Being a Writer in Wales
The Modern Scene
There has never been a more exciting - or challenging - time for the writer in Wales than now. All the signs are there in a wide-ranging literature, in the sheer diversity of who is producing it, in the strengthening and growth of Wales’s publishing houses both old and new, and in the validation of increasing critical acclaim that writing from Wales is earning both home and away. Our leading practitioners such as Gillian Clarke, Gwyneth Lewis and Robert Minhinnick have forged formidable and, crucially, international reputations. A new crop of writers have come along, particularly those from the younger generation, contributing to what is a vital and alert literary culture, and characterised by lyricism and attitude in equal measure. And while for many Wales has perhaps been most closely associated with poetry, the Welsh novel and short story has truly undergone something of a renaissance over the last decade and provokes increasing interest, with names such as Lloyd Jones, Malcolm Pryce, Tristan Hughes and Rachel Trezise making waves across the UK. We cannot ignore, either, the striking upsurge in writing from women in particular - and across the genres. Trezza Azzopardi, Stevie Davies, Tessa Hadley, Rebecca Ray, Sarah Corbett, Fiona Sampson, Samantha Wynne Rhydderch and Tiffany Atkinson provide only a snapshot of this success. It is a time of advancement and opportunity for writers in Wales.
If it is a time of advancement and opportunity, then it should perhaps come as no surprise that it is also a time of flux and uncertainty, too - as well as the subject of much ongoing debate. There will, of course, always be some disagreements among academics and practitioners as to what a national literature is and, even more controversially, what it ought to be. What really makes Welsh Writing in English, well, Welsh, exactly, has always been notoriously tricky to define, as any discussion of Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen or even Robert Graves will quickly prove (English or Welsh?). And what are we to make of the Anglo-Welsh writer Richard Llewellyn, famed author of How Green Was My Valley, a Londoner who spent little time in Wales? When we think about a literature what matters most? Provenance of the author? Subject matter? Tradition? Who is publishing it, and where? There is no getting away from the fact that our ideas about a national literature are becoming, if anything, ever more complex.
Many developments, themselves mirrored in the devolved nations of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and, indeed, in England, have led to an increasingly elusive - if attractively broad and rich - culture which frequently defies any easy classification. Globalisation – the buzzword of the day – has played a key part. The world is getting smaller. These days, we are more well travelled through choice or economic necessity than ever before. And of course, migration - both movement in and movement out - is nothing new to Wales and certainly nothing new to Welsh writers. It’s a vital part of not simply our social and historical experience, but necessarily of our literary culture, too. Some writers may find that they are many miles from home before they can actually begin to write at all. And, increasingly, distinguished writers from elsewhere have come to make their home in Wales, such as novelist Tessa Hadley or, more recently, English poets Matthew Francis and Carol Rumens, and often find that they gain an entirely fresh perspective on their subject matter or that Wales itself may temper or filter through their work. Those writers who remain in Wales are also of course subject to the push and pull of these shifts, the cultural traffic to and from the country. There is uncertainty as much as possibility.
Does increasing uncertainty lead inevitably to something of an identity crisis? Perhaps. But Wales is certainly not alone.
The search for a modern yet authentic identity is without doubt one of the central impulses and imperatives of all good writers in the twenty-first century - regardless of provenance, geographical location, first language or ideology. And Wales’ additional pressures and tensions have contributed to a particularly fascinating and highly charged configuration of new voices. The problems of (un)belonging, of negotiating one’s place within and without a country both ‘divided’ and enriched by its two languages, by the often stark contrasts between the cultural and socio-economic history and developments of North and South, the rural and the urban, alongside the political changes of the past 30 years and Devolution – all of these predominate either directly or indirectly in new writing from Wales. In Cardiff-born Trezza Azzopardi’s Norwich-based novel Remember Me, identity proves an unreliable compass, the idea of home ambiguous and, ultimately, as fugitive as it is somehow completely inescapable. For writers such as Rachel Trezise, Stevie Davies, Tristan Hughes, Cynan Jones and Owen Sheers, place is frequently pitted against cultural displacement and loss, the competing demands of tradition and progress. This, then, is Welsh literature now - a culture fully engaged with its unique difficulties, but which in many ways mirrors the predicaments of the wider world.
As the matter of identity has become ever more complicated, and writers from Wales have continued to grow in profile and reputation, the three major English language literary journals of Wales, New Welsh Review, Planet and Poetry Wales have all risen to the challenge, adopting what can perhaps best be described as a ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ in response. Each has sought to promote both native and Welsh-based talent, but to also place it in a more inclusive and international context, alongside writing from elsewhere. While this move has not achieved universal consensus, it has undoubtedly helped to stimulate new voices - but perhaps, too, our more established names. Self praise is after all no recommendation; a vibrant, various and ambitious literature has a very real obligation to open itself up to the wider world for scrutiny, to see how it measures up and, ultimately, to gain acceptance, respect and the readership to whom it has something valuable to offer, and deserves.
Tellingly, set against this background of a progressive literature, recent key developments are illustrative of a growing, rather than declining, interest in our literary inheritance. In 2006, Parthian won the contract for the Library of Wales Series, dusting off Welsh texts of literary and cultural-historical importance in equal measure – many of which were hitherto largely and unjustly forgotten for decades outside of specialist interest or academia. Titles include Abse’s classic bildungsroman Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, Gwyn Thomas’s The Dark Philosophers and Raymond Williams’s Border Country. The recent publication of Meic Stephens’ anthology Poetry 1900-2000 from the Library of Wales Series is nothing if not indicative of a confident literature, well placed now perhaps to survey and interrogate the tradition. It’s a very timely and crucial stock take. And it shows us the way in which tradition can best negotiate its place in a modern, outward-looking literature. Together with the development of the National Library of Wales’s digitization project, which seeks to provide online access to literary journals published in Wales after 1900, the trend seems to point towards a demand for reassessments, fresh debate and a call for context. Less conservation than an active engagement with our past and present.