Thursday, 30 November 2017

Writer's Bursaries in Wales -- what are the outcomes?

Antique pirate blunderbuss pistol.  With this, you are guaranteed to hit something when you pull the trigger, even with your eyes closed......

Writer's Bursaries in Wales -- what are the outcomes?

The writers’ bursary scheme operated by Literature Wales, with apparently widespread support, is a well established part of the Welsh literary scene. Published writers and new and emerging writers are eligible for awards, designed to enable them to concentrate on developing a specific work in progress across a twelve month period.  Both Welsh and English language projects are supported. For 2018, it appears that 20 writers will receive fixed bursary sums of £3k apiece, but in the past some of the recipients have been professors or well-paid senior academics with salaries in excess of £50,000 per year, and others have been already established and successful writers; this has led commentators like Julian Ruck to complain about a favoured few who enjoy a more or less continuous ride on a gravy train.   Others have also commented that there is a group of favoured writers who feature over and again in book prize shortlists, judging panels, literary tours, book fairs and festivals, and lists of cash grant recipients. There are complaints about revolving doors and an uncomfortably close relationship between certain university departments and the “literary establishment” based in Cardiff.  The employees of Literature Wales have acquired extraordinary powers of patronage, and can make or break literary careers.  The Welsh Academy, which existed to represent the interests of the Welsh writing community, has effectively been killed off.  That has happened under the noses of Arts Council Wales and the Welsh Government.  So is the literary scene in Wales shot through with corruption?  Or are revolving doors and incestuous relationships inevitable in a small country with a relatively small community of active writers?  Maybe the real problem is not cynical corruption but poor governance, inadequate “due diligence” testing, and slack financial controls.

The bursaries league table:

The bursaries list 2011 - 2017

Literature Wales reports that since 2004, it has awarded over £1.2 million in Writers’ Bursaries, supporting 259 writers, while generating 133 books.  That means that just half of the supported writers have gone on to complete and publish books, over a 13-year period.  The other half have produced, between them, a few articles. To give us some indication of value for money or cost-effectiveness, we need to see the audited sales figures to date, for each book published.

Before we come to that, we have to accept that there is great enthusiasm for the bursaries scheme among writers in Wales.  Last year there were 151 applications for funds, and but only 21 awards could be made.  The bursary panel was highly complimentary of the quality of the applications received. When we look at the comments of past bursary recipients, there is abundant and unabashed praise from those who feel that they have “bought time to write” or “time to dream”; from those who feel that they have been “valued” or “validated” as writers; or from those who have received help from the mentoring scheme.  That’s all great, and we cannot doubt that all those involved are expressing genuine sentiments.  After all, if there is money available, one would be foolish not to try and get hold of some of it.  And having got it, one does not bite the hand that feeds one!  Let's accept that the bursary scheme administered by LW probably does encourage people to write and does enhance creativity among aspiring writers.  Let’s also accept that the creative life of Wales is also enhanced in some way, and that a country in which a lot of people are writing creatively is a better place than a country in which people just read or watch the telly.  And as LW reminds us, every now and then a superstar comes through the ranks and gets a big publishing deal, and that makes everything worthwhile. The blunderbuss approach -- if your spread is wide enough, every now and then you will hit something.

But does this all indicate that Wales is a place which enjoys “a vibrant literary culture”?  Not necessarily.  It might actually be a literary culture that is virtually moribund, for if it depends upon public handouts in order to stay alive, that means it is incapable of surviving on its own in the harsh realities of the commercial world.  People who sit with begging bowls, expecting largesse, make things very uncomfortable for dispassionate observers -- and in their sycophancy and servility they demean themselves. And because the bursaries panel members “show faith in them” by giving them grants, they may actually develop completely unrealistic impressions of their own abilities.  Some of them apparently think that they are artists, when in fact they would be best described as apprentices beginning to learn a trade.

Let’s not forget that writers are the creators of products — the fruits of their labours are BOOKS, while artists produce paintings and potters make pots.  Writers need publishers if they are to survive -- they are the ones who get their books  into print and into the hands of the reading public.  But does the public actually want to read them or buy them?  This is a crunch question.

I don’t like the way that Julian Ruck attacks both the motives and the talents of named writers, and I have no intention of following his miserable example.  After all, I’m a writer myself, and I am not going to sit in judgment on my fellow writers.  I might express views on their books, as literary critics and avid readers have always done, but that is a different matter.  The only “outcome” that is measured by Literature Wales as a measure of the success — or otherwise — of the bursary programme is the number of books published by bursary recipients.  They don’t have to be big books, or expensive books, or good books — just books with authors, publishers and ISBNs which are more substantial than pamphlets or leaflets.  We know how many there are.  Thus far, as indicated above, 133 books have been published following the distribution of bursaries to 259 writers.  So half of the bursaries have led to books being published, and half have not. Is that an acceptable rate of return on investment?  Does that represent value for money for the taxpayer?  How many people have read these books?  Are the books wanted or needed by anybody other than the authors and their families?

