NWR Issue 94

'It's raining fish, Halleluja!' and other magic

In this issue, Rhian Jones compares the music industry's hysterical reaction to downloading and applauds publishers’ ‘shrewdness in [their] appropriation of digital’s potential’ and their ‘uncharacteristic speed’. One of her examples of publishing initiative is the ‘crowd-funded’ or sponsor-based enterprise Unbound, modelled on the trendier industry’s PledgeMusic, which promotes interaction between reader and author as well as a social network-inspired democracy. Unbound simply posts book proposals (hopefully protected from plagiarism), and those whose quota of financial pledges falls short will not get into print. Basically a slick update of the eighteenth-century subscriber-book concept, it is interesting nevertheless. Especially so, considering that journals have begun to move in the opposite direction, using the formats and distribution networks (both physical and online) of the book in order to enhance their primary subscriber-based income.

Rhian continues, ‘As the expectation of profit from music is now firmly weighted towards auxiliary activities like touring, merchandise, or sponsorship deals, so the literary establishment might similarly moderate attitudes to profit and fame from producing books per se.’

This is true of both industries’ mainstream. But the reduced scales and margins here are such that ‘fame’ and even ‘profit’ remain fanciful notions for many Wales-published authors. And yet those who do embrace ‘added-value’ activities, such as touring shops, bookfairs and festivals, are unquestionably more attractive to cash-strapped presses. Need I add that image- and career-enhancing opportunities are also offered by literary magazines?

Fflur Dafydd is a prime example of an author with few qualms about popularising literature through music, adaptation and festival appearances. Playing our own part in the promotional circus, NWR joined her and Ceri Wyn Jones in conversation at Penfro Book Festival this autumn. The singer-songwriter wrote in the last issue about the genesis of her second English novel, The White Trail, which updates ‘Culhwch and Olwen’. But the latest addition to Seren’s New Stories from the Mabinogion series is a triumph: the author would have been justified in blowing her own trumpet high into the rafters! This feminist reworking takes as its theme the need for headspace (‘that clean white space’) and independence from your loved ones, even, in some cases, your unborn baby. ‘The white trail’ of the title is Dafydd’s translation of ‘Olwen’, a girl in whose wake white flowers spring. This motif is transcribed with aching suppleness across sky (ash, snow, airborne flour down a supermarket aisle) and land (shell-studded clifftops, the traditional petal-strewn path). The original passive symbol for female allure is seen anew. The plants do spring up still and are ‘soft tiny… lost souls’. But should you try and pick one, ‘it would not budge… the flower remained, rooted’. Offsetting the relatively docile and heavily pregnant Olwen are Goleuddydd (feisty fireball, capricious and absconding) who is also full-term, and her second female foil, pale Gwelw (calm, competent, loyal).

This Malcom Pryce-alike mash-up of detective story with magic and mayhem is a winning combo. The nascent political subplot is aborted by lack of space and adherence to the gumshoe framework (frenzied activity involving pigsty births, abductions, rape, suicide… followed by welcome explication). The White Trail offers this publicly engaged writer a deserved breather from satirising Assembly doings. There’s more magic in this issue (I’m not just referring to a welcome glut of great writing on nature and place from nonfiction writers Jim Perrin, John Barnie, Lewis Davies and Jane MacNamee). Transvestite magician Chiqui is the inspiration of this issue’s ‘cover story’, Christien Gholson’s debut novel A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind. As reviewer Siân Melangell says, readers will need to concentrate, but I found this distinctive mix of eighties’ industrial smalltown Belgian life and folktale less puzzling than intriguing, once I let go and went with the flow. Why had the dance troupe ‘got naked at the Vatican’, do we care about Rimbaud’s ‘lost poems’ and who is waxing biblical about bells, crows and a night of raining fish? With its chapter sections dedicated to roles (The Seer, The Player etc), this novel reminded me of the fiction of Jenny Erpenbeck, the subject of Patricia Duncker’s essay in the last issue, where she gently accused Michel Faber of exaggerating Erpenbeck’s originality. We need character and plot in fiction more than modernist archetypes and mystery, she suggested. I would counter that we need all four at different times, depending on our fancy.


previous editorial: Questions, Answers, Fools and Kings
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