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