Friday, 1 December 2017

Who needs Literature Wales?

From "Dragon Red" by Shoo Rayner

Who needs Literature Wales?  This question is currently in the frame as the new Culture Minister, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, receives advice from the Assembly's Culture Committee and as he considers the options for reorganizing literature and publishing in our country.

In a hard-hitting article last July, author Jasmine Donahaye said (with respect to the criticisms of the Medwin Hughes Panel):   "Literature Wales has had this coming for a long time. It’s been poorly managed and poorly governed, and its accountability to its funding body, the Arts Council, has been woefully inadequate. Perhaps the review panel ran out of vituperation after its condemnation of Literature Wales though, for precious little is saved in the report for the Arts Council, even though it is the Arts Council that has allowed Literature Wales to operate with apparent risk to public money...........Many writers have clearly felt increasingly alienated from Literature Wales and the direction it has taken."

There are clearly many writers in Wales who feel that Literature Wales has become such a strange organization that we would all be better off without it.   Here are some of the written comments received by the Medwin Hughes Panel, when considering the support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales.  Correspondents' names are not publicised.  There are plenty of supportive comments (mostly from those who have been in receipt of bursaries) but these are some of the critical comments that deserve an airing:

Literature Wales does a number of very good things but it is too fragmented and too vulnerable to the whims of Welsh Government policy.

The remit of the organisation is confused and confusing. It does not represent writers' interests, nor does it promote writers. It is not a writers' agency. Indeed many writers object loudly and persistently to its focus on literary tourism, its downgrading of Book of the Year, and its popular projects that have little bearing on current writers and the promotion of their work. The Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl projects are nothing to do with current Welsh writers or their work. In fact they have served to eclipse Welsh writers, and reinforce internationally narrow and limited view of Welsh literature. 
Big branding projects such as celebrating dead authors connected to Wales are not working in the long term. They look backwards in time, they are top-down, and in the case of Roald Dahl they make Wales look desperate because they seem to want to rub off some of a great international writer’s shine onto Wales and looks as if we don’t have a contemporary scene. Of course there are piecemeal efforts to include contemporary writers in these projects but the main aim seems to be about associating Wales with existing older brands. This model could be pretty damaging in the long-run.

The money Lit Wales spends on activities associated with long-dead writers. Whilst I have no problem whatsoever in celebrating Wales' rich and diverse literary culture, and in bringing its writers to new audience, I do question the value of the Dylan Thomas centenary (and the now annual Dylan Day) and the Dahl centenary. This seems to me thinly disguised tourism, centred almost solely in South Wales, which supports already wealthy literary estates, while the development of new talent and the sustainability of the publishers face cuts after cuts. Lit Wales does some brilliant, important work, but this policy of giving money to the dead is very short-sighted. The impact on further cuts to Welsh publishing as a result of this will have a long-term cost to literary culture in Wales, particularly for the next Dylan Thomases.

The services (especially Literature Wales) are not joined up and do not seem to work in a grassroots consultative way with the whole scene. This means resources are wasted because they don’t take advantage of the talent and connections already working in the field and often it seems LW promote poor quality work because they are not able to reach out to the scene and find what is working and seem competitive rather than collaborative.

I cannot see the pathways from Literature Wales' bursaries to the Welsh publishers. There could potentially be a more connected partnership, particularly where emerging writers are concerned, that extends beyond the bursary and critical mentoring into support for first publication.

Literature Wales is not really working as well as it should. It is only really good at promoting itself. It needs a new vision, a different kind of leadership in order to be properly collaborative, responsive and imaginative.

The Lit Wales website needs revamping, it is old fashioned, it makes it difficult to find out how and when or even if the bursaries are available and it could be a lot more active on social media.

There are some schemes run by Literature Wales that fund writers directly, and encourage writing from a young age, and these should be the core projects. There are times when a showcase for writers is useful, but it's of limited value if we're not encouraging new writers and readers.

Literary festivals, and I am thinking particularly of Dinefwr, should have more literature and comparatively less popular music and reliance on 'stars' to bring in the punters. Careful thought should be given to what literature festivals are actually for.

There should be far less emphasis on 'competitions'. There is a place for one or two such as the Wales Book of the Year or the John Tripp prize for spoken poetry but the apparently endless proliferation of them devalues the whole art of writing. Writers should encouraged to engage readers, not strive to win competitions. Selling books is a finer achievement than winning prizes and does more to raise the profile of writers in Wales.

