Saturday, 21 August 2010

Professional Eventually

Ah money. It makes the world go round. But maybe not if you are writer. Truman Capote, I think it was him, was asked by a stranger what he did. I write, replied the great man. Good, that can be a lot of fun. But what’s your real job? “The profession of letters is the only one in which once can make no money without being ridiculous,” declared Jules Renard back in 1906. And out there among the wannabees, the beginners, the slowly rising and the retired late starters are a hundred Welsh literary creatives who do it mainly for the love and the fame. Pay money to poets? Why would anyone need to do that.

The problem, of course, is that Wales has come late to acquiring its professional literary class. Hard to grasp is the idea that writers and their products add considerably to society, help us understand ourselves, help us see where the past has been and where the future is going. That they allow us to discover how the spirit can soar and face us with the truths of life that dance music and beer often fail to deliver.

To do this, and to do it consistently and to do it well, requires a bit more from the author than simply love of literary fame. It’s not enough to want to be a writer. You need to have the talent and to have put in a bit of practice. You also need the space and support in which to work and a financial underpinning which will allow this to happen. Authors need to be professional. Good ones do.

And in Wales a number are. But we are a small nation with limited markets and finding the resource to keep all we need on the road is hard. Writers being paid for what they do is still misunderstood. What did D H Lawrence’s father say when his son reported on how much cash he’d received from writing The White Peacock – “Fifty pounds! An tha’s niver done a day’s hard work in they life.”

But then again the maker of the paper on which the book was printed got paid. So too did the printer and the binder and the delivery man who carried the stock to the bookshop. The bookseller took a cut, and so did the electricity worker powering the fire beside which the book was eventually read. Why should the creator of the work itself not also be recompensed?

There are still those out there who imagine that literature is entirely something authors can churn out in spare moments. They should get proper jobs – in factories, in hospitals, in schools. Who needs books, we’ve got TV, where paying scriptwriters is regarded, somehow, as being different. There’s a lesson here.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 21st August, 2010. #161

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Garrulous Forever

Do you read these things? The ubiquitous blogger with their garrulous outpourings. Words to fill the silence, sentences to rattle in the air, verbiage to occupy every last empty corner of cyberspace. No good event goes by in 2010 without a resident blogger getting themselves attached to tell the connected world just how the thing is. During this year’s Guardian Hay Literature Festival Simon Mundy, a self-confessed total newbie, was installed as resident blog man. He was given the task of reporting daily (or more frequently if he chose and he sometimes did) on the doings of the world’s greatest literary festival. Simon Mundy’s Festival Frolics gave the inside story and did so in style.

With a certain prescience Mundy observed that blogs get consumed backwards. The reader alights on the latest instalment and then, if sufficiently roused, scrolls backwards through ever earlier entries until they reach the first. And it’s usually in this one that bloggers set out their stalls and explain what they are doing and why. Mundy’s blog was thoroughly entertaining, as one might expect. And it’s still there, out in cyber wonderland, where nothing ever gets finally erased. Bloggers take care, what you say won’t go away.

Wales has a growing stream of literary blogpersons. At Hay travel writer Tom Anderson, wrote the daily Writing Squads Blog for Academi. You’d see him in the cafĂ©’s, dongled laptop before him, facing off Susie Wild who was engaged in a similar activity for Mslexia, both typing furiously.

Poet Mike Jenkins with space before him now that his teaching has finished, regularly expands his observations on the world with a pretty readable blog. The state of life in Merthyr with special reference to writing. The town has changed its name, he blogged recently, this place used to be Washingtub City of even Hooverville. Now “the town where the red flag was first flown at the Waun Fair, could easily be dubbed Tescopolis”. Too many branches of the red badged giant, complains Mike, and then follows this with a Merthyr dialect poem of his own hilarious making.

In the new 2011 edition of A&C Black’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, one of the two essential author’s handbooks, there’s a pretty informative section on writing and the online world. This includes an analysis of the ebook market (67% American with 65% of world product devoted to fiction and only 8.2% to business - which differs considerably from the predictions of futurologists), descriptions of how to launch a website, and an essay on writing a blog.

Blogs, of course, don’t cost anything to set up or to visit. Out there are loads covering just about every interest area there is. How much time do you want to waste following them? Select with care.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 14th August, 2010. #160

Monday, 9 August 2010

No Longer Quite So Anglo - Can This Be True?

One of the great things about the Anglo-Welsh in the new millennium is that they are no longer all that Anglo although it has to be said quite a number are not that Welsh either. Emyr Humphreys, eminence grise among our English-language novelists and the man who did for the slate quarries what Jack Jones did for the industrial south, was one of the earliest to take objection to the term. He was a Welshman, he declared, not an Anglo anything. RS Thomas agreed. The fact that this fluent Welsh-speaking pair chose to write in English was a matter for them. Nothing to do with racial origin.

There, I’ve used it, that difficult word, race. Does this actually mean anything these days in Wales? The flood of new books written in English flows unabated. They are Welsh books, written about Welsh things with Welsh backgrounds, set in Wales and often displaying an entirely Welsh sensibility. But their authors were not born here. Nor were their parents. They’ve arrived ten years back, forty years back, whenever. And now they belong. The world shifts. Wales changes shape. It is how nations mature.

Edward Storey, poet of the Cambridge Fens, founder member of the John Clare Society, erudite flatlander, moved to Wales more than a decade ago and has allowed our mountainous landscape to infect his verse. His Almost A Chime-Child, from the publishers Raven Books, celebrates the Welsh landscape – hill farming, sheep, the island of Ramsey, low tide at Laugharne and gardens at Presteigne fill his clear, measured poetry. Is he one of us? He is.

John Goodby, Dylan Thomas expert and re-treader of many things from the culture of Wales was born in Birmingham and has done time at English universities before settling as Professor at Swansea. His Wine Night White from Tom Cheesman’s Swansea-based Hafan Books is not for the faint hearted. Naturally not. Goodby never is. This latest fluctuating spray of verse denial takes the reader on board with care. His opening lines are almost conventional. But wine-driven winds of change soon knock all that over. Intelligence and chance. Goodby is one of the few writers in Wales who can combine both with ease.

Nigel Humphreys, is author of The Flavour of Parallel from Arbor Vitae Press (and still they keep appearing, these new small publishers, if it wasn’t for the internet this would be a golden age). He comes from Shropshire but has spent most of his life in the coastal west. He’s learned a fair bit from the twentieth century modernists but keeps his poetry accessible. Does he belong? He does.

Checking the stacks of the newly published it’s getting harder and harder to find anything that fits the old criteria. Unless, of course, we switch languages. Which takes us neatly back to Emyr and RS. So where next?

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail, Saturday 7th August, 2010 #159