Surprisingly (or is it?) nobody seems to have the answers to these questions.  I asked Literature Wales to provide me with the cumulative sales figures for each of the 133 books published, and obtained no response.  I asked them again, and they admitted that they didn’t keep any figures on book sales with respect to bursary recipients.  Neither does Arts Council Wales.  Neither does Welsh Books Council.  (This is in spite of all the books being counted as "arising from"  the bursary programme, which some of them clearly are not. The most successful ones, from the most talented authors, would probably have been published with or without grant aid.)  Rather cheekily, Lleucu Siencyn, the Chief Executive of LW, suggested that I could collect the book sales data myself, by sending 133 fees to Nielsen / Bookscan for their EPOS (electronic point of sale) information.  I explained to her that EPOS data are useless in Wales, since so few book retail outlets are linked into the relevant system.  She also suggested that the Welsh Books Council Distribution Depot in Abersytwyth might hold the data needed, and I had to explain to her that their figures are also unreliable since a large numbers of books sold in Wales do not pass through any wholesale warehouse.  The only reliable sales figures are those contained in the cumulative royalty statements kept by publishers and issued to their contracted authors.  I still await the figures for book sales…….. and I suspect that (apart from a few happy exceptions) they will make miserable reading.

It is still my conclusion, from an analysis of all the data I have been able to gather, that the 50% of bursary recipients who do write books are going to be deeply saddened when they realise that hardly anybody wants to buy them or read them. So are they winners or losers? The publishing of mediocre or bad books in Wales is very easy, because all of the larger Welsh publishers can publish with minimal commercial risk.  They can publish more or less what they want, and cover ALL of the publishing costs via publishing grant aid from the Welsh Books Council, meaning that it does not actually matter whether a title succeeds in the market place or not.  They do not even have to work hard on their marketing, and prefer to move on to the next project. That's a disservice both to writers and to the reading public.  Risk-free publishing or Publishing in Paradise, with titles coming off the production line whether or not the market actually wants them.  That’s another issue, worthy of another blog post, about which the taxpayer might have an opinion……..

Overall, when I look at the writer’s bursary scheme in Wales, I see a scheme run by well-meaning people who believe that they are encouraging creativity in the writing community, at relatively low cost to the taxpayer. They have a point.  However, the scheme's reputation is dragged down by the awards of multiple grants to favoured individuals (inviting accusations of favouritism within an establishment clique), by inadequate internal governance and external supervision, and by an apparent reluctance to accept that writing and publishing are commercial activities in a competitive market-place.  So I was not surprised the other day when I got a message from Catrin Collier (one of the most successful authors in Wales), who drew my attention to an old adage often repeated in commercial publishing houses: "When English writers write a book they look for a publisher - Welsh writers look for a bursary”.

What's to be done?  I have suggested to the Culture Minister on more than one occasion that he should insist on much tighter rules for the Bursary scheme.  Bursaries should become loans instead of grants. This is what I wrote in August:
"Please bring in a rule (enforcible by contract) stating that if a book sells fewer than 1,000 copies in its first two years, any grants and subsidies awarded to either writer or publisher must be paid back. That means REAL audited sales, involving real money, and excluding all returns............ This would encourage writers to think much more seriously about what they should spend their time on, and encourage publishers to be much more selective about what they publish.  With a bit of luck, we might get a move away from large-scale vanity publishing by a mutual admiration society into something which concentrates on what the market actually wants.  We might also get a recognition that publicity and marketing need to be taken much more seriously in Wales by a publishing industry which has been largely protected from this nasty thing called commercial risk."

In view of the fact that 50% of bursary recipients do not produce anything, I now suggest another rule stating that if a bursary recipient fails to publish a book within three years of receiving an award, then it must be repaid in full.  In other words, the bursary becomes a loan which may or may not be forgiven.  That may sound a bit harsh, but it would cut back dramatically on frivolous bursary applications, win respect from the taxpayer, and concentrate a few minds within the literary establishment. 

