The ghostly invisibility of Welsh writing in English

Jonathan Brooks-Jones finds it is London publishers’ ignorance that holds Welsh authors back

“Be in Wales and write in English and you become like the wind, transparent, invisible, a ghost.” This is how Welsh poet, author and critic Peter Finch summed up the situation for Welsh writers writing in English, at the latest of the IWA’s coffee shop debates held at Chapter Arts Centre.

While Wales has a long and rich literary history, Welsh writing in English (or ‘Anglo-Welsh literature’) has only been recognised as a distinct entity since the 20th Century. Its most famous exponent is probably Swansea-born Dylan Thomas. However, despite such a strong heritage, one could be forgiven for failing to notice the existence of Welsh writing in English today.

While Wales has many high-quality and deserving authors, they seem to achieve success and recognition outside Wales only if they jettison any reference to Wales in their writing. For example, Welsh author Sarah Waters has achieved UK-wide success with her works exploring passions between women in the Victorian age. They were even transformed into successful television programmes for the BBC. Of course, there is no reference to Wales in any of her works.

Conversely John Williams, another talented Welsh author, gives his novels a distinct Welsh identity by setting them in Welsh locations and using Welsh character names. His novels, which often explore the criminal underworld, fit the bill for mainstream fiction, yet bookshops continue to place them in the Welsh/Special interest section.

Peter Finch led the debate to try and find out why this is, and what can be done about it.

He informed us that since devolution, an enormous amount of funding has been given to supporting Welsh arts and culture. The combination of increased funding from the Welsh Government and cost-saving innovations in printing technology have made it much easier for an unknown Welsh author to get her or his work published. In fact, Finch told us, the publishing of prose and poetry in Wales has more than tripled since 2001. However, this support seems to evaporate when it comes to marketing the books.

One of the key questions raised is whether Welsh writing in English’s lack of profile at a UK level is due to the deficit in quality, or an unfair publishing and marketing system which doesn’t do enough to promote Welsh authors.

Finch seemed to believe it has more to do with a publishing culture that simply disregards Welsh writing in English. For example, Irish literature that features references to Irish identity is well received by publishers. In this case publishers are happy for the work to retain it’s sense of national identity when it goes to press, whereas Welsh identity is something to be neutralised before it goes to press. It could be that Irish writing is well established in the UK, and even global, market. It seems unjust that Welsh writing in English is under-supported, despite having an equally rich and long-standing heritage as that of the Irish.

Certainly a few participants in the debate entertained the argument that the invisibility of Welsh writing in English is due to a lack of quality. On the other hand, it was suggested that Welsh writers writing in English lack the confidence required to push their work and get it published. The lack of confidence is perhaps brought on by a publishing culture that exists in Wales, which only gives full support to those who write in Welsh:

“Writing in English in Wales can be impossibly hard.  The Welsh-speaking Welsh, the ‘cymrackers’ I’ve heard them unkindly described by frustrated authors, make accommodating noises but almost always end up regarding their own and much older literature to be superior by definition.   Venerable.  What other qualities do you need?  Inside that culture – and let’s be clear here that I am in no way offering any kind of denigration – inside that culture the support mechanisms will hold almost anything up.   If you speak the language then you support the culture.  By comparison to what goes on through the medium of English audiences flock, bloggers blog, viewers tune in, and books sell.”

Some hope for the near future was expressed, as industrial action and financial hardship have long been drivers of creativity and cultural determination in Wales. Cardiff’s Tiger Bay was once a hub of industrial life that spawned cultural productivity. With the regeneration of that area into the glossy new Cardiff Bay, it seems that this particular fountain of inspiration has been lost. However, as Finch pointed out, this could well return along with cuts to the public sector budget.

Another positive point came from a woman who has been published by Honno – literally ‘that female one’ – a press that publishes work by female writers in both the Welsh and English language. She said the most effective way to support Wales’s literary culture Wales was simply for to buy books by Welsh authors. Sales matter more than anything else to businesses, and if books which are full of references to Wales sell, publishers will have little choice but to give the public what they want. As Finch put it:

“Margaret Thatcher said we should have choice.  Not just strawberry and vanilla but tutti frutti, death by chocolate, rum bumba, peach streak, Swirley Bassey, Why Why Why Vanilla, Bryn Truffle, Manic Street Peaches, and thirty other flavours from which to choose.  My money is on letting Wales – the Welsh-speaking heart as well as the English-speaking majority – flourish.  Give it financial oxygen and let it breath.  Over time familiarity will win the anglo-anglo over.”

Finch was clear that the Welsh identity must be asserted at both a national and global level. It is an important part of our self-determination, and self-understanding. It is a useful tool in understanding what the Welsh identity is, and to give it a public voice and character.  It also helps others from outside the UK understand that the Welsh are a distinct people, and Wales a distinct place. For far too long, too many people are either completely unaware of Wales’ existence, or believe it to be ‘part of England’, something we can all agree must be rectified.

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for ClickonWales

One thought on “The ghostly invisibility of Welsh writing in English

  1. This is an interesting rejoinder to Michael Houlihan’s comments reported recently on the IWA site, especially his somewhat exclusionary assertion that the “hidden and passionate history of Wales and the transmission of cultural memory […] is more likely to be found in the Welsh language, with its shared stories of memories, events and people contributing to preserving a sharp sense of identity, but one which is not effectively articulated in the English language”.

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