Literature Wales' bursaries for writers scheme is not responsive to the needs of writers. The length of time between making an application for funding and getting a decision, is too long. A faster scheme for smaller projects - say 1 month - would be much more writer friendly. 

Tŷ Newydd seems to be heading for privatisation under Literature Wales who seem to be looking for ways to make money out of through tourism and corporate events in order to recoup their losses because their courses are not full and the centre is unsustainable if it is not run properly (which it has been in the past). But it was a resource that was bought specifically for the writers of Wales, most of whom do not get its benefits because they cannot afford to visit. Who is now able to enjoy it? It seems mostly Literature Wales staff and well-off would-be writers. Perhaps a more co-operative model could be devised to make sure that the grassroots readers and writers can also benefit from it but also be a part of making it work - e.g. have a stake in its running.

The Writers on tour scheme is too cumbersome and poorly funded to achieve its aims. Literature Wales appears to focus on educational (school) initiatives and young writers rather than the writer community as a whole.

Get rid of Literature Wales and probably the whole Arts Council - consult, design and develop a new strategy to support literature in Wales (if necessary) - then consult design and develop some more - get *new* constituencies of people - especially writers and artists who are outside the core cabals.
Literature Wales has been made less effective and more bureaucratic by its reorganisation and the role of writers in it has been diminished. The semi-detachment of Academi from it has weakened the position of writers, and the abandoning of AGMs for Academi has deprived writers of an important forum. Cuts in funding for Writers on Tour are a major blow.

The value of Literature Wales is difficult to evaluate.
There is still an awful lot of creativity in the sector and when organisers and curators focus on quality - something that Literature Wales sometimes doesn’t seem able to do - some amazing things can happen. But as with anything in the current market economy, development is limited.

Literature Wales rarely publishes local events of reading series that do not adhere to a certain (unknown) mandate. Several highly interesting and well-known authors that have read in Cardiff received no notice.

Literature Wales only seems to work in Cardiff, Gwynedd (Ty Newydd) and wherever the Eisteddfod is. I cannot remember the last time I saw a LW event in West or Mid Wales. It is notable that the poetry scene is more connected in a community than the fiction scene (through my observations) - probably because of the distribution of live events.

We need a writers' organisation that is either separate from Literature Wales, or a Literature Wales that supports and promotes living, working writers. The Writers on Tour support has been cut so much as to make it difficult or impossible for many venues to pay writers for events; writers themselves will often find themselves out of pocket for events because of the poor fees payable and the poor rates of travel reimbursement. At the very least to show support for writers, the portion paid by Literature Wales should be returned to its previous level. Literature Wales needs to reassess its priorities, and shift funding from the big-scale literary spectacle and literary tourism to instead support sustainable levels of support and promotion of writers.

A lot of money from what I can see, goes towards promoting books via live events within Wales. Having seen an ad for the Art Tent in the Eisteddfod in The London Review of books recently made me wonder why welsh books aren't promoted that way - to a very broad spectrum of readers outside Wales? I feel that the live events are often poorly attended and are made up of those people who are all ready in the know.

The Welsh Academy & Literature Wales & the Welsh Government are all too close --- a bit of creative friction would produce a better result. The Welsh Literary Establishment appears as a clique ---- the same names featuring again and again with a tendency to endorse celebrity culture. There should be an effort towards democratisation. The outcomes would be more people being and feeling involved.

I would do things 100 per cent differently. Do not pander to the subsidy-junkies because they cannot, meaningfully, provide useful large-scale employment to the publishing sector. Target large London publishing houses to set up back office, even front office, operations here. This is exactly the approach that the Welsh government is taking in relation to professional services - and it has borne fruit. These are real, high value, tangible jobs, that are self sustaining. Attract the social media companies to set up publishing hubs in the city - the Buzzfeeds, the Facebooks, the Huffington Posts of this world. This involves selling and marketing to these operations, not simply shovelling cash to established, vested, interests.

I don't think English language fiction and non-fiction should be subsidised - they should be subjected to market forces. Whilst this would reduce the amount and nature of what is published, overall it should improve quality via proper editing and reduce the number of niche works by the same old names.