Jo Mazelis on being a Welsh writer

This is a very interesting 2015 article from Jo Mazelis -- well worth sharing.  The perception that -- in a literary sense -- nothing good comes out of Wales is rather widespread. As Jo says: "To be published in Wales is a very particular sort of thing, seemingly just one step removed from being published by a vanity press." This backs up what Catrin Collier said to me the other day, referring to an old adage often repeated in commercial publishing houses: "When English writers write a book they look for a publisher - Welsh writers look for a bursary". So do English readers, English bookshops and English publishers really look down their noses at Welsh writers, and assume that books published in Wales are too poorly written and "too parochial" ever to be of any interest anywhere else?  I have to say that this is the attitude I encountered when I tried to get "On Angel Mountain" published by a mainstream (ie English) publishing house.  I tried over 50 publishing houses, and they all said "Historical fiction set in Wales? Nobody reads that sort of stuff."  I doubt that any of them ever got as far as reading the first chapter which I sent with my letter.  I tried to get a London-based agent and wrote to more than 50 of them --and again the response was "Forget it.  Nobody reads historical fiction set in Wales."  So in the end I went it alone, and have thus far sold 36,000 copies of the book in spite of everything........

So what is the root of the problem, and what is to be done about it?  The issues are complex, and there are no easy answers to that question.  But for a start, we can reduce the ludicrous level of subsidies dished out in Wales to both writers and publishers, and stop the production of subsidised titles that nobody wants and nobody reads.  In other words, we must stop the Welsh vanity publishing industry in its tracks, dismantle it and replace it with something which is fit for purpose.  We must try to demonstrate to the world that Welsh books are good enough to have been published anywhere, that they are commercial in the sense that they are designed to sell into specific markets, and that Welsh writers are just as capable as writers anywhere else of producing titles with a truly international appeal.  Much work to be done......

Running Away
Once people took pride in local authors, but now 'local' means parochial  
Jo Mazelis

The first kisses I knew were Welsh. As were the first fists. Which is to say I am Welsh. I think it’s true that my imagination is always running away with me. Or just running away; from Wales, from London, from the self. Perhaps this is why my first published novel’s story has nothing to do with Wales. But then why should it? It was written in Wales by a Welsh woman but it does not address the issue of national identity because the spring-heeled Jack of my imagination ran away.
I lived in London for 12 years from 1979 to 1991. At one point I tried to enrol in Michèle Roberts’ creative writing class at the City Lit but it was completely oversubscribed. Now I have to wonder if my career as an author might not have been very different if I had got a place in her class. If I had stayed in London.
My novel took four years to write and rewrite. It is written in English, set primarily in France, and has an international cast of characters. The book found a home with an independent Welsh publisher with an excellent reputation, Seren, whose stated aim is ‘to bring Welsh literature, art and politics before a wider audience.’
A week after the book was published I went into the local branch of Waterstones. I looked for my book in the general fiction section, I looked in the crime section, and finally in the ‘Welsh Interest’ section. My book was nowhere to be found. I asked at the counter. No, it was not in the shop. Nor was it on order. They would not be stocking it. The reason? No demand. In the past my status as a ‘local author’ had translated into validation and a recognition that not all authors are metropolitan based, and so my books had been stocked. It seemed there used to be more of a sense of communal pride in the fact that there were home-grown authors.
While I was standing there, humiliated, a young female customer came to the till with her chosen purchase, the latest novel by Sarah Waters. Waters, like me, is Welsh. But she is published by Virago, so she isn’t local. And self evidently there is demand for her books.
This ‘local’ issue presupposes that, as in Royston Vasey, the fictional town in BBC Television’s The League of Gentlemen, local shops and thus local books are much in demand with local people. Strange as it may seem, those people who read contemporary fiction in Wales, the ones who are young graduates, or listen to Radio Four, or read the Independent or The Times, who form book groups, or teach English, or simply love books, are as in tune as their counterparts in Sussex, Yorkshire or Fife. They want to read Eleanor Catton or Joshua Ferris or Hilary Mantel, and they debate the merits of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or the latest Ian McEwan as hotly as anyone anywhere.
No author wants their book to appear in bookshops just because they are Welsh, they want it to be represented in the marketplace because it’s a good book. In a crowded marketplace the ‘local’ is perhaps the only toehold with which to start. But the gatekeepers at the bookshop don’t seem to have made their decision based on my book’s strengths or weakness, but on other more mysterious reasons.
They have effectively strangled my book at birth based on a prejudice. Where once books were included on a principle, now they are excluded, presumably on the same principle – seemingly without consideration of merit.
But, hold on, let’s get back to that ‘local shop’ in The League of Gentlemen. There it stands, isolated, bleak, decrepit and strange, a storm cloud of doom permanently over it. Hardly ever visited by any customers, and those who accidentally stumble upon it eventually come to regret it. The downside of local is parochial. Outdated. Outlandish. Suspect. Bad.
There was some good news however. I was told that WH Smith were stocking my book. I entered and went through the same sorry and reductive ritual. Fiction section? Nope. Crime? Nope. Local Interest? Yes. Yes. There it was, three copies of my cosmopolitan Francophile feminist noir, shelved between Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons and Welsh Teatime Recipes. In the same section I noticed that I was not the only Seren novelist represented there, as I spotted a copy of Patrick McGuinness’ Booker long-listed The Last Hundred Days. His novel is set in Romania, during Ceausescu’s last hundred days in power, but like me McGuinness is reduced to a local author apparently by dint of our publisher’s address. On the other hand neither book would be in the shop at all if it weren’t for this Welsh connection.
An author is meant to have a little humility, he or she cannot speak on behalf of the quality of their work; that should be assumed from the fact that a publisher believed in the work. The book, once published, should speak for itself. There it is in the bookstore waiting for someone – that mythical browser, that flâneur of the bookshop – to just pick it up.
We all perhaps still want to believe in this model of book buying; of actual customers going into actual shops, buying actual books for the price listed on the back. And it is this model which the local or the regional assumes. I did not expect to see my novel piled high in the window of Foyles on Charing Cross Road, but I did think I would find 2 or 3 or 4 copies of my book in Waterstones, in my hometown.
To be published in Wales is a very particular sort of thing, seemingly just one step removed from being published by a vanity press. Not dissimilar, in fact, to making the book oneself with the aid of photocopies and a cover made from a cereal box, all stitched together with loose ends of embroidery silk. The book in question may even bear traces of its creator’s blood.
The analogy of the homemade book a child might produce is not that extreme. The child has made the book to the very best of their ability; their indulgent parent (like those regional publishers) has done all in their power to make the book the best it can be. But none of that matters, not if Waterstones in the author’s home town will not waste its precious shelf space, will not give it that risk-free sale or return chance.
No demand, you see.

