Thursday, 5 March 2015

Listicles and Welsh writers: a celebration

St. David's Day has just passed, and lots of newspapers with space to fill used it as an opportunity to create a canon of Welsh writers. Comparing the lists struck me as an interesting way into the papers' cultural perspectives and positions. Who knows, maybe there's a journal article in there?

Let's start with the Daily Telegraph, recently exposed as an arm of HSBC's PR department and generally understood to be a forthright but anti-intellectual conservative and Conservative publication. It picked 11 'great Welsh writers', presumably because they think Buzzfeed has somehow outlawed even numbers and made listicles compulsory.

1. Bertrand Russell
2. Kate Roberts
3. RS Thomas
4. Dylan Thomas
5. Roald Dahl
6. Dick Francis
7. Bernice Rubens
8. Gillian Clarke
9. Ken Follett
10. Sarah Waters
11. Owen Sheers.

Now I thought this an interesting set of choices. Bertrand Russell was an astounding philosopher, moralist, activist and very prolific author (I'm especially drawn to In Praise of Idleness), though not of fiction. Though deeply attached to Wales, better minds than me will be able to say whether there's a specifically Welsh dimension to his thinking. Is he a great writer rather than a great intellectual? I'm not sure.

I was thrilled to see Kate Roberts on the list: even in English translation her work is superb. She reminds me of Chekhov or even Marilynne Robinson: concise explorations of tightly-circumscribed lives (often of domestic labour or rural existence) which somehow encompass big philosophical questions. I'm certain that if she'd written in English she'd be world-famous. However, the Telegraph's account is oddly lacking:
KATE ROBERTS was one of the most significant Welsh-language authors of the 20th century. She was born in the village of Rhosgadfan, Caernarfonshire, and became known as Brenhines ein llên ("The queen of our literature"). Her childhood home Cae'r Gors – a Grade II listed quarryman's cottage – was taken over by Wales' heritage body Cadw in 2007, restored and turned into a heritage centre. She once wrote about her favourite Welsh childhood game "being five-stones", where you had to catch five stones in a shawl. The trick was finding a shiny pebble, she said.
It avoids almost any discussion of her work, making me wonder whether the author has actually read any.

Good to see RS Thomas on the list even though they concentrate on his grumpier side - a good excuse to publish yet again this wonderful photo of him. I recently reviewed his love poetry for Poetry Wales so promise you that there's more to him than troglodytic grump, but that was certainly his reputation amongst the English.

Dylan Thomas has to be on the list, though the Telegraph's account is restricted – somewhat predictably – to 'do not go gentle into that good night' and a couple of lines about his alcoholism. The next couple are surprising in a sense. Having worked on Welsh literature for more than fifteen years, I was surprised to see Dahl and Francis here. I knew the wonderful Roald Dahl was Norwegian-Welsh, but I've never seen him discussed as a Welsh writer, raising interesting questions about what qualifies one as a Welsh writer: residence, birth, language, subject matter, sensibility, self-identification? You'll get a different answer from everyone you ask, but the question never goes away: Richard Llewellyn wrote the most famous (and worst) Welsh mining novel in history (How Green Was My Valley) but continually fiddled with his CV to claim stronger Welsh roots than he actually possessed. Actually, I'm surprised he's not on the Telegraph's list. His politics would fit in with them very nicely: he advocated nuking Vietnam. Anyway, back to Dahl and Francis. I like Dahl's work but can't remember anything particularly Welsh about them, though I'm sure experts can correct me on that. It's tempting to claim, however, that the Gothic grotesquerie so prevalent in his novels echoes Arthur Machen, Dylan Thomas, Caradoc Evans, Gwyn Thomas, Rhys Davies and several other Welsh authors' works (see the brilliant Jane Aaron's book Welsh Gothic for more on this).

