Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Please find enclosed for your consideration

Many years ago, when I was a poet ingénue and New Labour was still in its first term, I cornered a distinguished editor of a distinguished literary journal and ruined their night. What, I wished to know, are you looking for? I can still recall the waves of nausée playing across that kindly face. They made their excuses and promptly exited the building.

Now, as well as being asked that question fairly regularly by others, it’s a question I am regularly asking of myself. Any editor worth their salt will tell you that they prize strong, tight writing. Correct spelling and grammar is crucial (there’s no quicker way to rejection than a questionable grasp of the English language). Originality is high up there, as long as the writer can evidence a knowledge of tradition and the current. And as for that slippery article ‘panache’? Yes, please. Clean white A4 paper? No fancy fonts? Both are a must. I am guessing that most editors would concur with these criteria.

If these alone were sufficient, however, they would approximate a formula. You could spread the word and much heartache would be spared. And those writers who could do the sums would be well on their way to world domination. But no: they are not sufficient. In fact, a surprising amount of work that editors receive may fulfil many – sometimes all – of these requirements. And yet… There is something, somehow, missing. What is it? Well, it’s that thing you’re looking for, of course. That thing… It’s a matter of taste, isn’t it? No, not in the way you’d think. So what is it? And, more to the point, where is it? The truth is, you simply can’t tell because you don’t know until you’ve found it. Because the best writers, whether new or established, are not simply capable of satisfying a taste, they can actually create a taste for their work in a reader. And the best editor is, first and foremost, an open reader.

So the bad and the good news for writers and editors is that there is no definitive answer to the question.

Poet and critic Zoe Skoulding has recently been appointed editor of Poetry Wales. We’ll both be appearing at the Dylan Thomas Festival on 9 November and will be discussing aspects of editing literary magazines and of our envisaged creative directions for Poetry Wales and New Welsh Review. The discussion will be chaired by Professor M Wynn Thomas, and no doubt there will be the opportunity to ask questions (except for the dreaded one above) about publishing in literary magazines and practical ways to maximise the chances of a successful submission.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Young Guns and Older Ones

Despite some attractive delusions to the contrary on the part of the unpublished, the fact that it is difficult to get published is nothing new. The climate has always been tough. The modern market has always been driven by profit. Books are, after all, not simply art, they are a product, too. And, then, there is something to be said for the difficulty in achievement. Chiefly because it is in the difficulty that the achievement actually exists. If something is briskly and efficiently attained then I think we can agree that there must be little of substance to it. No, the journey from a single idea to a shelf in a bookshop is, as history amply demonstrates, one largely characterised by disappointment, degradation and borderline lunacy. All this is precisely as it should be. To be a published writer, talent is not enough. You’ll need incredible reserves of drive and commitment, and self-belief in spades. You’ll also need to be able to ignore the pleas of almost everyone around you to stop.

Recently, someone complained to me at length about what they called the ‘fascism of youth’ that they felt now dominated in publishing industry circles. Where, they demanded, was the support for - and interest in - older writers, many of whom had wrestled with the compromises of the 9 to 5, the production and raising of children and who had actually done some of that all important living? Wasn’t it true that personality now predominated over the actual product? Didn’t youth give publishers a great marketing tool, but also let them off the hook, mitigating work that was unpolished, unready or simply flawed?

It’s not that simple, of course. Although, granted, with certain signings over recent years, some sniffy cynicism has set in – even in the media. No, there is a genuine movement of hugely exciting and talented young writers in Wales, in the wider UK, and beyond. And despite the temptation to view it as the inevitable result of a synthetic drive on the part of publishers, that’s clearly not the case. Today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings have been sprinkled with the magic dust: they came to maturity through interesting times. They grew up in the post postmodern age. In their lifetime, community fragmented, industrialisation faltered, advertising - not the Church - shaped all aspects of the lifestyle choice, the testcard became daytime TV, multiculturalism a keyword, George Lucas’s Star Wars was appropriated by Reagan. Communism fell. And, years later, so did the Twin Towers. They watched it all on the portable in their bedroom. Never underestimate the prodigal’s ability to galvanise experience. And one thing particularly occurs to me. Youth, whether in protest or in art, has an uncanny knack of tapping into the essential in experience – even if, sometimes, it loses in the process something of the complexity in experience. For both this strength and this weakness, it has enormous appeal.

But, while the movement of youth is in many respects a logical outcome (cultural and social revolutions belong to the young), the movement of youth does bring with it problems, which my friend above amply highlights. The young do not have the last word on great writing – far from it. They are certainly not the only ones capable of transmuting the strange times in which we live into great art. And there is certainly something shocking in the fact that a writer in their 40s – once considered positively foetal – is now a writer in their middle period (even if they’ve yet to publish a first book). They are no longer young. For the new writer the wrong side of 40 it’s a chill wind that blows alright.