Jo Mazelis’s latest novel Significance is published by Seren.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Begging bowls and gravy trains

I've been around long enough to have rather a lot of contacts in the writing and publishing community -- and I was intrigued by a message today from a friend (Catrin Collier) who is one of the most successful writers in Wales (1).

Catrin referred to the "perception that corruption -- real or imagined -- exists in our profession", and drew my attention to an old adage often repeated in commercial publishing houses: "When English writers write a book they look for a publisher - Welsh writers look for a bursary".

I have been saying this for quite some time in this blog and in letters to the powers that be (2) -- but I had not realised that this was a common perception among the publishing houses based in London and elsewhere. If this is true -- and I am prepared to trust Catrin in this — we should be very worried indeed. For what it means is that Welsh writers who do have real talent and deserve to get a break in the world of commercial publishing -- or who may simply be seeking to find an agent -- will simply be tarred with the same brush as all those in Wales who subsist on subsidies and who publish books that the market does not want and the public will not read (3). Everything is devalued. Those who ride on the gravy train think of themselves as "validated writers" because Literature Wales has shunted £3,000 in their direction, whereas their talents may be very modest indeed (4).  Or maybe non-existent.  And the perception spreads that nothing good ever comes out of Wales. Sounds familiar?  Michael Sheen has recently commented upon this in other contexts (5).

Should we be angry?  Yes, we should.  Is the system corrupt?  Yes, of course it is, when among the recipients of bursaries we see university professor Alan Llwyd and others who are probably earning salaries in excess of £70,000 per year (6), and others including Hefin Wyn, Daniel Davies and Karen Owen who receive multiple grants so that they can (over and again) "buy time to write.” (7)  It's easy to justify the subsidy scheme on the basis that every now and then a real talent emerges from the crowd (8) -- but the effective isolation of writers and publishing houses from the commercial realities of life MUST in the end be counter-productive.

The Welsh writing and publishing scene is frequently represented by Literature Wales as being "vibrant and exciting” (9) -- but it is nothing of the sort.  It is more dead than alive.  So do we want the literary scene in Wales to become a laughing stock across the rest of the world, or do we want it to be respected? (10)  If we really do want the latter, we need to cut off bursaries completely or make them conditional on actual sales performance;  we need to cut dramatically the number of books being written and published in Wales; and we need to expose the whole industry to the cold realities of the commercial world.    Is the Welsh Government up to the task?  I wonder…….



