Wales Book of the Year 2022: confessions of a shortlistee
Jan Morris wrote that she did not approve of competitions. In a characteristically wise chapter from In My Mind’s Eye: a thought diary, Faber & Faber, 2018, she asserted that in the world of art, ‘nobody should be judged a winner. Not even me.’ Often, when I’ve lost out to other writers, I’ve returned to Morris’s chapter as a kind of balm; a reminder to keep going even though I haven’t achieved the ultimate gong. I’d like to say I also return to it when I have won something, as an equally important reminder not to get too big for my boots.
Try we must, we little-known writers, at least at certain times in our career, making sure, if we can, that each contest is more noteworthy, the prize money more impressive than the last – after all, how is one to judge the worth of a competition if not by the size of its prize coffers? Winning or getting shortlisted in literary competitions gives you a legitimate excuse to occupy space on social media, and when you’re sick to death of drawing attention to your own work in order to sell books, in order to make some kind of living, believe me, it’s a huge relief to have something meaningful to say.
I entered Literature Wales’s Wales Book of the Year 2022 competition with my second book: I Am the Mask Maker and other stories. I had written many of the stories whilst waiting to find a publisher for my first book, a historical novel called, My Beautiful Imperial. That novel had taken twenty years to research, three to write and another three to find a publisher for.
Basically, I had spent a significant percentage of my adult life ‘on a steamship’ in 19th century Chile, trying to imagine what it felt like to use a gatling gun or wear a whalebone corset – not at the same time – and how I could possibly survive a tumultuous civil war. When I look at the stories in I Am the Mask Maker, the crazy variety of subject matter, the odd characters, the differing time periods, it all makes complete sense; I was like a calf let out in spring. Ever seen a calf let out in spring? Think four legs on pogo sticks and lots of hysterical elation. Once the euphoria of finishing the novel had worn off, writing short stories had kept me sane during the long months of mounting despair as I searched for a publisher.
So, I was as surprised as anyone to hear that the collection of stories, published by Victorina Press, had been placed on the English-language fiction shortlist of the Wales Book of the Year 2022, along with Nadifa Mohamed’s Fortune Men and Sian Hughes’s Pain Sluts. Another short-lived bout of exultation was followed by a good dose of impostor syndrome. I could hear the gasps of indignation emanating from literature-loving houses up and down Wales: Who is she? Who does she think she is? What on earth is her book doing here?
Desperate to read
Following the shortlist announcement, I did what most writers do when they find their books on shortlists, I rushed out to get copies of the other works to see what I was up against. I managed to find a copy of Nadifa’s book, The Fortune Men, without any problem. Published by Viking Penguin, there was a good stock at the local branch of Waterstones, quite rightly, because it had already been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Costa Novel Award in 2021.
There was no sign of Sian Hughes’s book, Pain Sluts, published by Storgy, an independent press, which I was also desperate to read. I asked whether they would be stocking other WBOTY 2022 shortlisted books, including mine. They were helpful, of course, as always, but had no information. They were having problems with their suppliers. Undaunted, I made my way past stacks of celebrity memoirs and ordered Sian’s book directly from Storgy. Getting books into bookshops is the ultimate challenge for any press, particularly independent publishers.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Wales Book of the Year competition, you need to know that there are four Welsh-language categories and four English-language categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children’s books. For each category, three books are shortlisted. So, in total, there are twelve shortlisted books in each language. The weeks went by. Surely, Waterstones would have copies of the books by now? Perhaps a display table? A banner? Some celebratory balloons? After all, this was one of Wales’s biggest literary competitions; for shortlisted authors, this would be a rare moment in the sun. Alas, Waterstones Abergavenny was still experiencing distribution problems.
I contacted Waterstones Swansea, Cardiff and Aberystwyth to ask whether any of them were putting on displays. No response. I scoured twitter and the accounts of fellow authors to see whether any of them had managed to discover secret stashes of shortlisted books anywhere else in Wales. It certainly raises questions about the People’s Choice Award, which runs in parallel with the main WBOTY competition, because where do readers get to see all these books, let alone buy them, let alone know enough about them to vote for them?
Visibility is everything. Imagine my excitement when I finally came across a small display at Book-ish, Crickhowell. At last! Then, I headed west, to my hometown. I was pretty certain Awen Teifi in Aberteifi would have a good stock of books, including mine because Dad was always in there, buying copies of Y Gambo. When I got there, I was chuffed to bits to see their pile of I Am the Mask Maker graced with lovely pink stickers, the words Rhestr Fer/Short List 2022 emblazoned across them. I signed some books, I tweeted some photos. It was raining in Cardigan but this author’s world was briefly gloriously sunny.
Finally, the day of judgement arrived. The results for the English-language categories were to be made public on Nicola Heywood Thomas’s Radio Wales Arts Show. The judging panel included poet and writer Krystal Lowe, journalist and broadcaster Andy Welch, author and presenter Matt Brown, and poet and recipient of a 2020 Rising Star Award, Taylor Edmonds. I sat at my desk with my mug of coffee, my husband, Gareth, sitting alongside me, and we listened to the broadcast through the computer, surrounded by books and boxes.
A sense of occasion
Only afterwards did it occur to me: where was the physical award ceremony, the chance to meet each other, the glass of fizz and the general pizzazz? The radio programme was great, but surely the awards deserved a little bit more attention? The literary contests at the National Eisteddfod get audiences of hundreds, possibly thousands, and a televised broadcast. There are trumpets and flowers, fancy costumes and a real sense of occasion. When Nadifa Mohamed’s book, The Fortune Men, was finally announced as the overall English-language winner of the WBOTY22 competition – no small feat as, according to Andy Welch, hundreds of books had been entered – Nadifa was tuning in to the radio whilst sitting in a supermarket car park. Has Covid affected our ability to get excited about anything? Surely, she deserved a bit of glitz? Can you imagine Meryl Streep being awarded an Oscar whilst out shopping?
Thank goodness, then, it isn’t all about the winning. When My Beautiful Imperial was listed as a recommended book by the Walter Scott Prize Academy back in 2018, I spent many weeks on cloud nine. My debut novel, written on a kitchen table, had been placed on the same list as John Banville’s Mrs Osmond, Neal Ascherson’s The Death of the Fronsac and Marcel Theroux’s The Secret Books. I didn’t need to win. I was elated enough to be mentioned in the same breath. I feel the same about this latest shortlist.
Last month, Sian Hughes, Nadifa Mohamed, Andy Welch and myself met up for a post-WBOTY22 event at the London Welsh Centre. We arranged it ourselves. On a freezing cold evening in December we finally had the opportunity to meet each other face to face over a glass of wine, enjoy each other’s work, have a laugh and a chat with friends, and feel good about our achievements. Nadifa wore her fabulously sparkly disco skirt. It was a hugely enjoyable evening. I think Jan Morris would have approved of it all, very much.
Rhiannon Lewis’ I Am the Mask maker and Other Stories is published by Victorina Press and is available from all good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.
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I am very much a take-it-or-leave-it type on short stories but do yourselves a favour and enjoy “Imperial”.
Thank you for drawing attention to this lack of publicity for the Welsh Book of the Year competition and the lack if support for Welsh books in general at many Welsh bookshops