Louise Walsh says Welsh novelists should not be ashamed of setting their stories in Wales.
Getting a place on the Arts Council of Wales Writers at Work programme at the Hay Festival was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. 20 writers attended Hay for 10 days, boarding in local cottages and revelling in advice from a seemingly endless parade of some Welsh but mostly London editors, publishers, agents and press and PR as well as established writers.
Within days, it was apparent that, outside of Wales, Welsh writing needs serious re-branding. There is a preconception that Welsh writers are preoccupied with small themes and quiet novels on subjects that have little broad appeal.
The visiting parties were sometimes brutally honest about the challenges we face as Welsh writers. We took it in the vein of tough love. To overcome barriers, we must first be clear what they are.
By the time I had been at Hay for a week, I thought I had a handle on the issues, but there was one last surprise.
Our Friday morning session began with a talk on Press and PR. Three people had kindly agreed to come to speak to us: Caitlin McNamara, an expert in social media, Ben Wright, the BBC Washington Correspondent who had just written a book about political drinking called Order, Order! and a Welsh journalist who had made it big in the BBC, Guto Harri.
Guto Harri started sympathetically. He knew the obstacles, he told us – the Welsh so often classed as unintelligent and poorly educated. He told us about disparaging letters received by himself and Huw Edwards early on in their careers. In one correspondence, Guto had been compared with a ‘retarded amoeba’. Amoeba, Guto told us, in the letter writer’s mind, obviously didn’t go far enough.
But then Guto Harri went in an unexpected direction. He recommended that if we want to have any kind of wider success, we must play down any Welsh element to our writing and play up the universal. We Writers at Work cast questioning looks at each other. We had heard this before from some of the London agents, editors and publishers, but it was surprising to hear it from a Welshman. Ben Wright nodded his head in agreement.
I told Guto that I have a novel coming out in the autumn called Black River about the Aberfan disaster and that, in the hunt for a publisher, one London agent had given me broadly similar advice. The novel would work better if I made the village anonymous.
Surprisingly, Guto agreed it would be a more commercial story were it not so rooted in Wales. I understand what he means, but this has all sorts of implications. The most concerning for me, for example, is how would the people of Aberfan feel if they came across a book obviously about the terrible tragedy that had befallen the village in 1966, but now re-imagined as a fictional village which could conceivably be located in England?
A poet in our group, Clare Potter, asked Guto whether he believed the Irish writer Frank McCourt would have received the same advice.
Guto offered a suggestion – a compromise of sorts. He knew of an author who had anonymised a real tragedy and on the back of the book, in small print, the author had clarified with something like: ‘This novel is based on the event which occurred at…”
I must mention a related story which happened on the Bank Holiday Monday, three days in to our 10 day stay. Thomas Keneally came to talk to us in our Writers at Work tent in advance of his discussion with Phillipe Sands about Schindler’s Ark. I was desperate to ask him the first question of the session:
“Do you believe the story finds you?”
The Australian legend smiled. The answer was yes. Keneally had stumbled across the Oskar Schindler story in a leather goods shop in Los Angeles after the owner of the shop got talking to him.
The reason I had wanted to ask him that particular question was because I have always felt that the Aberfan story found me. I hadn’t had any intention of writing about Aberfan. I have no personal connection to the disaster. After coming across a reference to the Welsh Office having difficulties with the press on the day of the disaster, a seed was planted. And watching Leveson on the news also made me wonder, what sort of problem with the press? I needed to answer that question and when I did I was compelled to write Black River. But it was as if I was being nagged into it. I was nudged and prompted. If the story chooses you, you honour the story.
Black River, in providing new insights into the disaster, is therefore meaningless if the village in question is not Aberfan and, if anonymised, would I believe be a betrayal of the village and what it has come to stand for.
Welsh novelists should not be ashamed of setting their stories in Wales.
14 thoughts on “Stories of Wales, from Wales”
‘Universal appeal’ meaning pretending to be English? Is that what has led to a revival in the arts in Scotland? Can you imagine the French following this advice! As an Englishman I wonder if being English is not a universal experience! I’d rather read something authentic, not a Disneyfied bland offering with no roots.
This is an interesting take on publishing in Wales. As a Welsh publisher based in Wales I totally understand. We, and our talented authors, are constantly subject to and aware of the negative perceptions by the outside ‘publishing’ world. To avoid this we concentrate on publishing ‘quality writing’ focused on an ‘international’ audience using the most advanced techniques. We have only been able to do this because we are not dependent on grant funding support from the Welsh Books Council, as are most ‘Welsh’ publishers. These other, good as they are, publishers cannot publish a book unless it has a ‘Welsh’ angle (eg.Aberfan). This severely limits what they can do.
However, as most authors are now fully aware, the publishing world has changed dramatically due to the Internet, digital tech and new business models. Taking advantage of these developments has enabled us to survive, grow and compete in spite of our Welsh origin and address. Unfortunately, many ‘traditional’ publishers find it difficult to change their ways and this is not helped by their over reliance on grant funding. The Welsh Books Council also needs radical change to how it operates.
I wish Louise Walsh the very best of luck with her book and would encourage her to keep writing and follow her muse. Listening to all that ‘advice’ at Hay Festival must have been very depressing!
“Welsh novelists should not be ashamed of setting their stories in Wales.” Was Guto Harri suggesting you should be ashamed? Or simply that the image of Wales in the world doesn’t help promote books set in Wales?
Leaving aside decidedly mixed feelings on reading of writers who happen to have pals in the Arts Council being subsidised by tax payers to enjoy working holidays in Mid Wales, this is an important subject.