This article is an annotated version of one published a couple of days ago, under the title "An industry that's lost its way." Since the article -- clearly and unabashedly an opinion piece -- was of rather broad interest to the local community of writers and readers I put a short note about it onto the PENfro Book Festival Facebook page and provided a hyperlink in case anybody wanted to read it. I thought maybe we could get a jolly discussion going.......... (There was no attempt on my part to pretend that the opinions expressed on my blog were those of the Committee or the Festival -- and I was acting in accordance with our decision back in October. This is what we said: "We are happy to make it clear that we encourage participation and debate within our community of readers, writers and publishers. We will post items containing opinions or comments, with the name of the person (usually a committee member) making the post. It goes without saying that the PENfro committee does not necessarily endorse the opinions of individuals! We welcome comments and ripostes, so long as the are "on topic" and are not defamatory. We will also try to report matters of common interest in the literary and publishing scene which might not get any coverage in the mainstream media. Please let us know if there are any issues that you think we should cover. ")

That was all pretty straightforward. But the content of the blog post was obviously too much like strong meat for some to swallow, and a complaint was made to our Chair by an anonymous "friend of the Festival" on the grounds that the piece was based on hearsay and that it was unsupported by evidence. She contacted me, and I explained that this was a social media opinion piece, not a research paper in a peer-reviewed journal, and that you don't cite your sources in opinion pieces. Anyway, she was concerned that the piece, and its link to the PENfro Facebook page might cause some loss of goodwill in certain quarters. Life is too short to risk the loss of good friends, and so I acceded to her request and removed the offending post......

As I explained to her, this leaves me very worried, since it smacks of an Orwellian world in which discussion and dissent are not tolerated, and where the establishment does what it likes and keeps everybody else in thrall. I still have this image in my mind of a community of subservient and cowed writers sitting in a row with their begging bowls, scared to death of upsetting Literature Wales and the other distributors of largesse! From my point of view, that's thoroughly demeaning and degrading. Frightening too, if all the writers concerned do not see what is happening to them.

Anyway, the post was not all hearsay and unsupported rumours and assertions. It was perfectly well founded and supported by mountains of evidence. Some of it is contained within the notes added below.

Final thought -- ironic, isn't it, that we in the writing community say over and again that we will defend the right to free speech with our lives, and then apparently cannot cope with any debate about how we organize ourselves?













Wednesday, 22 November 2017

An industry that's lost its way..........

I've been around long enough to have rather a lot of contacts in the writing and publishing community -- and I was intrigued by a message today from a friend who is one of the most successful writers in Wales.

The message referred to the "perception of corruption -- real or imagined -- that exists in our profession", and drew my attention to an old adage often repeated in commercial publishing houses: "When  English writers write a book they look for a publisher --  Welsh writers look for a bursary". 

I have been saying this for quite some time in this blog and in letters to the powers that be -- but I had not realised that this was a common perception among the publishing houses based in London and elsewhere.  If this is true -- and I am prepared to trust my friend in this --we should be very worried indeed.  For what it means is that Welsh writers who do have real talent and deserve to get a break in the world of commercial publishing  -- or who may simply be seeking to find an agent -- will simply be tarred with the same brush as all those in Wales who subsist on subsidies and who publish books that the market does not want and the public will not read.  Everything is devalued.  Those who ride on the gravy train think of themselves as "validated writers" because Literature Wales has shunted £3,000 in their direction, whereas their talents may be very modest indeed.   Or maybe non-existent.  And the perception spreads that  nothing good ever comes out of Wales.  Sounds familiar?

Should we be angry?  Yes, we should.  Is the system corrupt?  Yes, of course it is, when among the recipients of bursaries we see university professors who are earning salaries in excess of £75,000 per year, and others who receive multiple grants simply so that they can  (over and again) "buy time to write."  It's easy to justify the subsidy scheme on the basis that every now and then a real talent emerges from the crowd -- but the effective isolation of writers and publishing houses from the commercial realities of life MUST in the end be counter-productive.

The Welsh writing and publishing scene is frequently represented by Literature Wales as being "vibrant and exciting" -- but it is nothing of the sort.  It is more dead than alive.  So do we want the literary scene in Wales to become a laughing stock across the rest of the world, or do we want it to be respected?  If we really do want the latter, we need to cut off bursaries completely or make them conditional on actual sales performance;  we need to cut dramatically the number of books being written and published in Wales; and we need to expose the whole industry to the cold realities of the commercial world.    Is the Welsh Government  up to the task?  I wonder.......

