Earlier this year, we shared an archive article written by our founder Cary Archard in 1981 shortly after Seren, then called Poetry Wales Press, branched out into traditional publishing. In a second post, Cary shared some of the long-lasting friendships which helped Seren grow into the press it is today. In this new post, he reflects on some of the great books and writers we have published over the years, many of which continue to resonate today.
From Poetry Wales Press to Seren
It may have all begun with the realisation that many poets in Wales were not being published but soon my ambition widened. Not just poets but writers were being neglected. So within Poetry Wales Press, the Seren imprint was set up for prose, and in 1989 the name Poetry Wales Press was quietly dropped and the briefer, friendlier, more aspirational SEREN became the masthead (much easier to fit on the spine too) in recognition that the intention now was to publish the full range of genres – from poetry, of course, to fiction, biography, essays, even art and photography books.
I must mention two early debates. At the start, publishers in Wales applied for grant support (from the Arts Council) on a book by book process. Seren initiated a fundamental change when it became the first publisher to receive a block grant which enabled us to plan an annual programme of publications. The result was startling: from half a dozen titles a year to a dozen and soon to twenty or more. The press’s performance was regularly assessed but the new approach was clearly ground-breaking and soon other publishers in Wales benefitted from the same practice. The second debate could be more heated. Should Seren confine itself to Welsh authors? There was certainly a need. The question was; was Seren a publishing house in Wales or a publishing house for Wales? If a good proposal came from outside Wales, should it be disregarded? What if it made sense commercially to publish? Finally it was decided the focus would always be on Wales and its writers but there should also be a recognition of the wider world, its influences and opportunities. (Even extended later to books in translation.)
The growth of the Series
One of the fruits of the block grant approach was our series of Series. One of the first was the comprehensive Border Lines Series edited by the remarkable poet and critic, John Powell Ward. With over twenty titles it included introductory biographies of writers, composers and artists of the Welsh Marches. A reader might have expected to see Elgar, Vaughan, Margiad Evans, Kilvert and Housman, but the Series also included Chatwin, Ellis Peters and Francis Brett Young. Its distinctive yellow and green jacketed volumes have now become collectors’ items. This was soon followed by the ‘REAL’ Series, edited by the wonderful Peter Finch who started with his own idiosyncratic ‘Real’ guides to Cardiff and then persuaded other writers to write their own very personal takes on their home towns. With more than two dozen titles, the Series seems to grow annually. If you want to find out about the real Port Talbot, Cambridge or Glasgow you know where to go.
A very different sort of series ran from 2009 to 2013. In New Stories from the Mabinogion, edited by Penny Thomas, ten contemporary Welsh authors chose one of the medieval tales to reinvent and retell in their own ways. The result: ‘Seren’s series….may be the greatest service to the Welsh national epic since Lady Charlotte Guest (The Guardian)’. A mention should also be made of the look of these books and of Matthew Bevan’s beautiful designs.
Three first novels
From all the wonderful books published in the last forty years, I’d like to draw attention to three first novels. In 1988 Seren published Christopher Meredith’s Shifts, a novel that has become a classic of post-industrial Welsh life. It’s that rare thing, a fiction of real working lives. ‘A beautiful, under-stated first novel. More than a bitter, angry novel, Shifts is a sad and loving one. The prose is spare and poetic, at once plain and rich, musical in its rhythms of speech and clear descriptions’, sang the New York Times. It was followed by many more books of poetry and prose by Meredith, most recently Please and Still, that Seren has been privileged to publish.
A 2004 debut novel began with ‘Many years ago a strange incident took place in this town. The event, which went unobserved by the rest of the world, would have sunk into obscurity here also, but for the scribblings of an old bar tender and dogsbody at the Blue Angel’. This was Mr Vogel by Lloyd Jones a man who had walking, crisscrossed the whole of Wales absorbing its stories and characters out of which he fashioned a book which stretched the conventions of novel writing to breaking point. Jan Morris, no less, called it, ‘One of the most remarkable books ever written on the subject of Wales’. It went on to win the McKitterick Award and be shortlisted for the Everyman Wodehouse Prize. Lloyd’s second novel, Mr Cassini, won the Wales Book of the Year Award in 2007. His novels remain two of the most exciting and original books which Seren has published.
And the third of these first novels: The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness, who was better known at the time as a poet, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011. Set in a paranoid Bucharest in 1989, it vividly captures the tensions of Ceausescu’s last days. This thrilling story was probably the most commercially successful of all Seren’s novels. ‘A wonderfully good read, giving one a convincing taste of how it might be to live under the most surreal kind of communist rule…’ was typical of the reviews it garnered. It won the Wales Book of the Year Award for 2012 and the Writer’s Guild Award for Fiction. Patrick’s exciting ‘detective’ novel, Throw Me to the Wolves (Jonathan Cape) won the Encore Award. Seren has recently published Patrick’s encyclopaedic, Real Oxford in our Real Series.
Seren at 40: In the Beginning – An archive article written by Cary Archard shortly after Seren’s inception in 1981.
Seren at 40: Looking back – Seren Friendships – Cary reflects on the long-lasting friendships that have helped Seren during the last 40 years.
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