’s less than half that total. Booklets, poetry’s mainstay, move in the low hundreds.

Around here all sales count, a thing worth remembering next time you attend an event. Buy the book, someone has to.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 28th August, 2010. #162