The View from Here: Literature from Wales

viewfromhereToday in The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we get to visit my home country of Wales with the help of Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, Wales. 

Honno was established in 1986 to publish the best in Welsh women’s writing. Today it publishes novels, autobiographies, memoir and short story anthologies in English as well as classics in both Welsh and English. Over the years Honno and its titles have been awarded many awards. Registered as a community co-operative, any profits made by the company is invested in the publishing programme.  Caroline has worked in general trade publishing for over thirty years and has edited a number of award winning and bestselling authors. When not working she likes to walk in the woods, make her own clothes, grow her own food and clear up after her housemates (all seven of whom have four legs).

Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Wales? 

A good starting point would be  www.gwales.com. You can browse fiction by review or the different categories. You have to dig a little deeper but the site also lists Welsh publishers, so it is worth browsing through them individually to see the broad range of titles published in Wales.

Q. In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: “Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?”  They ended up with a shortlist of 23 novels (listed here). What do you think of this list – are there any surprises? Any names missing for you?

I’m not sure I agree with such a label — it would be different for every reader… I’d want to know which categories the books were being judged against before opting for one over another. Also, I haven’t read them all, so how could I judge? And out of the 23 only half a dozen were by women—  is this because male authors are better or because they are traditionally more likely to be published? I’m sure there are many many great novels by women that aren’t on the list.

Q. Are there any particular trends or themes that you find often in novels by writers from Wales?

Reinterpretations of traditional Welsh mythology, the history of Welsh emigration, and the transition from rural to industrial ways of life are themes that often crop up, both amongst the classic novels we publish and the contemporary submissions we get.

Q. Apart from Dylan Thomas, few authors from Wales seem to have made a big impact on the world stage. Why isn’t literature from Wales as well known as say Irish literature or Scottish fiction?

I wish I knew! Wales’s writers have certainly been recognised — R.S. Thomas was nominated for a Nobel Prize for instance. A degree of lingering mistrust between England and Wales could be partly to blame — however, Ireland does much better than either Wales or Scotland pro rata for population size and they too have a troubled history. Maybe hitherto they’ve had bigger characters/personalities who’ve been known for behaviour outside of their writing – Dylan Thomas is perhaps the only Welsh writer who fits into this category…

Q. How important are prizes like the Wales Book of the Year award or the Dylan Thomas prize in giving more attention to Welsh authors?

They have proved to be useful in terms of wider recognition from publishing industry in rest of UK and the world, for rights sales in particular –which improves the lot of the author who may then get an offer from bigger international publisher although less good for Welsh publisher who takes risk on an author but can’t afford to retain them on their list once they’re successful.

Q.In an article in The Bookseller magazine in 2016, a number of Welsh publishers commented on how it was getting harder to persuade mainstream media to review books and to get booksellers to stock their titles which come from Wales even if they are not necessarily about Wales   Is that something that you’re concerned about?

It definitely has been an issue for us, partly down to mainstream media paying less attention to smaller presses generally, partly that smaller presses just don’t have the budget to effectively promote their books with review copies, pre-pub events and networking and partly down to being unable to network effectively with London-based media when you are in Aberystwyth! I don’t know that being from Wales or about Wales is necessarily the issue here — it’s more that space for any book related material is increasingly limited particularly in the print media/newspapers so inevitably they are going to focus on the big names. Also lead times are getting longer, which works against publishers whose lead times are shorter, which is true of some independent presses like Honno… Contrarily space online for books is growing incrementally but is yet to be seen as creditable or reliable in the same way as the established broadsheets.

HonnoQ. When Honno was created, the intention was to increase the opportunity for Welsh women in publishing and to bring Welsh women’s literature to a wider public. Is that still a key focus for you – have you seen any changes in attitude from readers over the years? 

Absolutely it’s still a key focus! What we’d like to do is to widen our demographic to younger women in Wales and beyond —  a lot of our initial interest was from women who are now getting older and making sure that their descendants know about Honno and recognise its importance is vital. There are many more demands on young women’s time and attention than was true in the early eighties—  hence our interest in media other than print as a way of engaging younger readers.

Q Do you have a personal favourite among the authors from Wales?

Of the Welsh Women’s Classics we publish, My Mother’s House by Lily Tobias is one I particularly enjoyed. Obviously it is too difficult to choose a favourite contemporary author from among the Honno stable (without also risking the others’ wrath!) but outside of that Cynan Jones is a favourite — now receiving wide recognition but no longer published in Wales (hence my point earlier about the downside of prizes).

Intrigued? Want to know more?