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Our begging bowl culture

This is a very interesting article by Sawel ap Harri, with the title "Wales has the attitude of a beggar – we must decolonise our minds".  I agree with rather a lot of it -- indeed, it's very close indeed to what I have been saying for some time on this blog -- particularly with respect to the literary gravy train and the almost total dependence of writers and publishers on handouts from the taxpayer while others have to survive as best they can in a commercial marketplace.

Here is an extract:

Whether we like it or not, the majority of people in Wales do believe that we are too small, too poor and too uneducated to be independent.

We believe the worst about ourselves and have internalised in some form that England is our saviour and that we feed off her wealth.

This beggar attitude is constantly reinforced by the way devolution works. It has been created in a way where we are given money from the core, namely Westminster.

We must beg the central government for funds, the right to increase our meagre sums of power before gratuitously accepting our lot in a servile, sycophantic way.

Of course, the reality is that Wales does pay to the central coffers before receiving funds back but cannot be possibly expected to pay for everything when it does not possess the means of production, which are either held centrally or have been sold off.

But our mentality, coupled with the way in which devolution is formulated, creates a perception of us scrounging money from the core.


Devolution creates a process whereby sovereignty is presumed to rest with the Welsh Assembly Government in some areas but with locks emanating from Parliament confining which statutes it may pass.

It consistently reproduces a feeling of dependency, of having to “work with” the UK Government on what should be internal Welsh issues, having to constantly slash budgets even if the people of Wales are ideologically opposed, of not being able to build tidal lagoons and wind farms.

In essence, we are limited in how we use our very land for the benefit of the people and which could bring us our bread and our dignity.

Paulo Freire stated that “the oppressed, having internalised the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom”.

This is the real struggle with which we have to contend ourselves; put simply, we must decolonise our minds.

The concept that we will find our salvation from outside has permeated through Welsh economic and political life.

Foreign Direct Investment will apparently save us, as will Corbyn and post-Brexit Britain.

See these posts from my blog:

This is what I said:

"The rise and rise of the subsidy culture has created a generation of writers who measure their status not by the reputation and commercial success of their published outputs but by the number of bursaries they have received. Weirdly, they see themselves as "artists" rather than craftsmen. The literary culture to which they belong is dominated by Literature Wales, playing the role of the benefactor, with writers lining up each year with their begging bowls and then expressing eternal gratitude whenever a few goodies come their way. Even more distressing is the sight of respectable academic writers and talented new authors using social media to say that the receipt of a bursary of maybe £2,000, and the receipt of a modest amount of mentoring help, has given a sudden boost to their self-esteem and has somehow "vindicated" or "validated" them as writers. They appear to be blissfully unaware of how demeaning the whole relationship has become..........."

Monday, 20 November 2017

Another quote from Michael Sheen

Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture organised by Learning and Work Institute, in partnership with The Open University in Wales delivered by Michael Sheen on 16th November 2017 at RedHouse in Merthyr, Wales.

In this extract from the lecture, Michael addresses the role of the media -- specifically the broadcasting media -- in portraying Wales in all its complexity, and selling Wales to the world.  He goes on in the following section to talk about journalism and the role of the local press.......

P 22.       …………...Its how we get to connect with each other, show who we are, where we’ve been, explore who we might be, challenge and change each other, discuss, argue, provoke.

It’s how we show the rest of the world who we are and who we can be.

Without it we recede into darkness and isolation. We are all too easily drowned out and engulfed.

When the big broadcasters do get involved with more in depth and extended pieces of reporting around issues like homelessness, as ITV Cymru Wales did recently, it can have a real impact.

The 6 part BBC Wales series ‘The Story of Wales’ gave me the education I wish I could have got in school.

Series like ‘Hinterland’, ‘Bang’ and ‘Stella’ do a lot of heavy lifting.

And its been heartening to watch new exciting projects emerge like Nation.Cymru and the always inspirational Desolation Radio podcast but these are rare oases in a desert of stunted discourse.

Lee Waters and Angela Graham, in their introduction to the IWA Wales Media Audit in 2015, said -

“It is essential ...that the UK government recognise the particular media needs of Wales and that the Welsh government, too, should act to the full extent of its capacity in this area.”

An improvement on the current media provision in Wales “ a democratic, social and cultural necessity.”

Exactly how much incentive there is for our government to support the strengthening of a sector that would of course result in them being put under far more pressure and made more accountable is up for question though.

Michael Sheen gives Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture

Michael Sheen pictured prior to giving his lecture.  He looks happy! A lot of the content of his lecture was deeply serious and more than a little depressing -- but we are where we are, and there is no great point in becoming too miserable about it........