As to Dick Francis: he wrote rather repetitive crime thrillers set in the world of horse-racing. My Arthurian literature professor loved them in a shame-faced way: I met him in WH Smith once and he tried to conceal his purchases, before grandly announcing 'one cannot live on Arthurian literature alone, you know'. I was scared of him before that but rapidly grew to like him very much. Was Dick Francis a 'great', 'Welsh', 'writer'? Although his name featured on the covers, they were very much collaborative efforts, mostly with his wife and then with his son, though this was not really known until he died. I can't really say he was a 'great' writer: I love genre fiction and don't hold with snobbiness, but his stuff just isn't much cop. I'm guessing he's in this list because Telegraph readers like books about horses and posh people (or because the compiler was struggling to reach 11). They give the game away rather by not discussing any of his books, and finishing with this observation:
He would personally take the first copy of each of his books round to Clarence House to give to the Queen Mother. It was, he confessed, partly to spare her blushes that he never included scenes of explicit sex, though he once observed: "I'd be no good at that kind of thing anyway."
I feel the same way about Ken Follett's inclusion too. Yes, he wrote Fall of Giants which takes in a Welsh miner's family, and yes, his massive tomes are astonishingly well-researched and satisfying reads, but I can't help feeling he's in the list because he's sold a lot of books. I'm sorry to say that I think of him as a left(ish) version of Jeffrey Archer, mass-producing novels which reflect an unvarying world-view in a formulaic fashion, with terrible characterisation. Unlike Archer though, I think Follett's world-view is humane and intelligent.

Choices 7 and 8 are really rather wonderful to see. Gillian Clarke's a well-known poet, often found on school syllabi these days and little more needs to be said. But I totally agree with the Telegraph that Rubens 'deserves to be better known': despite winning the Booker in 1970 (so I know my friend Ben has read it anyway, because he's read every single Booker winner) and regularly publishing with reputable presses she's fallen down the memory hole through a combination (I suspect) of being Welsh, female and unsensationalist. The Library of Wales republished I Sent A Letter To My Love recently and I recommend it to you all: a tragic-comedy that starts out looking like it will be all tragedy and ends up pulling you between rueful tears and sadness without ever falling into sentiment.

Finally, we come to Sarah Waters and Owen Sheers. I've read all of Sarah Waters' novels. They're all thoughtful, often rip-roaring and mildly transgressive if you think lesbians are automatically thrilling, or fascinating assertions of lesbian presence in British history and culture if you're a bit more sophisticated. Welsh though? Waters is Welsh, but I can't think of anything else that makes her a 'Welsh writer'. Labels are difficult and suspect, but her output implies a primary identification as 'writer' and then 'lesbian writer' rather than 'Welsh writer'. If you're looking for a Welsh lesbian writer, you might profitably go back to Kate Roberts: though married to an alcoholic and closeted gay man, the recent biography Kate: Cofiant Kate Roberts ('Remembering Kate Roberts) and the associated documentary claimed that she may have been lesbian, though the jury is very much out (not that I'm particularly interested in psychoanalysing dead people: how people identified themselves, however complex, is far more progressive than deciding posthumously which team people played for).

Owen Sheers: OK, decent poet, wrote the interesting Resistance, but that novel annoyed me because Jan Morris's Our First Leader covered similar ground much more wittily and perhaps profoundly, and nobody ever mentions it.

So overall, a mixed bag for the Telegraph's choices. Some obvious ones, some left field ones considering their readers. Not a lot of analysis, but well done them for not doing the expected thing from a unionist, rightwing paper of ignoring the Welsh language, and for avoiding the usual nonsense about bards. The obvious absence is anything on industrial Wales. It's not keen on miners, apparently, nor apparently anything related to social class. Credit to it for positioning Dahl, Follett and Russell as Welsh, though it's a shame their accounts are too short and biographical to explain much about the authors' cultural positions.

