An article published in this month’s edition of the Welsh-language magazine Barn (translation – Opinion) caused teacups to rattle across Wales.
Interestingly, the article’s author, Emlyn Evans, was the very first editor of Barn.
He begins by a way of apologising, explaining that he’s going to do something he is loath to do, which is to attack the literature of his beloved country.
Evans is outraged by contemporary Welsh-language novelists’ use of vulgar language and swearing, which he finds morally reprehensible.
The fact that most of the writers he lists are women makes the situation far worse, in his opinion.
Swearing is bad enough, he says, but when women do it, it’s beyond the pale.
He ends with a call to bring back censorship in literature.
You can imagine the angry response to this extreme view on Twitter.
Nevertheless, I believe his article contained several interesting points.
The first, his choice of writers. The ones he named and shamed – Caryl Lewis, Bethan Gwanas, Manon Rhys and Dewi Prysor – are some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed fiction writers of today.
Between them they have a cabinet full of prestigious awards. Caryl Lewis won Wales Book of the Year in 2005 for her novel Martha, Jac a Shanco, which was later adapted into a major S4C film. Bethan Gwanas was won the Tir na n-Og prize in 2001 and 2003, and has been short-listed for Wales Book of the Year in 2005.
Manon Rhys has also been short-listed for Book of the Year, and in 2011 won the National Eisteddfod prose medal for Neb Ond Ni. Dewi Prysor has been shortlisted twice for Wales Book of the Year, and in 2011 won the People’s Prize.
However edgy or contemporary their novels may be, they are in fact very much part of the literary establishment – the crème de la crème of modern Welsh-language fiction.
And I was disappointed that one of the best writers working in Wales today, Cardiff novelist Llwyd Owen, was overlooked by Evans. He deserves to be considered in any discussion on swearing and vulgar language, and I would happily recommend some titles for Evans’ perusal.
The other interesting aspect of Evans’ article is the level of detail he goes into when analysing the writers’ use of swear words.
His approach is forensic, and I imagine the writers would be flattered by his close reading of their text.
He lists the number of swear words on one page, for example, and notes specific pages which hold particularly offensive passages and naughty words.
A recent report commissioned by the Welsh Books Council showed that there has been an increase in the number of people reading Welsh-language books, particularly young people.
This is extremely heartening news, which is bucking the trend in terms of wider reading habits.
The popular appeal of the writers named above, coupled with the high standard of their writing, means that young people have access to the type of books in the Welsh language that their parents or teachers might not want them to read.
And this is precisely the point.
The former Young People’s Laureate, Catherine Fisher, cited reading as a dangerous and subversive act.
When I was at school we didn’t have these novels in Welsh. I turned to American fiction for my bit of danger.
Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero was passed around the school playground like contraband rum.
I’m grateful to Emlyn Evans for his article – for identifying a group of exciting, accessible and high-quality writers in Welsh, and for his close analysis of the content.
I’m also grateful to him for practising his right to free speech, and for publishing an uncensored and controversial article, with opinions he knew would be unpopular.
Mostly though, particularly after the Twitter storm that followed, I’m grateful to him for showing that Welsh literature still really matters.