A Powys renaissance

How optimistic do you feel about the prospects for John Cowper Powys’s books? In an appropriately throwaway kind of manner, I’ve sometimes suggested that our culture of relentless digital entertainment means Powys might be “in danger of running out of readers”.

It’s heartening to see people disagree. In a response to an email, Adam Curtis, the BBC documentary-maker, said he didn’t think there was a need to worry just yet.

“I’m convinced Powys’ time is coming – the emotional radar in peoples’ heads is searching for that kind of powerful romanticism which bundles up nature and politics and inner feelings. They yearn to find something beyond that banal and dried up culture that is around at the moment. Someone clever will come along soon and turn [A Glastonbury Romance] into a TV series. It would be a total hit.”

Simon Heffer has pointed to the Faber Finds re-prints as a positive sign. Similarly, he’s also been campaigning for a TV dramatisation of his favourite, in this case Wolf Solent.

Like many other people I want to see Powys embraced by generations of new readers, taken seriously, enjoyed over the centuries in the same way that authors like Cervantes, Rabelais and Blake continue to be enjoyed (and kept in print). But there are different varieties of success. Would Powys care about mainstream popularity or even whether he was known as a literary pillar? He certainly wanted his books to sell. He needed the money. But when it came to literary fame he seemed ambivalent: wasn’t it all a matter of right place, right time (and then making a lot of noise about yourself)?

Worldly success has become a modern ‘essential’, but in itself can end up being something terminally bland. Reading Powys there’s a clear sense of how failures can be more rewarding, stimulating, bracing.

2 thoughts on “A Powys renaissance

  1. Many of Powys’ novels have multi-episode TV dramatization potential, although such adaptations would probably annoy purists. I’ve always thought Porius would work well on TV but I imagine the producers would throw in a Game of Thrones element. Still, it might drive some viewers back to the books. An afterlife on TV seems to be how many authors of yore keep themselves in the public eye these days so with luck Powys will find his way to the small screen before too long.
    It’s interesting to me that most of Powys’ most popular novels are still not available for Kindle, at least not here in the US. You can find Wood & Stone, The Brazen Head, and Atlantis, and then there are some essays and the Autobiography, but not Wolf Solent or Weymouth Sands or Glastonbury Romance. Certainly not Porius.
    I remember searching Boston bookstores, mostly in vain, for a copy of the Autobiography many years ago. Eventually, I found one for what to me was a small fortune at the time. Now I can download it in seconds so that’s progress of a sort, I suppose.

  2. Powys readers have been worrying about this for years. I think it is safe to say that he will not be forgotten, because he has now left too many traces, and there is a lot of writing about him. I think he will be rediscovered again and again in a patchy and erratic kind of way, as hitherto, and I am content with that. At one time, in the days of Dr. Leavis, Powys readers hoped to elevate him into the ‘canon’, but now the canon itself has become more diffuse, as have English studies at universities. I think we should just go on enjoying him in our own way and recommend him by word of mouth, as in an underground network. This ensures he will never become safe or conventionally acceptable.

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