Saturday, 12 December 2009

Huge Breakfasts of Kippers

Does the idea of spending a weekend in a great house somewhere surrounded by writers fill you with dread? How about facing up to a long lecture on the meaning of apricot sponge in the work of John Tripp at 9.00 am after a night in the bouncing bar? Maybe an open forum on the way the publishing industry works? Or a discussion on the work of one of our literary greats. Welcome to the literary conference. How they used to be. We love these things in Wales.

You sign up and spend three days in a shared room somewhere deep in the greenness. Fellow delegates, for this is what you are now, join you for huge breakfasts of kippers, muesli and fried eggs. You study your day programme. There’s a choice first off – women in the nineteenth century industrial novel or a lecture on the works of the folk poets of Gwynedd. You choose and slumber. After an hour there is gentle applause.

At coffee you fill up on biscuits and discuss with your fellow travellers the fate of short fiction in an age of television and the power of poetry on the internet. There is a bookstall run by someone you’ve seen somewhere before, you are sure, a man with a beard. He stocks books by delegates and a stack of second hand stuff you’d never look at anywhere else. With nothing else to spend your cash on you find yourself buying. Get your copies signed. Why not.

Mid afternoon there’s a literary walk through the local woodlands. Appropriate poems are recited by the walk leader. Half way along it starts softly to rain. At 6.30 there’s the keynote speech. A London novelist driven in by limo to talk about her latest book. Copies cost £25. You don’t bother. Dinner is chicken with lumpy mashed potato. There is pudding but so sticky you can’t get it out of the bowl.

In the bar later is a poems and pints session. The poems flutter and drone. Almost every delegate appears to have brought something with them. Folded sheets are produced from back pockets. Files are unbagged. Pamphlets taken from under arms. The pints make things bearable. You drink far too many.

The following morning almost half the delegates fail to get to the first lecture. There’s a summing up after coffee at 11.00 am. You spot people leaving at 10.45. It’s been a great few days. You’ve met and mingled and got a hold on how the world works. Money well spent. In your car boot are copies of signed poetry booklets you’ll never have otherwise bought. You are replete. The sun comes up. You drive to meet it.

Watch out for the Academi’s next conference. It won’t be anything like this.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 12 December, 2009

Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Long Tale

Wales did not shine at the Booker. Sarah Waters, Pembrokeshire-born but somehow still separate from the Welsh literary community, did not win. I shouted for her. The Little Stranger could have given our rocking little country another winner. I talked it up. But in the end Hilary Mantel’s slice of Tudor passion beat Waters’ mid-twentieth century ghosts.

Getting onto the Booker short list can do a wonder for your sales. Get the judges to like you and a slovenly moving slab of literary fiction can be turned into a jet hot bestseller overnight.

The same kind of thing, albeit at a slightly less frenetic level, also happens with Wales’ own competitions. We may have fewer bookshops than England but ours have loyal audiences. Step up the Wales Book of the Year long list. Twenty books, ten in Welsh and ten in English, the best of our now burgeoning output, get selected each spring. They run the rapids towards a £10,000 prize awarded in high summer. Who got there last time? Deborah Kay Davies’ brilliantly written Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful and Wiliam Owen Roberts’ all-embracing Petrograd. Half of Wales has by now consumed those two examples of engaging fiction. The Wales Book of the Year Award is a solid indicator of quality. Want to find out who and how we are as a nation and enjoy yourself in the process? Read the complete long list.

Currently a new team of judges - John Gwilym Jones, Aled Lewis Evans and Branwen Gwyn in Welsh and Ian Gregson, James Hawes and Sara Edwards in English – are reading their way through hundreds of potential contenders. We are three quarters of the way through and even allowing for the fact that Christmas output has not yet hit the stands it’s looking as if it could be a bumper year.

Might our National Poet Gillian Clarke get there with her new collection, A Recipe for Water? Could John Barnie’s well-received Tales of the Shopocracy make the ten? Or Byron Rogers’ Me, Horatio Clare’s A Single Swallow, or even Sarah Waters near Booker, The Little Stranger?
In Welsh the choice is even tighter. Dafydd Islwyn, Robat Gruffudd, Alan Llwyd, Bobi Jones, and Fflur Dafydd all have books in the field. So too do two who normally battle it out on the English side – Jon Gower and Lloyd Jones. Jones won the Award for his novel in English in 2007.

The judges will by now be facing anew (for this team have never done it before) the same problems their predecessors did. How to compare a slim vol of poems with a 300 page slab of fiction? How can a serious literary study be compared with a racy street-wise novel? Watch this space.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 5 December, 2009