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 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.
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’.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
A worthy article, Rhys. I thnk you and Tim are both heroes, Welsh or not.
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