On Thursday 16th Nov, in Merthyr, Michael Sheen gave the annual Raymond Williams lecture, having chosen the theme "Who speaks for Wales?"  It was quite a long lecture, at more than 90 minutes, but it was crammed with good things -- fluently presented (as one would expect), beautifully written and carefully researched.  It covered a vast range of topics, and everybody who has heard it has come away enlightened and even inspired.  It's available in two locations on the web:

One of the things I found most interesting in the talk was the short section on Welsh broadcasting, in which Michael expressed disquiet about the "sort of Wales" which is reflected to the people of Wales (and the rest of the world) by our broadcasters, including BBC Wales and S4C.  He implied, that we, the people of Wales, are being short-changed by the broadcasters, who feed us largely on a "British" diet when much of it should be much more specifically Welsh. That is not to argue that Wales should be more introverted or parochial.   He suggested that unless the current situation changes, the broadcasters will be complicit in the campaign to write Wales out of history and to deny Wales a recognition of its own character and its own narrative.

This, of course, is exactly what I have been saying on this blog for a very long time.  Why us there no strong requirement placed upon BBC Wales and the others who make programmes in Wales to tell the Welsh story alongside the telling of other people's stories?  Why is there still no big Welsh TV drama capable of selling Wales to the world?  Why do the BBC studios in Wales (and the other studios run by Pinewood and other companies) put virtually all of their efforts into the making of programmes which have nothing whatsoever to do with Wales?  Many other questions too.......  We know the answers to some of the questions, and most of the answers have to do with money -- but the politicians and the broadcasters need to consider carefully why the TV and film industry has developed as a very successful exporter of products involving minimal added value as far as Wales is concerned.  Water, coal, slate, farm products, films, TV programmes -- extracted from Wales, admittedly creating jobs, but bringing most benefits to those who live elsewhere.

Back to the Welsh narrative.   As readers will know, we played around with this earlier in the year, and came up with something like this:

"Wales is two hours and a million miles away -- a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe. The country’s green acres have seen a valiant struggle for self determination against a powerful and predatory neighbour.  From the days of its ancient myths and native princes, to the ring of castles built by its conquerors, to its soaring rocky peaks and wild coasts, to its rich bardic and linguistic heritage, and the coal and iron that forged a global industrial revolution, Wales has always been a nation of survivors.  Melancholia features large in the national psyche -- but so does euphoria, and the old mystics talked of two fighting dragons.  Welsh people still have a powerful sense of place and an instinct for subversion and social justice.  They still have an abiding fondness for family histories, mysteries and legends, poetry and music, ceremonial and eccentric traditions.  And in Wales you will find a living language, an open-hearted generosity of spirit, a real sense of mischief, and the warmest of welcomes."

That was one version that many commentators liked.  Here is another, slightly less poetic:

"Wales is a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe with magnificent landscapes and rich natural resources. It is too close to England to have remained truly independent, and not far enough away for bloody rebellions ever to have taken hold. Throughout its history it has fought to resist the depredations of powerful neighbours; and against all the odds it has retained its language, its culture and its pride whilst encouraging toleration and liberal values and adapting to dramatic change. It has learned how to be subversive and seductive, and how to be spiritual and mischievous at the same time. In its history it has not suffered the same deep traumas as Scotland and Ireland. Its people are romantics, prone to wild swings of emotion; both melancholia and euphoria feature in the national psyche. Welsh people have a powerful "sense of place" and an abiding fondness for family histories, legends, ceremonial and ancient traditions. Eccentricity is embraced, while great value is placed upon learning. There is a tendency towards radical protest and an ever-present desire for social reform. Ultimately, Wales wants the respect of others -- and to be left in peace to enjoy and endure its own strange obsessions.”

So, bearing in mind the points made by Michael, how do we get this story told in a manner which will increase Welsh self-awareness and self-esteem and increase the respect of the rest of the world?  We are working on it......

PS.  The text of the lecture us now available.  The PDF can be accessed here:

Friday, 3 November 2017

A "golden age" for Welsh language publishing?

There's an intriguing report in the Guardian today about sales of Welsh-language books over the past few years. It's good to see that sales of adult Welsh-language novels are going up, but at the same time it's sad to see that sales of Welsh-language children's books are going down.

With overall sales declining, the Chief Exec of the Welsh Books Council is obviously trying to put a positive spin on the situation, but I'm not sure we can call this "a golden age" just because a few fiction authors are achieving reasonable sales. From the article, it's clear that any title that sells 1,000 copies or more is counted as being a major success. And "Martha Jac a Sianco", with lifetime sales of 7,000, is quite exceptional. But how many Welsh language novels have sunk without trace, with sales of under 500 copies? It would be interesting to see what the average sales figures are when ALL Welsh-language fiction published in 2016 is used as the basis for the calculations........