So much for the Telegraph.  Let's have a look at the Irish Times's list. That it ran this feature isn't entirely unsurprising: the IT is the newspaper of record with all that entails. It can be very establishment, but it is also very self-consciously aware of its cultural responsibilities, which means that while it's obvious there's no money for global reporting, it's always had excellent coverage of literary and cultural matters. It also has the best letters page of any English-language newspaper in the world, for my money. So which authors are in the Irish Times Welsh canon, and how are they chosen?

There's much more context given in this list. As the primary newspaper of a (just about) bilingual Celtic nation, the Times is keen to stress the similarities in national self-definitions: 
Today is Saint David’s Day and in honour of our close neighbours, fellow Celts and rugby rivals, and to (hopefully) compensate for the coming despair which may be inflicted when the Irish take on Wales in Cardiff in two weeks’ time in this season’s Six Nations, we salute the writers of Wales, a beautiful country with a dramatic coastline and mysterious valleys, which has nurtured great poets, singers, storytellers, life celebrants from Gwyn Thomas to Max Boyce, and some pretty good rugby players.
I have to say that this bothers me slightly – Celticism is a much more complex and elastic term these days than this implies, and the rugby reference suggests a certain blokiness. As to Max Boyce… 'dated' doesn't cover it, though it's important to keep in mind that while the British expect everyone to know the fine details of their cultures (like Americans), Irish readers have plenty of other things going on and don't obsess over what the Brits are doing. Anyway, onwards.

This bit makes me a little bit sick:
The Welsh accent, lilting and melodic, possesses a rhythmic ease which makes it easy to see why singing and poetry is so much a part of the culture of Wales. Music and words; myth and story are second nature to the Welsh.
Honestly. It's the kind of thing imaginary stereotypical American tourists say about the Irish on St Stephen's Green before tripping off to Temple Bar for a half-pint of Guinness, some microwaved Authentic Irish Stew and a session by the Paddy's Ould Sod Trad Band then experiencing a Real Irish Shillelagh Mugging. Blarney of the worst sort, the kind of stuff that makes you want to maroon the author in Ponty on a Friday night. Just as in Ireland, there are multiple Welsh accents, and if you think they're all 'lilting', 'melodic' and poetic, you've obviously never been saluted with 'iawn gont' in Caernarfon of a Saturday night.

The piece is given this headline:
Dylan Thomas and so much more – a St David’s Day salute to Welsh writers
Eileen Battersby looks at and beyond the three great Thomases – Dylan, RS and Gwyn – to celebrate the rich literary tradition of our Celtic cousins.
OK, it plays on the 'limited surnames' stereotype, but the choices are interesting. Dylan is compulsory: he's basically got the Welsh Literature Figurehead job sewn up, despite having died in 1953 and being sui generis: his literary forebears and heirs are few and far between but that's OK because he's (mostly) so good. The emergence of RS as a persistent presence in these lists is interesting though. RS was a professional square peg – the Welsh language activist who wrote English poetry, the deist vicar, the serial stormer-out and the professional contradictor who could never see a consensus without wanting to upset it (he was also the unwitting star of a crisp packet PR campaign which shows you just how much respect England really has for its neighbours). There seems to be an unspoken agreement amongst metropolitan commentators that when it comes to the Welsh, their Literary Ambassadors should be poets, an echo perhaps of the Bardic history. Both RS and Dylan are interesting in these contexts too because while they seem classically Welsh, their literary and political meanings are fiercely contested at home, as the stand-up row during last year's Association for Welsh Writing conference about whether there should be a Dylan Thomas Day like Bloom's Day proved.

