For a time now the novel in English has been on the rise in Wales. Despite the ever-present threat from Nintendo gaming, talk shows, reality TV, vertical drinkeries and mobile internet fiction appears to be holding its own. The output from Welsh publishers has climbed steadily. New writers appear with the frequency of speed cameras and reinvigorated older ones pour the stuff out just to keep ahead. The short story, thought of by many as a relic from the pulp fiction past, has enjoyed a total rebirth. Entries to the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition these days exceed all predictions. Collections of stories dot bookshop racks. And rather than simply staring into space people have been actually seen reading them - in doctor’s waiting rooms and on trains. I spotted one man recently reading while cycling. I kid you not.
On the long list for the Wales Book of the Year are two fiction collections. Deborah Kay Davies’ pretty unsettling Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful and Gee Williams’ Blood Etc. There are also two novels – Joe Dunthorne’ s Submarine and Stephen May’s TAG. New authors all and making waves. Against them stand Dai Smith with his brilliant Raymond Williams biography, A Warrior’s Tale. How on earth will the judges make a choice among such disparate stuff?
They’ve also got the poetry complication to manage. Verse has rarely ever featured in the Awards. Too difficult. Too short. Too irrelevant. Can’t be compared to fiction. But things change. Poetry is again on the rise. Five whole titles have appeared on the long list. John Barnie, one of the Award’s three judges characterised the year as a vintage one for verse. Never has Wales produced so much consistently good stuff. Not in several decades.
Matthew Francis, Robert Minhinnick, Sheenagh Pugh, Zoë Skoulding and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch are all now shifting their slim vols by the shed load and sitting in the garrets with baits in their breaths. Might poetry get onto the short list of three? That will be announced at the Hay Literature festival on the 25th of May. Could verse even take the £10,000 prize? That distant possibility now looks considerably probable. Do I actually know anything? Has someone spoken to me, quietly into my ear? Not yet. I’m just giving you a balanced and informed view. Poetry is certainly in the best place it has been for years.
If you’d like to check for yourselves ask for Not In These Shoes, Long-Haul Travellers, King Driftwood, Mandeville and Remains of a Future City at your local bookshop. There’s poetry here from the survivors of both sides of the ancient warring divide. And excellent it is too. Check as soon as possible.
A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 23rd May, 2009