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Thursday, 23 April 2009

Wales Book of the Year 2009

It may not have much visibility in the literary blogosphere but Wales palpably exists and today the longlist for the Wales Book of the Year is announced.  Ten books in English and the same in Welsh were announced and a record five in the English language section are volumes of poetry. I have to admit that I have so far read only one of them, Matthew Francis's fine poetry sequence Mandeville about the fourteenth century traveller but the list looks interesting and substantial. It will be whittled down to a short list of three titles in each language, to be announced at a special event at the Hay Festival on 25th May (these guys certainly know how to delay a climax) and then the final Wales Book of the Year winner will be announced in a glitzy ceremony at a swanky Cardiff hotel on 15th June.

As a past judge of the Book of the Year I know that this award has a solid track record and the judging takes place in a hype-free atmosphere so it's worth looking out for the winner.  That said, there has been a debate in Wales, in which I have taken part, about the need for literary prizes and about the impact they have on serious writing.  Not to mention the edgy boosterism involved in the increasingly high profile of these awards ceremonies.  I have always liked the Prix Goncourt, one of France's most prestigious prizes, which is simply announced discreetly without any black tie and flashbulb.

When I was a judge a few years ago, I was sitting on the stage at Hay with Welsh First Minister, Rhodri Morgan (who was actually presenting the prizes) just about to say a few words on behalf of the judges.  In those days the event was there to announce the winner rather than just the shortlist. Rhodri leaned across to me and asked in a confidential whisper: "Is there an envelope?"  There wasn't on the day, though there is a cash prize for the winners.

One minor cavil.  One of the shortlisted poets, Samantha Wynne Rhydderch, has her book described as a "debut collection for Picador". Actually she is an established young Welsh poet with at least one if not two earlier collections behind her so this is not a "debut".  This smacks of what the Australians call the "cultural cringe", seeking metropolitan approval by treating publication by a fashionable London imprint as some kind of initiation.  Wales has its own vibrant publishing and writing scene and doesn't need that sort of curtsey to the metropolitan establishment.


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