I was quite shocked last night to read in the Guardian's article about the Forward Prize for Poetry shortlist, these words by Hugo Williams, one of the judges ("himself an award-winning poet), about the 147 poetry collections he and fellow judges had to consider:
"The books were all laid out on a table and I looked at the covers and the titles and thought how carefully each had been chosen ... the ambition and the beauty and the sensitivity," he said. "But an awful lot of them seemed to be published just because they existed, really. That's too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out. I think it's something to do with the democratisation of everything – that everyone's got a right to get a book out ... I've got the feeling that sometimes it's more about desire than worth."
(Emphasis is my own. Full article here.)
I read this quite late last night and then lay in bed thinking about why it upset me so. Too many books? 147? Why did Williams have to put it like this? What point was he trying to make? He could have just said that he didn't rate the majority of the poetry collections very highly - his subjective opinion - but rather he took the chance to criticise the industry as a whole. What he seems to be saying is, Publishers, stop publishing so many poetry collections because not everyone should have a book. Not everyone has the right to have a book "just because it exists".
OK, so how do I feel about this "publishing it because it exists" and the word "right"? Does everyone have the right to be published, to be chosen by a publisher? No, I don't believe that. The word "right" doesn't seem to me to encapsulate what writing and publishing is all about. But... writing and publishing are two different things. Does everyone have the right to write? Sure, why not? Do it, if you want, must, need. Do it as a hobby, do it as a profession. What right does anyone else have to stop you? But just by writing, this doesn't mean that there is some entitlement inherent in the act that leads to publication. I never really expected to have a book. I dreamt about it, but never felt the world owed it to me just because of the time I'd put into writing the stories.
And of course everyone now has the option of doing it themselves, which is, I believe - at least in the short story world - seen as an increasingly respectable way to produce your book, given the current climate. I don't see anything wrong in it, anyway. I don't know if the Forward prize accepts self-published collections. I just looked it up - they don't. So Williams is criticising the publishers.
I would be delighted if I heard that 147 short story collections were published in the UK in one year. Thrilled! Of course, I wouldn't expect to enjoy them all, would expect standards (which of course I set myself, in my own head) to vary. But it would be a great sign of the health of the market, no? Why would I choose to say that too many were published? I am trying to put myself in Williams' shoes. Perhaps if I felt great writers weren't getting published because of something wrong here, then I might make this comment. Is this what he's saying? Is he saying funding that many poetry publishers receive is being diluted/wasted, in his opinion?
I really can't make my mind up here - or rather, I can't enter into his mind.147 poetry collections? Compared with the 1000s of novels that are published? It's nothing. Can anyone shed any light on this for us?
In the meantime, congratulations to the shortlist for Best Poetry Collection:
- Seamus Heaney - Human Chain
- Lachlan Mackinnon - Small Hours
- Sinead Morrissey - Through the Square Window
- Robin Robertson - The Wrecking Light
- Fiona Sampson - Rough Music
- Jo Shapcott - Of Mutability