Certainly Eileen Battersby's account of DT is inflected by Bardism: the shooting star of a life packed into a short span, the difficult 'genius' and so on.
a wayward genius whose eloquent fury continues to beguile, excite and inspire… His voice and vision live on in those rare artists who appear to have been touched by an elusive element that could perhaps best be described as magic.
All true up to a point, but rather overselling the drama and soft-pedalling the hard graft of writing. Interestingly, Battersby's take on RS Thomas is more nuanced.
His poetry is cerebral and he has a metaphysical and political response to change and the destruction of the natural. Seamus Heaney had a huge regard for Thomas, the poet of clarity, who is one of the most rewarding of poets once a reader engages with the moral worth and linguistic precision.
Invoking Seamus is a good marketing technique: not only was he the foremost Irish poet of the last half-century or so, Heaney's work too found enormous scope in the narrowness of the small-holder's existence. I'm not sure what 'clarity' means here, though it could refer to Thomas's unflinching exposition of his own religious doubts and his contempt for his fellows' failures and weaknesses.

Top marks to the Irish Times for adding Gwyn Thomas to the list though, and not just because I wrote my PhD about him, amongst others. There are two Gwyn Thomas's, one of whom was an academic and poet who wrote in Welsh, and this one, who wrote scabrous and (initially at least) politically-engaged black comedies in English (his parents and the older of his 11 siblings spoke Welsh, and he enjoyed baiting the Welsh-language activists). GT described his work as 'Chekov with chips': his protagonists were trapped in dead-end valleys and dead-end professions, abandoned by a distant and hostile government. What makes his early work so stunning is that they know it and talk about it. They're all articulate, witty and analytical about their fates: read The Dark Philosophers or Sorrow for thy Sons. The later stuff is less interesting, I feel: too much light comedy. But when he's on form, he's really on form.

After that very male, very dead start, the Times list heads off in some very interesting directions: cultural theorist and occasional novelist Raymond Williams is recommended, alongside the excellent primarily-Welsh language Angharad Price, Trezza Azzopardi whose work injects a much needed dose of multiculturalism (and comedy) into the field, and Owen Martell, who is just a stone-cold genius in two languages (the over-talented git).

Having done so well, it's very disappointing that the Irish Times piece ends with a lazy bit of Celtic mythologising:
Simple question: why are Welsh writers so good? In common with all writers, they love language yet there is an additional quality, a playful feel for words. It is even in their spoken speech. Must be a Celtic thing.
Yes, there's a postcolonial school of thought that locates Irish and other colonised nations'  linguistic vivacity in the context of communities with at least a shadow of the native language informing speech, but this is terrible Celtic Twilight rubbish. Ugh ugh ugh.

Between the two of them, you get a fair sense of how Welsh literature is viewed outside its borders. Mostly white men, but with a tendency to overlook the majority Welsh lived experience (post-industrial, anglophone, urban) in favour of the rural. There's an undercurrent of bardic stereotype and a shadow of the Romantic vision of Wales as an alternative or other to industrial modern England which is a bit lazy but not unexpected.

The remaining question is: who else should be on the list? Actually: which ones would you exclude too? I'd add Lewis Jones (another victim of my PhD), Gwyneth Lewis, my friend Niall Griffiths, Wiliam Owen Roberts (his work is just superb and every website adds an extra 'l' to his name), Rachel Trezise's short stories, anything by Jon Gower (he interviewed me for a documentary on Caradoc Evans, then I read his short story collection and immediately made one of them the opening salvo in a chapter I've written for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Working-Class Fiction), Cynan Jones, Caradoc Evans (who really pissed people off), Iain Sinclair (yes he is Welsh) and Charlotte Williams's Sugar and Slate plus…well, I'd better stop. Canon-making is a terrible addiction and only leads to arguments. Thankfully, I'm off to the 2015 Welsh Writing conference in a couple of weeks and can have these arguments in person. You can too if you like…

PS. Maybe I've gone slightly overboard examining these lists, but I do find media coverage of literary matters interesting, especially when they're from outside the field. Do lists like this matter? Who now remembers the authors who outsold Dickens and Trollope? George du Maurier, Frances Trollope, Arthur Morrison, Fergus Hume, William Clark Russell, Coventry Patmore, Marie Corelli or Dinah Craik other than nerds like me? 

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