  • You can find more infomation about Honno, their catalogue and authors at their website www.honno.co.uk  or via Facebook (facebook.com/honnopress)  and via Twitter @honno.  
  • To learn more about literature from Wales visit the dedicated Literature from Wales page on this blog to discover reviews of authors from Wales and lists of suggested books to read.
  • You might also want to take a look at a View from Wales post I wrote in 2016

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 20, 2017, in Welsh authors, world literature, Writing Wales and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. very interesting, and thanks for all the links. Looks like the only recent book I have read related to Wales is: https://wordsandpeace.com/2013/08/29/the-cuckoos-of-batch-magna-book-review-and-giveaway/
    But I met a wonderful poet who lives on Caldey Island: http://www.davidhodgespoetry.co.uk/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I found Caroline Oakley’s interview fascinating and it’s so wonderful to have a debate about writing from Wales. Thank you Booker Talk for instigating it.
    Caroline is my editor and I agree with Judith Barrow that Honno have survived because they are an excellent publisher who really do care about and support their authors. They’ve been around for 30 years so they must be doing something – or rather a lot of things – right.
    I often wonder why readers of the UK think nothing of enjoying a novel set in Ireland and yet novels set in Wales seem to be a harder sell. Of course, there are some authors that have succeeded in crossing the Severn Bridge and are doing very well, but so few of their novels have a strong Welsh flavour.
    Hopefully times are changing. Wales is a favourite ‘staycation’ destination nowadays, and TV shows like Hinterland have been very popular. On a personal level, I’ve had quite a positive response from readers in England to my Welsh Word Wednesday posts which explain the snippets of Welsh in my new novel. It gives me hope that Cool Cymru is on the rise again – remember Cerys Matthews’ Catatonia & Super Furry Animals? Fingers crossed.
    Thank you so much for opening the debate again – diolch yn fawr!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Sara, thanks for those insights and good questions. Why do Irish novels enjoy more interest than Welsh? I suspect it’s because Ireland has more of an identity where, sadly, Wales seems to be thought of as a bolt on to Wales. Outside the UK it’s even worse – I had to travel to USA extensively for work and lost count of the number of times people would look blankly if I said I was from Wales.
      Not sure whether Hinterland will do us much good – it’s so dark and moody. Mind you, some of the Scandi series were like that and they didn’t suffer.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Judith Barrow and commented:
    A great insight into my publishers, Honno

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Illuminating. Thank you. We need to get the word out! And speaking of hashtags…
    #WelshBooksMatter #WelshPublishersMatter #HonnoAuthorsRock

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Wales is practically unknown territory for me, certainly compared to Ireland! I would say more publicity for Welsh authors, like this post, is definitely needed! The only one on the list of great Welsh novels that I’ve read is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Would you recommend The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. When I was on my writing retreat in Wales, I found some interesting works in the series Library of Wales. I started a novel by Stuart Evans ‘The Caves of Alienation’ but didn’t have time to finish it while I was there. So I have just ordered it from AbeBooks (it is not easily available elsewhere) to continue reading it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. It’s impressive that this smaller press has been around since the 80s. That’s ancient in small-press publishing.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post, Karen! I’m bookmarking it so I can access the links, as it’s high time I paid some proper attention to the writing of my homeland.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. The article jolted a memory. Author, poet and Eisteddfod Bard Caradog Pritchard was a relation of mine. I only recently read his book, One Moonlight Night. I recall one wonderful lubricated St David’s Day, where we, Caradog, Mattie Gwynne, his journalist wife, their small daughter, dressed in Welsh national costume, went to the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I have a theory about Irish writers: because English is a second language, they are a lot more “loose” with the grammar rules and therefore are seen as a lot more rebellious in the way they write. I don’t think the Welsh have the same reputation over rule breaking, rightly or wrongly.

    Now you should know by now that I do have and interest in “diverse” reading, but I am the first person to admit I forget about regional UK writers. Sometimes us bloggers need to be hit around the head. What about the #diversebookbloggers and #bookbloggers tags on Twitter ? Make use of radio peeps like Jim Hawkins at BBC Radio Shropshire? Find bloggers like yourself to spread the word then beat their readers till they pay attention?

    So here’s the challenge: now you have my attention, how are you going to use me to spread the word?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m picking up your challenge gauntlet Nordie 🙂 I’m not wonderful when it comes to using Twitter so the idea of hashtags I often forget about – but now you’ve given me two I shall try and make use of them. Not sure about your last question since you already follow me on here and via twitter so you get to know anything I post on Wales fiction. Hm, need to put my thinking cap on for this clearly – as Sherlock Holmes would say this is a three pipe problem

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: