I get riled up pretty easily. Most people I know are amused by it, but for those
who aren't aware: you shouldn't worry – it's undirected and harmless. One
colleague thinks it's because of all the coffee I drink – and I do drink more
than my share – but I don't think that's the reason. There's just too many
things to get wound up over.
The other day I did the worst thing possible for someone who's a bit – we might say
– excitable. I read the comments section of an opinion piece. That's the
equivalent of giving a Cadbury's Creme Egg to a hyperactive toddler. I know I
shouldn't put myself through that. I'm getting older and hypertension runs in
my family (you might have guessed – something about apples on the ground and their
respective distance from the tree that grew them comes to mind). The blog
itself, by Ros Barber, author of the award-winning The Marlowe Papers,
is a very well articulated opinion comparing traditional and self-publishing.
It's worth a read (the book and the blog).
In the piece, Barber argues the case that, in terms of literary fiction,
traditional publishing is the only road to roll on, and that she'll never take
the self-publishing route. Read it if you want to know why; I'd hate to waste
your time with a hasty summary. Now, I've met Ros Barber – I'm sure a lot of
people have – and I've found her to be neither snobbish nor elitist, but when I
read the comments they read as if drawing the battle lines, the digital version
of the moments before Lexington and Concord. The traditionally-published were
elitist; the self-published were hacks. Some argued the pecuniary benefits of
self-publishing and some argued the more personal currency of the traditional
method; others clearly had a vested interest in one side or the other and still
others had no investment in either side. I'd lost my grip on the argument at
times, as – clearly – did some of its participants. I was making every effort
not to get wound up, but it was difficult not to. As an editor for a publisher
of physical books, it's hard not to feel I'd been, whether or not I liked it,
placed on one side of the proverbial battlefield. It was all so much noise.
Sometimes, though, it's in the midst of the clamour that I find a bit of clarity. All of the noise of those comments
was swimming through my head the other day while I was showering. I do some of
my best thinking in the shower (keep in mind what you picture you can't
un-imagine). In this case, I started to think not about what publishing ought
or ought not do, but about the reader who is at the mercy of both these
competing worlds. The reader. The human being who buys a book, takes it home
and makes a point of reading it.
My first creative writing lecturer, memoirist and poet Kyoko Mori, used to remind
her students that 'only poets read poetry.' But is that really the case? Are
there readers who don't write? Because somebody's buying these books. Somebody
who isn't the author's friend or family member. I read books and my partner
reads books, but we have jobs working directly with literature. My colleagues
read books, but here again, they're people who work with books for a living:
Jasmine Donahaye, for example, has in the past year, published two books, The
Greatest Need, a biography of the writer Lily Tobias, and Losing Israel,
a memoir/biography dealing with the displacement of Palestinians in 1948; and
Francesca Rhydderch has, along with Seren editor Penny Thomas, edited the
collection New Welsh Short Stories. Or Anne Lauppe-Dunbar who has seen
the publication of her new novel, Dark Mermaids, which deals with the
doping of East German athletes (a topical piece, considering the recent WADA
revelations). Being part of Swansea University's creative writing
programme, means being involved de facto with books or writing or publishing
(likely all three) in some way. So you see, it's not so easy for me to imagine
the reader who doesn't work directly with books. Maybe it's easier for you.
Maybe it is you, reader. Maybe you'd prefer I put the fourth wall back where it
I know people read on holiday; that's why the WH Smith at Heathrow has more
copies in stock of the number one bestseller than my first poetry collection
will ever sell. Holiday readers aren't who I'm talking about. I'm not curious
about people who read only when there they're going to be out in the sun for
longer than it takes to read a magazine. I have some understanding of the
incidental reader. I want to know about the person who reads when he or she
could be doing something else. I'm interested in the people who walk into a
Waterstone's and skip past the tables full of books with stickers on them and
head straight for the shelves. Ooh, the danger! No employee recommendation, no
buy-two-get-one-free deal, just the author and title to entice this reader
into, perhaps, thumbing through to the beginning and reading the first
paragraph. The readers who seek out things to read.
I'm interested, primarily, because I can't be sure such people aren't chimeras.
It's a different prospect entirely for a playwright like David Britton, whose Windsongs
of the Blessed Bay played to packed houses during its recent run at
Taliesin, and enjoyed, I'm sure, similarly bountiful audiences touring Wales.
He can sit in the audience and survey the crowd, hear them laugh when
Australian bushranger Moondyne Joe brings his unique anecdotes to the play, or
the astonished breaths when the giant Bendigeidfran puppet makes his entrance.
But an author can't see a reader's engagement in the same way. Recent MA
graduate, Rebecca John, can't see the readers enjoying her prize-winning short
story collection Clown's Shoes; can't see how the superbly-crafted
stories affect each of her readers. And when colleague and bad film aficionado
Nicko Vaughan launches her book Rubber Sharks and
Wooden Acting: The Ultimate Bad Movie Guide, she'll be able to see
people buying the book, which is a boost to the ego, but she won't see them
reading it. Writers can't know their readers – not in a way that wouldn't
involve the police.
All these words and I'm no closer to knowing who reads for reading's sake. How
about you? Have you stumbled here – even better, come here deliberately – to
the latest instalment of the Swansea Review because you're simply
interested to read what we've published? I hope so, because where and what we
publish is a pointless debate if there's nobody interested in reading it.
Dr Alan Kellermann’s poems have appeared in such journals as Agenda, Poetry Ireland Review, Planet, New Welsh Review and Main Street Rag (USA). His first full collection, You, Me and the Birds was published by Parthian Books. He won the Eleanor B North and Judson Q Owen awards from Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society. In 2013, he became poetry editor for Parthian Books. He is currently finalising an epic, working on a second collection, and editing three new Parthian poetry titles. Alan is Lecturer in Creative Writing at Swansea University.