Monday, June 25, 2012


The Most Successful Welsh Writers

Ten years or so ago, when the 21st Century was still as young as a kitten, I was fairly confident of being three things, namely (a) one of the most successful, (b) one of the fittest, and (c) one of the handsomest writers in Wales. The truth is that competition wasn’t very stiff, so this isn’t as arrogant as it sounds. Welsh writers tend to be low in achievement, unhealthy in body and grotesque of visage. They also tend to be crap. Official Welsh ‘literature’ is probably the worst in Europe. But that’s a different gong to be bashed with a different mallet at a different time.

The simple fact of the matter is that back then, in the heady days of the early noughties, I was doing much better for myself than most of my fellow countrymen. This is because my fellow countrymen weren’t doing very well. I was being published in beautifully bound hardbacks, was starting to get my work translated into many languages, was being championed by the likes of Moorcock, Ballard and Aldiss. There was a buzz around my work and the buzz was growing louder. I was blowing other Welsh writers off the stage, even if they didn’t realise it at the time.

I’m still mostly doing that, of course, but this blog post isn’t supposed to be about me, because in terms of the three qualities listed above, others have since overtaken me. Well, maybe I’m still the handsomest (Dylan Thomas looked like something the Caitlin dragged in) but by no stretch of the imagination am I the fittest or most successful. Not now. Let’s talk about success first and let’s have a good laugh at my expense in this particular area. Hubris. Ah yes, hubris.

The high point of my hubris came in the year 2000 when I got into an email exchange with Tim Lebbon. “One day, if we keep working hard, I think we stand a good chance of making it,” he wrote to me, ambitious but without a trace of smugness. How did I respond? “Personally I think I’ve already made it.” You can almost hear the backs of my knuckles shining the lapels of my jacket, can’t you? In the years that followed, Tim rapidly overtook me; he sprinted away around the bend of success, lapped me, lapped me again, and again, and ran out of the crumbling Welsh stadium and into the International big time. And I was left with my baton between my legs.

This extended metaphor of a footrace is appropriate, so please bear with me. Not only has Tim left me standing in a cloud of his dust in terms of writing success (he’s a bestseller; I’m a salt cellar) but also in terms of physical fitness he’s way ahead of me. I’ve always fancied myself as something of an outdoors type. I climb mountains. I can hike fifty kilometres in a day. As a rugged individual I’m not bad. But Tim has turned into a genuine hero. He’s a triathlete, a marathon runner, a scaler of the three highest peaks in Britain in one 24 hour period! I can’t do any of that. And he has transformed himself into a prime physical specimen in a period of little more than one year.

That is remarkable and requires the sort of self-discipline and ambition that most Welsh writers will never have. It’s the same self-discipline that enables Tim to be immensely prolific but not formulaic. He is always striving to be a better writer, to improve his technique. He’s a shining example of what ought to be possible for a Welsh writer but isn’t, either because we don’t really believe in ourselves or because we are being deliberately held back by the narrow aspirations of the Welsh literary ‘establishment’.

And this is something I simply don’t understand. Writers like Tim Lebbon and David Langford and the utterly brilliant Alastair Reynolds are bona fide Welsh success stories. But they are still ignored by the Welsh establishment. I can understand why the establishment ignores me: it’s probably because I’m a troublemaker (I’m not really; I’m just interested in unpalatable truths). But a writer like Tim should be a boon to them, a touchstone, someone to be proud of. And yet he isn’t. And the same is even truer for Alastair Reynolds.

I doubt that Tim cares much about this. His eyes are on bigger things than acknowledgement by the Welsh 'literati'. And yet, it seems a shame to me that the Welsh still seem to neglect or despise success. It’s a good way of keeping our country small and insignificant. Whether the prime movers of the Welsh literary establishment like Tim's work is irrelevant: they should still be interested in his success. They should be interested in mine too, frankly. And why the hell hasn’t Alsadair Reynolds been awarded a golden leek mounted on a platinum plinth or something for his services to Wales?

No, for some reason the Welsh establishment wants to ignore the real ambassadors of Welsh literary culture. The truly successful Welsh writers are unknown to them. In the same ungrateful and short-sighted way they have always deliberately downplayed Arthur Machen, a figure of international standing, in favour of social realist idiots like Lewis Jones (who?). And yes, I know that Parthian Books have recently started republishing Machen's books, but it’s too little, too late. Machen shouldn’t have been an afterthought; he should have been in the very top rank of authors to head Parthian’s ‘Library of Wales’ series.

Wales likes its writers to be small, provincial, thick. If Nigel Jenkins (who?) farts in the bath until the water turns the colour of Brains SA, that’s a worthwhile endeavour in the eyes of the Welsh literary establishment! If Robert Minhinnick (who?) stutters his way through a bland poem in a bland tent in a bland festival to a bland audience of four bland people, that’s literary news! If Rachel Trezise (who?) slips on valley vomit and drops her bottle of cheap cider, that’s a cultural event! No, it’s not.

I'm not praising Tim Lebbon because I like him. On the contrary, I am jealous of his success and would like to pitchfork him to death in a sack. But that's not the point. The point is that he is successful and contriving to overlook him won't change that. He is very successful and now he's very fit too, fitter than Hemingway ever was, and if a mean bastard like myself can acknowledge this, then so should the Welsh literary establishment, bless their little cholesterol socks. Praise where praise is due -- and only there, please!

as i read this, the first thing that came to mind is the amount of support that texas writers and readers tend to throw at one another. despite that we are the size of france, there is a great deal of mutual respect shared by texicans. even now, after more than a decade that one particular writer has written a significant novel, you will find him recommended and supported by other texas writers and readers. we don't give up on each other.

this being said, i don't understand why the Welsh aren't more supportive of their own. in all honesty, i didn't know this was the case. but indeed Langford, Reynolds, Lebbon, and even our man Hughes deserve that kind of support from the locals.

i find Lebbon's best work to be in the short and mid-forms, with the novella being the model structure for his work. here he excels. i don't know what it would take to get the Welshicans to stand up for their own, but i'm sure it starts with the writers themselves.
George: the problem here is that we are wedded to 'social realism'. That is the only acceptable literary form in Wales. Anything that's even slightly different from the 'social realist' ideal is ignored.

The Irish got it right. So did the Scottish... James Joyce, Beckett, Flan O'Brien, Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks... They have an understanding of their place in the wider world. We in Wales don't, alas.

It's heartening to hear, however, of the situation in Texas. If only we could learn something from you along those lines, but our 'mutual support' is entirely social realist cliques bigging each other up.
so out of curiosity, are these writers of "social realism' in a position that they can write about their subjects realistically?

i ask this because i once read a novel about the struggles of common workers trying to unionize, and afterwards discovered the writer was in middle management with a fortune 500 company.
I get the worst of both worlds being half Welsh and Half English! Not that I deserve fame -

A worthy article, Rhys. I thnk you and Tim are both heroes, Welsh or not.
That's it exactly! There's no real 'working class' here anymore. The real working class in Britain now are the Polish migrant workers who work bloody hard for minimal pay. The British 'working class' are either middle class fakes or uneducated chavs who spend their time driving stolen quad bikes to council estate pubs so they can spend their welfare payments on drugs.
Ah crossed posts! I was answering George, not you, Des! But thanks!
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