The first kisses I knew were Welsh. As were the first fists. Which is to say I am Welsh. I think it’s true that my imagination is always running away with me. Or just running away; from Wales, from London, from the self. Perhaps this is why my first published novel’s story has nothing to do with Wales. But then why should it? It was written in Wales by a Welsh woman but it does not address the issue of national identity because the spring-heeled Jack of my imagination ran away.
I lived in London for 12 years from 1979 to 1991. At one point I tried to enrol in Michèle Roberts’ creative writing class at the City Lit but it was completely oversubscribed. Now I have to wonder if my career as an author might not have been very different if I had got a place in her class. If I had stayed in London.
My novel took four years to write and rewrite. It is written in English, set primarily in France, and has an international cast of characters. The book found a home with an independent Welsh publisher with an excellent reputation, Seren, whose stated aim is ‘to bring Welsh literature, art and politics before a wider audience.’
A week after the book was published I went into the local branch of Waterstones. I looked for my book in the general fiction section, I looked in the crime section, and finally in the ‘Welsh Interest’ section. My book was nowhere to be found. I asked at the counter. No, it was not in the shop. Nor was it on order. They would not be stocking it. The reason? No demand. In the past my status as a ‘local author’ had translated into validation and a recognition that not all authors are metropolitan based, and so my books had been stocked. It seemed there used to be more of a sense of communal pride in the fact that there were home-grown authors.
While I was standing there, humiliated, a young female customer came to the till with her chosen purchase, the latest novel by Sarah Waters. Waters, like me, is Welsh. But she is published by Virago, so she isn’t local. And self evidently there is demand for her books.
This ‘local’ issue presupposes that, as in Royston Vasey, the fictional town in BBC Television’s The League of Gentlemen, local shops and thus local books are much in demand with local people. Strange as it may seem, those people who read contemporary fiction in Wales, the ones who are young graduates, or listen to Radio Four, or read the Independent or The Times, who form book groups, or teach English, or simply love books, are as in tune as their counterparts in Sussex, Yorkshire or Fife. They want to read Eleanor Catton or Joshua Ferris or Hilary Mantel, and they debate the merits of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or the latest Ian McEwan as hotly as anyone anywhere.
No author wants their book to appear in bookshops just because they are Welsh, they want it to be represented in the marketplace because it’s a good book. In a crowded marketplace the ‘local’ is perhaps the only toehold with which to start. But the gatekeepers at the bookshop don’t seem to have made their decision based on my book’s strengths or weakness, but on other more mysterious reasons.
They have effectively strangled my book at birth based on a prejudice. Where once books were included on a principle, now they are excluded, presumably on the same principle – seemingly without consideration of merit.
But, hold on, let’s get back to that ‘local shop’ in The League of Gentlemen. There it stands, isolated, bleak, decrepit and strange, a storm cloud of doom permanently over it. Hardly ever visited by any customers, and those who accidentally stumble upon it eventually come to regret it. The downside of local is parochial. Outdated. Outlandish. Suspect. Bad.
There was some good news however. I was told that WH Smith were stocking my book. I entered and went through the same sorry and reductive ritual. Fiction section? Nope. Crime? Nope. Local Interest? Yes. Yes. There it was, three copies of my cosmopolitan Francophile feminist noir, shelved between Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons and Welsh Teatime Recipes. In the same section I noticed that I was not the only Seren novelist represented there, as I spotted a copy of Patrick McGuinness’ Booker long-listed The Last Hundred Days. His novel is set in Romania, during Ceausescu’s last hundred days in power, but like me McGuinness is reduced to a local author apparently by dint of our publisher’s address. On the other hand neither book would be in the shop at all if it weren’t for this Welsh connection.
An author is meant to have a little humility, he or she cannot speak on behalf of the quality of their work; that should be assumed from the fact that a publisher believed in the work. The book, once published, should speak for itself. There it is in the bookstore waiting for someone – that mythical browser, that flâneur of the bookshop – to just pick it up.
We all perhaps still want to believe in this model of book buying; of actual customers going into actual shops, buying actual books for the price listed on the back. And it is this model which the local or the regional assumes. I did not expect to see my novel piled high in the window of Foyles on Charing Cross Road, but I did think I would find 2 or 3 or 4 copies of my book in Waterstones, in my hometown.
To be published in Wales is a very particular sort of thing, seemingly just one step removed from being published by a vanity press. Not dissimilar, in fact, to making the book oneself with the aid of photocopies and a cover made from a cereal box, all stitched together with loose ends of embroidery silk. The book in question may even bear traces of its creator’s blood.
The analogy of the homemade book a child might produce is not that extreme. The child has made the book to the very best of their ability; their indulgent parent (like those regional publishers) has done all in their power to make the book the best it can be. But none of that matters, not if Waterstones in the author’s home town will not waste its precious shelf space, will not give it that risk-free sale or return chance.
No demand, you see.