We know that in 2015-16 Welsh-language books were supported by the taxpayer to the tune of £348,000 for 224 titles, which achieved average sales of 829 copies. From the point of view of the taxpayer, was that money well spent? We would probably all agree that if the language is to be supported, its literature must be supported as well -- but the spending priorities need to be discussed rather more than has been the case in the past.  Writing and producing books that nobody wants is nit a terribly good idea.

Another question which refuses to go away is this:  "Are the sales reported by the Welsh Books Council REAL sales, involving real customers who pay real money over the counter in exchange for their purchases?"  There are ongoing rumours that unsaleable or unsold new books published in Wales are given away and counted as sales, and that returns are not counted against recorded sales figures at the Welsh Books Council distribution depot.  True or false?  There is another rumour that around 800 copies of every title published are sent out to the trade (and to libraries and educational establishments) on publication day, whether or not they are actually ordered or wanted.  True or false?

Here is a snippet from the article:

Author Dyfed Edwards, who is bilingual, feels that Welsh authors “should be writing what people want to read … I know that sounds obvious, but I think sometimes in Wales – and in Welsh-language publishing – we maybe exist in an echo chamber. Most of the voices are very similar, the tone of the books published are similar – though, of course, there are exceptions. We write for the same readers, many of whom are our fellow writers. We need populist and popular novels and we need experimental and challenging novels,” he said. “We need Dan Browns, Cormac McCarthys, Stephen Kings, Nicholson Bakers in the Welsh language. We need Kane and Abel and we need Catch-22.”

Edwards speculated that “Welsh-language readers are mostly middle-class, educated, very much involved in ‘Welsh’ life. Maybe we should be focusing on developing [an audience] among the less traditional Welsh-speaking readership. That will certainly mean populist, genre novels, aimed at the young,” he said.

He also called for a push to translate more books from Welsh. “Look what that’s done for Scandinavian fiction. It would draw attention to the fact that we have a Welsh-language publishing industry, even among Welsh speakers who perhaps don’t buy Welsh-language books at the moment. I live in England, and often people ask me, ‘Are books published in Welsh?’ I doubt they’d ask the same of Norwegian or Finnish or Icelandic,” he said.

Some interesting points there, but Dyfed appears to be somewhat naive about commercial realities.  Which Welsh books would he like to see published in English?  And would anybody actually want to buy them?

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Culture Committee transcript, 12 October 2017

Dinefwr Lit Fest -- nice tents, not many people........

The transcript of the Welsh Assembly Culture Committee meeting of 12th October has now been published, and can be found here:

In this meeting the Committee tied up its evidence-taking from the great and the good of the literature and publishing world in Wales, with questions directed at Minister Ken Skates and his top officials.  This topic is dealt with from para 493 onwards.

If you look at the words carefully, it seems that the Minister is still "minded to accept" the main recommendations of the Medwin Hughes Panel by taking away the core functions of Literature Wales and giving them to the Welsh Books Council.  But he also went out of his way to praise the way in which Literature Wales has "delivered" events especially in cooperation with Visit Wales  -- more or less acting as a literary tourism agency.  I think the delivery of "literary tourism" activities is by no means as wonderful as the Minister suggests, since a lot of this delivery has been arrogant, elitist and biased.  And the "delivery" of the 2014 Dinefwr Literature Festival was pretty disgraceful, shovelling vast amounts of taxpayers money down the drain while doing great harm to other smaller festivals all over Wales, which needed LW support but did not get it.

Anyway, that's all water under the bridge, and the Committee is now deliberating behind closed doors before presenting the Minister with its report.  It will be interesting to see what they say, and what the Minister will then do.

My best guess?  Literature Wales will be wound up, and its core functions will be moved across to the Welsh Books Council.  Some of the staff will be made redundant. But a new literary tourism unit will be created within Visit Wales, and some staff will move sideways into that unit.

But I'm still intrigued by the fact that neither the Medwin Hughes Panel, nor the Assembly's Culture Committee, nor the Minister, has expressed major concern on the record about the vast wastage of public money that goes into the literary / publishing industry in Wales -- subsidising writers to write books that very few people want to read, and subsidising publishers to produce volumes that hardly anybody wants to buy.  So the gravy train rolls on, with its carriages full of bursary-winning happy writers, who love the journey so much that they repeat it over and again.  At the same time we see an endless stream of books coming off the printing presses -- and with Welsh publishers protected from this horrible thing called "commercial risk."