On Being a Writer in Wales: Nigel Jarrett
What’s a Welsh writer? Too many unpredicated notions are raised by that question to say much in answer that’s not glib. Born in Wales? Living in Wales? Welsh born-and-bred but writing advertising copy as an ex-pat in Oklahoma? All of these. But often the query is loaded in expectation of a commitment to nationalism, especially post-Devolution.
Side-stepping, and to avoid being tied down, one could invoke Dylan Thomas in asserting that the only position for an artist anywhere is ‘upright’, or the proprietorial Rhys Davies of My Wales, in which there’s no allegiance to a political system suggesting an alternative to ‘his’ Wales.
Davies wished to avoid delimiting categories: the possibility of there being only Welsh subject-matter open to a truly Welsh writer. That he wrote mostly about Wales from a Fitzrovian redoubt confuses his thesis but doesn’t invalidate it.
In any case, practicalities come before politics for a ‘literary’ writer looking for a Welsh publisher. There aren’t many, A Welsh writer might be described as a writer published mostly outside Wales.
That’s how it works, because more publishing outlets exist across the border, even across the other borders of Britain, and the borders of Europe and America – the rest of the world even. So much is obvious.
This year I was published twice in a magazine based in Sydney, Australia. Three years ago from my home in Monmouthshire I emailed a short story to be published in a Wichita webzine called ‘Yellow Mama.’ (YM has a mascot called Skeeter and a section titled Factoids.)
Not so obvious is why I couldn’t place the essay and review (Australia) or the story here in Wales. I didn’t try, mainly because I’d more or less given up trying.
By a happy circuitous route, the story is to appear in my fourth collection of short fiction, Five Go to Switzerland, due to appear from Welsh independent Cockatrice Books later this year.
The story’s called Lovey-Dovey; it’s not Welsh at all, but as I was born and raised in Wales and have never lived anywhere else the characters and their characteristics may well have been picked up here.
I’m border-country monoglot. Do I qualify?
To say I’d given up trying to be published in Wales is not quite accurate.
I do try but I choose my moments, and even then it doesn’t always turn out well. Wales is a relatively small country with an inordinate number of aspiring and established writers jostling for exposure.
‘Established’ doesn’t mean you hold back on publishing or wanting to be published in Wales.
So there’s probably (I haven’t researched) an undifferentiated swell of would-be writers, or hitherto unpublished writers, looking for an opportunity here, and looking in vain through no-one’s fault in particular.
There must be a lot of elbowing and disgruntlement.
You’d be surprised how many Welsh writers have never been published in Wales, except to be interviewed by Welsh newspapers when their books have been making reviewers and readers of no significant nationality swoon with admiration.
Crime-thriller and fantasy writers, maybe living in Usk, for examples. They don’t proclaim their Welshness; they write, and for non-specific audiences in terms of geo-demographics.
But I do stick at it: Five Go to Switzerland will be my eighth book, if the Arthur Machen miscellany, The Day’s Portion, is included, and six of them were published in Wales.
Caerleon-born Machen viewed his Welsh background from a room in St John’s Wood, as Davies had peered at it from Russell Square; The Day’s Portion, a snatch of Machen’s fugitive journalism trawled and edited by me and my old school pal and Machen expert Godfrey Brangham, was brought out in 1987 by another Welsh indie, Village Publishing, gone like Gutenberg through the portals of the History of Print.
The sort of writers I’m talking about here are those who wish to see their work printed for public consumption on paper or on a VDU. They may work for a newspaper or magazine, in which case they are published daily or weekly or fortnightly, but most don’t.
Their non-vocational scribbling rarely earns them a living and if they relied on it for bread they’d go hungry. I’ve been both a newspaperman and a writer of stories, poetry and essays.
In the latter guise, I late-started in 1995, when I won the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction. Despite the several hundred pounds of prize money, it was sixteen years before I had a story collection published, or anyone in Wales was interested in publishing it.
So much for prizes and the supposed demand they create for your work. It was an achievement nonetheless: try getting a book of stories published today without doing it yourself.
But it’s worth persevering: this year I pitched a work of long fiction, Notes From the Superhorse Stable, to another small Welsh indie, Saron Publishers; it was taken up and appeared in July.
Note that I’d written all of its 450 pages before I knew if anyone would publish. I’m not a Lee Child or a Ken Follett; no-one solicits work from me – well, rarely – and I don’t ‘sell’ like Maggie O’Farrell. Royalties on my previous seven books might pay for a week’s holiday in Portmeirion.
A Welsh mug
An outsider might therefore consider that writing was a mug’s game and that I was a mug for doing it, albeit a Welsh mug; or that I was only a third-rate writer.
I doubt whether the reviewer of my second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? (Cultured Llama, 2016), dizzied by the way its stories ranged from one locale to another across the globe, was bothered by the mention in my prefatory biog that I was from Wales. It must have seemed like nothing more than a modest launch pad.
But everyone comes from somewhere; it’s always worth mentioning even if its significance is to be discussed or considered in another place, not least by the mugs themselves in conditions of political self-communing while they fling their long-incubated effusions at the rest of the world in the hope of an ‘acceptance’, the writer’s term for a missive confirming publication.
The chances of such confirmation being accompanied by a cheque for fifty quid is so remote as to be not worth considering.
This is the age of the reverse ‘freebie’, in which instead of a perk in addition to payment the writer in many cases receives no payment while the publisher accepts the work gratis.
Writers go on pushing boulders uphill like Sisyphus; but, unlike Sisyphus, they have committed no sin except the venial one of egotism, knowing that some of the greatest writers were guilty of self-conceit and that few readers think them any the worse for it.
Jazz is jumping
If I lose interest in publishing books there’s always the stuff I write as a music critic, notably these days in Jazz Journal, which I’ve been reading since I was fourteen. My regular column there, Count Me In, is a work of unparalleled literary genius. (That’s what it says here.)
Welsh jazz, or jazz in Wales, is jumping. I hasten to add that it’s played by musicians resident in Wales or those travelling across the border for the privilege of doing so.
Either way, there’s something about the place that’s worth proclaiming. And the border itself, of course, is meaningless; slithering along the bed of the River Wye in my part of Wales it’s also invisible.
Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize and the Templar Shorts Award, both for short fiction. For many years he was chief music critic of the South Wales Argus. He is a regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review, Arts Scene in Wales, Jazz Journal, Acumen poetry magazine, and others, and he is included in the Library of Wales’s two-volume anthology of 20th- and 21st-century Welsh short fiction. He lives in Monmouthshire and swims a lot.
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