In this first article in partnership with The Western Mail, novelist, critic and Wales Arts Review editor Gary Raymond lays out an impassioned call to arms for Welsh writers to play a central part in mainstream debates about the top issues of the day.
I have spent over ten years, as editor of Wales Arts Review, as a novelist, and as presenter of The Review Show on BBC Radio Wales, arguing that literature – great writing – is the beating heart of any healthy, confident nation. And I have never felt more strongly – I can feel it sizzle in the air – that Wales is right now on the cusp of an age of imperative vitality in the way it writes, and thinks, about itself and the wider world. Brilliant books written by inquisitive minds. But it is misguided to the think important writing gains cultural prominence organically. An understanding of literary history supports that.
In the introduction to his memoir, Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the 1980s Literary World (Constable, 2022), John Walsh muses over what it was that made the 1980s such an important time for English literature. He comes, I think, to outline the three building blocks of what made the writing (and the writers) of that time so culturally influential. To boil it down, I am labelling these building blocks Money, Media, and “Movement”. The decade that brought to the mainstream and made household names of the likes of Martin Amis, Angela Carter, Julian Barnes, Penelope Fitzgerald, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, Fay Weldon, and a raft of others, was a golden era of English literature, but was manufactured and packaged (to a certain extent) for maximum impact by people in positions to do this. What was created was a marketable “scene” of literally figures who in return for their exposure and fame worked to enrich the cultural life, the debates, the battles of that tempestuous decade. I am convinced we can light the fires of something akin to that here in Wales. The value of this, as Wales spends the next decade (and on) re-evaluating its position in the world, would be enormous. We have a rare and special opportunity to place our most brilliant writers at the head of it all, to heighten and enrich the nature of the debate.
The building blocks, then.
- Money – take a deep breath. In an era of media impoverishment, I believe the support of Wales’s writers to be the best value for money on offer. Fill our pages with them, put them on our airwaves, put them on our television screens, ask them about the pressing issues of the day. Rachel Trezise’s 2021 novel, Easy Meat (Parthian), is the best answer we have yet to the question: why did Wales vote for Brexit? Has it been an answer that has eluded academics, statisticians, and journalists? Yes. Because the answer is too complex for data analysis to do it justice. Only a novelist can get at it. Martin Amis has written that the boom in English literature of the 1980s was down to one thing: newspaper interest. Times have changed, and a more holistic approach is in order, but the boost in newspaper interest came from massive investment in newspaper supplements (sorry to say, largely by Rupert Murdoch). But it also came from new literary initiatives from public bodies that took bold and often risky decisions. Money must be invested in writers to write.
- Media – We all know the prevailing criticisms of the media landscape in Wales, but I would argue we are approaching a moment when the pressures will turn into a blooming if we do this right. Writers are invariably characters in the showbusiness of culture. Use them. Allow them to be aggressive and arrogant and single-minded, allow them to nurture their own brand and so make themselves attractive to a country hungry for serious debate about important ideas. Writers are the answer to the deadwood of political discourse, to the anaesthesia of celebrity culture. And – believe it or not – I truly believe we are so close to achieving this already. It just needs a kick, a refocus. The Western Mail’s Weekend supplement, Radio Cymru’s output, my own Review Show on BBC Radio Wales, Wales Arts Review – we are all on the cusp of working together on the same project – putting our writers, their ideas, and the excellence of their expression – into the homes of Wales.
- “Movement” – in speech marks because this is the loosest term. Creating the initial appearance of a movement is, in historical terms, a vital part of any cultural shift. Again, I think we have the benefit of a running start on this. In his book, Walsh identifies several significant benchmarks that meant the 80s golden age was what it was. Media attention and monetary heft were two. Others included the maturation of the Booker Prize (which was founded in 1969), and the birth of the Hay Festival. Well, we already have Wales Book of the Year, and the Hay Festival is now arguably the most prestigious literary festival in world. I would urge a reinvestment in Wales Book of the Year, backed by serious national media coverage, in print, on radio and on television. I would also argue that Literature Wales be charged with refocussing the administration of Wales Book of the Year as its main concern, and work on making it the biggest night on the Welsh literary calendar, a showbiz event that creates buzz around the entire industry. I would find a way to get a renewed commitment to Welsh literature from the Hay Festival. BBC Wales must be embedded in the experiences of both. I would lobby for serious arts programming on BBC Wales television. In addition to the good documentary output on art and literature, Wales needs a regular cultural debate programme in English. Establish our own The Late Show. Put writers on it. And the press should seek out and platform Wales’ novelists and poets and critics to write copy that will rejuvenate the way we discuss things. There is a vibrant, low-cost ecosystem, waiting to be given the breath of life with much of the apparatus already in existence. Create the movement, and things will move.
I fully believe Wales has an army of exciting and vital voices in its literary writers that have for too long been cast out to the fringes of cultural debate – as if articulating important and complex ideas with style and artfulness is some kind of fetish. There is a generation of writers around now, young in literary terms, who are waiting to be called upon. Rachel Trezise, Manon Steffan Ros, Richard Owain Roberts, Darren Chetty, Carly Lewis, Hanan Issa, (dare I say it: me) and many others I could name, who would help lift the level of debate in this country and help shape the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. And then there is the dazzling group of writers just emerging over the hill: Grug Muse, Kandace Siobhan Walker, Mari Ellis Dunning, Dylan Huw, Caragh Medlicott, to name but a few. All of us, in the next ten years, will produce era-defining literature that can be utilised and absorbed by a new Wales, flush with confident and independent minds, facing outwards and upwards.
What needs to happen:
- Pay and platform our literary figures to discuss important issues in the most accessible public spaces ie. television, radio, online, press, live etc.
- Media focus on the writers and their ideas, as well as the showbiz of writing.
- Calcify and harness the power of the literary ecosystem in Wales to present the best and most entertaining minds of a healthy and confident nation to the people of that nation.
And we have so much in place to make this happen for Welsh writers. Wales Book of the Year, a lively festival circuit, a sometimes visionary independent publishing industry, a strong network of independent bookshops, a national media that exists and already has a commitment to art and culture on its airwaves and in its pages. And most importantly, we have a nation that is hungry to be introduced to brilliant Welsh writers who are stylishly tackling the issues of the day and the issues that stretch further than that. To do that we must focus on, elevate, and champion our Welsh writers of literature.
This article is also published in the Saturday July 30th edition of The Western Mail.
Gary Raymond is an editor and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.