There is no Anglo-Welsh equivalent of the Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Irish literary traditions. There is nothing innately wrong with Wales to explain this. On the contrary, our historical and folk traditions, combined with the landscape of Wales, offer us a rich source of raw material most nations would envy.
We have to play to these strengths. It is our own fault if we do not. There is no point complaining that the literary Establishment in London and New York is inward-looking and small c-conservative – even if it is and increasingly so. All writers have to deal with that. The same criticism can be applied to the Welsh literary Establishment, such as it is – those cottagers in Hay. The fact that we must all accept is that the world has a limited attention span and is not obliged to listen to our stories.
If we want the world to hear us, we need to give it stories the world wants to hear. This means big stories, not bitter lists of petty complaints. This means stories with strong narrative and interesting characters. This means stories that put a uniquely Welsh spin on our common humanity.
How green was my valley.
I am so shocked that I am lost for words… Ok. Let me find some… As a poet writing in Welsh ( now that would be hitting rock to some people I’m sure), I think the world needs authenticity and integrity– write from the ‘gut’ and with that you will win through. Or that’s what I believe… I am too dismayed to say anything else at this time but the piece written, and bless you for writing it and power to your pen —
Thanks so much for all your comments and thanks to Chris Jones for wishing me well!
This is exactly why I wanted to publish my article on clickonwales. It’s extremely helpful getting others’ views on these questions. The advice we received at Hay was delivered with the best of intentions and therefore has given me a great deal to think about.
I like John Winterson Richards’ suggestion of finding a strong plot and character and then giving the novel a ‘uniquely Welsh spin’. I will certainly try and rise to the challenge for my next book.
No one should be ashamed – I made that clear. And have flown the flag for Wales for decades. But decide if you are writing FICTION or NON-fiction – a story of universal appeal where the geographical and other specifics are incidental (so yes – draw on wales as Y Gwyll has done so brilliantly) or your own take on a real life event that deserves proper handling. I would hesitate to create fiction from such a momentous and horrific real life event like Aberfan. But you told me you wanted to write a novel – no? And when I mean “Universal” I don’t mean English. Anyone who does obviously is less ambitious and aspirational for Wales than I am. Think I mentioned Tolstoy, Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marques – each proud of their country and culture but told universal truths about humanity which made a welsh boy like me love them, not just readers in the country next door. Good to know well intentioned advice was used for a blog not to try to find a worthy audience for the pain and poignancy (and damn right scandal) of an event that crushed a Welsh community. It could – in the right hands – speak again, afresh to a global community of readers
@JWR and the talented famous Mr.Harri have both given sensible ‘advice’.
Writing is hard work and writing ‘literature’ even harder. Unless you are a stylist or reporter I suspect that many stories only emerge as your characters take on a life of their own and the job of the author is to write what they do and say down in the most entertaining way possible. Louise said that for her book, ‘the story found her’ and that is a very good place to start. The skills of delivering that story in literature comes with practice, research and from learning from teachers/editors/other writers. There are tricks to the trade as in any activity. Most authors make many ‘false starts’ and have many unfinished manuscripts which haven’t worked out stuck in a dusty drawer or hard drive or even a floppy disc (remember them?). Sometimes if you are lucky and determined the story and characters will carry the writer through to a finished manuscript with the words The End on the last page.
As a publisher and editor, I have to say that writing ‘The End’ is just the beginning of another sometimes long and difficult road to get a book in front of readers. For a Welsh or Wales-based author this can be unnecessarily fraught for the reasons already talked about. Nevertheless, it is by no means doom and gloom -there are new solutions and new avenues and outlets for writers provided by new technology and (cough) ‘Gordon Brown’s interwebsphere’.
If we want the world to hear us, we need to give it stories the world wants to hear. This means big stories, not bitter lists of petty complaints.
I think this statement perfectly highlights the stereotypical image of Wales and the Welsh this article is about. The Welsh must have big chips on their shoulders mustn’t they and only write about how much they dislike the English. Grow up please
Most of the world’s best novelists write about the the environment and times which they knew best. Think for example of Dostoevsky & Tolstoy, Victor Hugo & Zola, Jane Austen & Dickens, Tennesee Williams & Maya Angelou . The list is endless and varied but what they have in common is that each in some way added to the betterment of human existence.
Writing about those things which touch us closely because of our particular physical or mental proximity to events may not bring much in the way of temporal wealth but can certainly add to to the store of common riches. Too many writers today are seduced by the false gods of commerce to the detriment of of their work. and ambitions
Louise Walsh says Welsh novelists should not be ashamed of setting their stories in Wales?? Please forgive me for failing to understand the gist of this article or why I should be “ashamed.”.
I never have and it has not prevented me from publishing 51 novels, several internationally, most set very decidedly in Wales but then I’ve always aimed for a commercial market.
It is prejudice. Pure and simple. It is your themes that need to be universal not the setting. I had books with homogenised settings. I look forward to reading your book.
I think this was a valuable and interesting piece and the discussion it has sparked proves that. I write about what I know and where I live, which isn’t Wales, or even Mid Wales but Montgomeryshire which is not a place easily fitted into many of the stereotypical views some people have of Wales. I think Louise Walsh’s point is a valid one in that far too many novels, certainly those I have read, have been pre-occupied with the lives and tedious inner struggles of persons living in trendy cities or places thick with dreaming spires. Readers want what is new, strong voices telling tales which could not be told in any other place or in any other way and perhaps the comparative neglect of Wales gives us an opportunity to present our worlds anew.
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