While the Academi bursaries and Arts Council awards continue their excellent work in funding writers – whatever their age – to enable them to dedicate themselves to their art, there is a notable absence in profile-building prizes which validate the promise and achievement of older writers relatively new to professional writing, whether published or unpublished. The Eric Gregory Awards for poets are laudable – but if you’re over 30, you can’t apply. If you’re a newly published writer with a solid first book, you may be fortunate enough to win a Somerset Maugham Award – but, then again, only if you’re 35 or under. The Betty Trask Prize rewards first-time novelists…under 35. The Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award is earmarked for writers under the age of 40. There are numerous smaller awards for writers across the UK. These are generally ring-fenced for younger writers, too. For older writers, there is just one award that I can think of which is specifically designed to encourage and support their writing – the McKitterick Prize for a first novel by a writer over 40 (remember: 40 was once considered young, now it’s the new old). If you’re a brilliant new writer working in whatever genre, The Dylan Thomas Prize might make a great deal of difference to your life, both artistically and financially. But only if you’re under 30.

One can, of course, see the difficulty. Despite the organic development of a young movement in creative writing (admittedly, increasingly shaped by the rise of the creative writing departments), publishers (already struggling to sell their titles in such a competitive market) may be actively disincentivised from pushing older writers – not only are they less immediately ‘sexy’ and newsworthy to the media, but the potential profile-building media opportunities for new, older writers through prizes simply aren’t there. None of this is to undermine the brilliant work that the Society of Authors, the EDS Dylan Thomas Prize trustees or other smaller prizes in the UK seek to do. They play a crucial role in a somewhat beleaguered market by highlighting the vitality of the contemporary literary output and indicating future directions. But many of the most distinguished prizes for younger writers were established during a time when younger writers held a far less assured position in the marketplace and required much greater visibility.

It is important to celebrate the emergence of youthful brilliance - and reward it. But perhaps it is also time to remember that older writers already face significant disadvantages in the market as it is and perhaps they, more than most, could do with a little more support.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Kathryn Simmonds takes Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection

Congratulations to Kathryn Simmonds, who took the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection for her debut poetry collection, Sunday at the Skin Launderette, on Wednesday night. It's a first for Welsh publishing house Seren, and Kathryn beat off stiff competition from some compelling nominees, among them the excellent Frances Leviston and Paul Batchelor. Kathryn's splendid poem/photography collaboration with David Hurn appears in Issue 80 of New Welsh Review. She's also currently in the running for the Glen Dimplex and Guardian First Book Awards.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Sex Wax, Secrets and Submarines

Great event at Baylit on Wednesday night. Large and very mixed crowd - and enthusiastic, too. All the readers were great. Louise Walsh, a young writer of immense promise, read an hilarious and touching excerpt from her debut Fighting Pretty. She was incredibly unassuming, refreshingly unaware of the bright future ahead of her. Joe Dunthorne, whose first novel Submarine (think The Rachel Papers meets The Catcher in the Rye) is attracting attention far and wide, introduced us to his novel's anti-hero Oliver and read some of his great poetry (yes, he's an accomplished poet, too) which I'll be featuring in upcoming issues of New Welsh Review.

Poets Meirion Jordan and Zoe Brigley - two very different talents - are further evidence that Welsh poetry is in rude health. Zoe has been a regular contributor to New Welsh Review over the last few years and her debut The Secret has won a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, excellent notices and a place on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist earlier this year. I'd lay a confident bet that 2009 will be a great year for Meirion Jordan. His work has a virtuosity and maturity that belie his youth (he's just 23) and his first collection Moonrise is hot off the press from Seren. Highly recommended.

In Swansea, in the 1980s, there were only three possibilities for an adolescent identity: Townie, Surfie or ‘Other’. I was most definitely categorised as ‘Other’. This in no small part accounts for a lifelong prejudice against white trainers, corkscrew perms...Oh, and surfing, together with all its paraphernalia (Sex Wax, Alder jackets and the immortal phrase ‘Going down ‘Gennith’). It also accounts for why Tom Anderson, in particular, so surprised and impressed me. He read from current and forthcoming work - travel narratives inspired by his journeys as a surfer. His work is exceptional: lyrical, haunting, political, offbeat. Like maestro Robert Minhinnick, Anderson lives in Porthcawl. There must be something in the water. Anderson’s writing deserves a wide audience. His book is Riding the Magic Carpet. Buy it.

continues until Tuesday 14 October.