Books, book prices, and critical theory

For a long time I’ve been helping to undermine bookshops. I mean the ones that sell new books at the recommended retail price. I don’t count Tesco and its discounted volumes and pathetic ‘Richard & Judy’ recommendations. ‘Undermining’, because I now buy all my books on Amazon or ebay. Last week I bought a signed, limited-edition copy of Rhys Davies’s Arfon for £3; a month before that, a secondhand copy in mint condition of Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock for one penny – or what Amazon quaintly describes as £0.01; plus £2.80 postage, of course, in all cases; but who’s quibbling about that? A lot of the Amazon sellers are big wholesale dealers in secondhand books who proclaim their charitable status by virtue of buying up discarded public library stock, selling it at daft prices and ploughing at least some of the profits into the development of new libraries and old ones replenishing their shelves. I don’t now how that works but it seems plausible enough. One of the joys of buying books this way is to discover their varied provenances. A copy of Peter Taylor’s In The Miro District arrived at one remove from the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, Fredericksburg, Virgina, which – presumably having taken it off the shelves and invoked some odd system of reversed philanthropy – had presented it to ‘Dennis and Mary Butts’ for their ‘outstanding contribution to the English tradition’. My attempts to find out about this couple, however, resulted in a frosty, unhelpful reply from the library’s staff. So I still find the inscription intriguing.
Newly-published books seem to appear on Amazon before they’ve been printed. Meic Stephens’s biography of Davies – Rhys Davies: A Writer’s Life – won the non-fiction category at the 2014 Wales Book of the Year awards. It costs £20, but no-one sells it at that price. The arcane business of book-selling and book sales will always allow you to buy it for less. I should guess that, even in hardback, it will be available on Amazon for under £10 in a few months. My solution has been to borrow it from the library, read it, and promise myself that I shall buy it when its cost comes down to single figures. I still cannot understand how I bought a new hardcover copy of Richard Ford’s Canada for £0.01 on Amazon just three months after its publication. Ford’s a major figure. See what I mean by ‘arcane’? In a year, the Stephens book will be going for around a fiver.
Not the least attribute of Rhys Davies: A Writer’s Life is Stephens’s spare but stylish writing (he was for a time a Western Mail journalist) and his studious avoidance of biographical writing informed by critical theory. Having made the distinction and justified a life based on facts rather than opinions, he allows critical theory a look in. It comes in the shape of M Wynn Thomas, Professor of English at Swansea University, who argues for the ‘de-coding’ of Davies’s texts by identifying a hitherto anti-intellectual approach to Welsh writing in English based on, as I understand him, an unexamined view of Wales and Welshness as undifferentiated concepts. Thus, a critical appraisal of Davies the closeted homosexual would explain his obsession with dominant matriarchs, who may or may not be typical of South Wales valleys life at the time he was writing as an expatriate Welshman in London. In other words, Davies had a view of women divorced from a Welsh context, reinforcing his own view that he was simply a ‘writer’, not a ‘Welsh writer’. The problem I see with this otherwise commendable way of looking at a writer’s work is that the view arrived at by Davies concerning women, and their actual status, role and influence in Welsh working-class society, may be co-terminous – entirely unrelated but propitious. Had his obsession been otherwise, vis a vis women and their role, would he have been accused of getting it wrong?

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