There is a clique of the same writers who receive a disproportionate amount of support/publication subsidy. There should be more attempts to publish and promote emerging writers on a national level.
The Welsh publishing industry is very heavily subsidised, to the extent that many books are published which would never have seen the light of day in England. That is because across the border publishers do not, by and large, publish books if they do not think they will sell and turn a profit. They have to carry the risks. In Wales, in contrast, many publishers inhabit a comfort zone in which subsidies enable them to publish books which hardly anybody actually wants -- and which will never repay their costs via sales. In other words, they are entirely non-commercial, and are products of a system entirely dependent upon subsidies and grants. It's easy to say: "Ah yes, we need those books anyway, because we need a vibrant publishing industry and because these books help us to define ourselves as a nation." But do we really need (and can we really afford?) a flood of non-commercial titles in Wales?

 Actual sales figures for books in Wales are seldom publicised. That is because it suits everybody to keep as quiet as possible. It is widely known that in Wales a book is counted as a "best seller" if it sells 700 copies. At that level, if the publishers were operating in a real commercial world, a book might just about cover its costs -- there is no way it could be considered as a best-seller.

The WBC grant aid programme for publishers specifically excludes aid to small publishers which are run by writers and which are in effect self-publishing enterprises. In other words, there is no attempt to differentiate between self-publishing and vanity publishing. This is not very sophisticated! I have published an 8-novel saga (set in West Wales) which has racked up sales of over 80,000 copies -- which means that the books are professionally produced and well enough written to have become highly successful. But I received no financial help from WBC. That was rather galling when I see grant aid being dished out to scores of titles that have sold hardly at all........ if I had received grant aid, I would have been able to put much more effort into marketing, design and publicity. (This comment was from me)

Self-published books are also barred from competitions, according to the current rules. So my main fiction title, which has sold over 35,000 copies, could not be entered and could not compete on a level playing field with other titles of lower quality and more limited appeal. (This comment was from me) Need to be more Commercial
The main challenges faced are those of developing a viable commercial model. The sector (apart from Accent Press) is almost entirely reliant on a grant system which in effect keeps large areas of publishing skill at 'amateur' level. With poor editors, authors remain poor in terms of skill and ability. With no real free-market testing or accountability, publishing is shielded from being competitive, with publishers instead choosing to chase (often pointless and self-promoted) awards as a success criteria instead of sales. The funding model means most publishers in Wales are actually incentivised NOT to sell lots of copies of a book, as this would leave them with a tougher case to make for winning the next grant. The whole scene is doomed to amateurism and as a result cannot produce a product capable of selling outside of Wales, and often not even capable of selling within Wales. I know no system like it in the world.

I wonder if a little more exposure to the hard commercial world might actually make the Welsh publishing scene a bit leaner and more efficient, without in any way threatening our civilisation and our great Welsh cultural traditions? For example, just to encourage publishers and writers to think a bit more seriously about what the market actually wants, and to take marketing rather more seriously, it might be rather a good idea to insist that if a book sells fewer than 1,000 copies in its first two years, any grants and subsidies paid must be paid back.......... and by that I mean REAL sales, involving real money, and excluding all returns.

Literature promotion agencies, grant-giving bodies and distributors within Wales need to ensure they understand the realities of the global publishing trade to target resources as effectively as possible at publishers as well as at readers and writers.

Cultural and Economic impact of the industry
The key challenge is the contradiction between cultural imperative and economic realities. Like any nation, Wales needs a thriving publishing industry that provides a platform for its own specific cultural output; to document its own history, its specific cultural heritage and traditions, in both languages.

Both the publishing sector and Literature Wales face the challenge of popular and government arguments about accessibility and value for money. Though both involve economic activity, and publishing supports a wide network of jobs, the value of cultural activity needs to be protected. It's indicative that where we once had a Culture Minister, the culture portfolio, which includes literature and publishing, is now a minor part of the Economy portfolio.

Balance between both languages
 Looking inwards the balance between the two main languages is always an area of debate. In theory English language literature and culture has the Anglophone world as its potential market while Welsh language authors need support due the limits of the audience. But Anglophone culture has to fight for a space in a crowded field, while the Welsh language community continues to support its authors and writers by buying their books. Parity is, I think, key.  Culture can function as means of uniting the nation across lines of language and background.

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