EDITORIAL NWR Issue 67
Out of the Flux
Dai Smith's review of Stephen Knight's A Hundred Years of Fiction
(published in New Welsh Review
66) has provoked an important critical and cultural debate which will resonate with those of us - readers, writers and critics alike - concerned with defining Welsh writing in English in an increasingly diverse post-devolution society.
In this issue of NWR
, Jane Aaron refutes Dai Smith's assertion that Knight's book is a 'manifesto' for a nationalist 'psycho-colonialism', arguing that Smith's reading of A Hundred Years
is the voice of Old Labour refusing to budge without a struggle' ('Postcolonial Change', p. 32). The crux of the matter, for Aaron and her fellow literary critics, is the postcolonial condition of Wales's English-language writers. 'Once colonisation has taken place,' she writes, '
then the colonised either forget that they ever were a separate people and merge with the dominant culture, or they become more self-conscious of themselves as "other", resist fusion with the colonisers, and forge closer links with one another.' She believes that it is this second alternative which is described by Stephen Knight in his critical survey of twentieth-century Anglophone Welsh literature, 'for all its cultural and linguistic hybridity'. In an equally robust riposte to Dai Smith (Letters, p. 119), Patrick McGuinness offers a useful complication of the notion of colonialism and how it might be understood in a Welsh context:
"Colonialism is a multiple, ongoing, shape-changing phenomenon, and the term itself is elusive and complex (yes, and often vague, misused and imprecise too). It's not an event, or even a process, and critics from Fanon through to Said and Bhabha have a great deal to say that would complicate, expand and (frankly) discredit Smith's rather basic view."
The critical perspectives of both Aaron and McGuinness are informed by an intense engagement with literature as well as history, and by a belief that history is itself fallible, fictive and as such constantly open to challenge. McGuinness writes, for example, that 'literature [is] a set of projections, desires, metaphors and virtualities', and 'literary criticism [
] an amalgam of all of these'.
McGuinness's elastic expression of what it might mean to be a writer in Wales, or a Welsh-born writer elsewhere, suggests a philosophical discernment which urgently needs to be carried over from the subtly inflected contexts of academic argument into our everyday vocabulary. The point being made by Wales's critics is precisely that as a culture we are fast outgrowing such labels as 'Anglo-Welsh' and perhaps even 'Welsh writing in English', but without a widespread agreement - however loose - of what it is to write in or about or from Wales, Welsh writers might feel that they face the prospect of becoming washed up on the tide of post-postmodern, fluid, global identities. Robert Minhinnick, for example, in the most recent issue of Poetry Wales
, argues that the 'situation today is too fluid for prescription, let alone definition', and concludes that 'English writing in Wales has at last reached that level of complexity vital for any healthy
literary culture. Which means it is now simply impossible to encapsulate'. But although he ends on this upbeat note, he doesn't sound entirely convinced, having admitted that 'for the young, being is better than belonging', and that 'there is a groundswell of discontent with our "undefined" scene'.
The challenge, as I see it, is not that the literary scene in Wales is 'undefined', but that, since we lack the broadsheet culture which would enable the views of critics such as McGuinness and Aaron to reach a wider audience in different contexts, those definitions remain just beyond the limits of our everyday discourse. Since I took over the editorship of NWR
in 2002, I have been engaged in broadening out the whole notion of 'Welsh writing in English', not only to reflect a diverse cultural identity, but also to give due attention to the dramatic expansion of the literary scene. Devolution heralded exciting changes: a growing critical appreciation of Welsh writing across the UK, in-migration of significant writers from elsewhere, and a literature which now embraces crime writing, chick lit and a number of other evolving genres which are finding their own peculiarly Welsh inflection, such as psychogeography. As time passes, though, and as a new generation of writers comes of age and revitalizes the literary scene once more, it's becoming increasingly apparent that we need both to take stock of recent changes, and to coin a new, popular critical vocabulary with which to appreciate and debate this new
work and - as importantly - to re-evaluate the old. To this end, the next issue of the magazine will focus in depth on some of these questions, and future issues of NWR
will take a thematic approach, devoting space to concentrated discussions of various new aspects of Welsh writing in English, such as the tensions between rural and urban writing, emerging modes of writing including those deploying new technologies, and the
interaction between different forms of creative expression, such as literature and music.
The priority in all this will be one which can sometimes get lost in the political crossfire of postcolonial criticism in Wales: Is this novel/poetry collection/weblog/performance poetry any good
? Is it worthy of publication? Is it a valid contribution to its genre, internationally as well as in Wales? And, finally, will it be remembered in fifty or a hundred years time for its literary value as well as the cultural context in which it was produced?
previous editorial: 'Tell me all the other versions'
next editorial: Devolution or Dissolution?