Creative, contemporary – and commercial? How books are supported in Wales
Wales has a historic tradition of literature patronage dating back over a thousand years. Poets would be nurtured and supported, and this was considered a sign of a civilised princedom. The return on this investment was a golden age of Welsh poetry, which included Dafydd ap Gwilym, Siôn Cent and Guto’r Glyn – some of the foremost European writers of their age. Many of these enjoyed fame and fortune, and even to this day, award-winning poets in Welsh enjoy a celebrity status in their communities. The difference today is that being a poet might give you fame, but it certainly doesn’t give you fortune (unless you have a side-line as a soap opera writer).
The Welsh Government supports both the publishing industry via the Welsh Books Council, as well as individual writers, via the Arts Council of Wales (who in turn support Literature Wales). They are in effect the continuation of the princes’ patronage. As a devolved nation with its own national (as opposed to regional) institutions, there are clear pathways for writer development from first drafts to publication. In Wales, the pathways are mostly subsidised and lead towards small-scale, independent publications. This may well be true for other devolved nations – as well as English regions such as the North West – and in this sense support for the independent sector is important for ensuring a sense of regional/ national identity.
However, as is the case everywhere outside London, there is a tension between the need to support a home-grown independent publishing sector, and an individual writer’s desire to reach a much wider global market. How do we square this circle, and what would be the priorities as we develop the sector in the coming years, facing the likelihood of ever-increasing government cuts? These are surely some of the key questions considered by the Independent Panel, chaired by Professor Medwin Hughes, tasked with reviewing the Welsh Government’s support for publishing and literature. The outcome of the review, which was expected to be finalised by the end of September, has been delayed due to an unprecedented response to the on-line public consultation. This is a mark of how important the sector is for Wales, and it’s clear that many individuals feel very strongly that their own contribution to the debate should be heard. It’s also very likely that these points of view will vary considerably.
In the midst of these arguments, surely it would be evident that sustaining support for writers is key for ensuring a healthy future for literature. And this support should allow for ambition and artistic risks. Many writers, at any stage of their writing career, will want to take stock and explore new possibilities. Being allowed time out to experiment with new genres and ideas, without the pressure of deadlines and personal responsibilities, can be a life-changing opportunity for a writer. A Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary (the current round closes on 28th October) is highly competitive and is peer-reviewed. Being awarded a bursary is a mark of confidence in a writer’s talent, and the successful applicants each year stand out because of their willingness to work hard and take risks. The outcomes can be surprising, and writers often note that the time out has led them to new directions. This is a key aspect in the development of writers as creative artists.
Many of the Bursaries’ recipients go on to publish books to great acclaim and success, some with Wales-based independent publishers; others go on to publish with major London-based publishing houses. Recent successes of the Writes Bursaries scheme include supporting the (then) unpublished writer Kate Hamer who went on to write The Girl in the Red Coat (Faber), which has sold over 100,000 copies and was short listed for 2015 Costa First Novel Award. Another success-story is poet Jonathan Edwards, who was also awarded a New Writers’ Bursary for his first volume My Family and Other Superheroes, which he published with the excellent Welsh publisher Seren Books, and which went on to win the Poetry Category of the 2014 Costa Poetry Award.
These two books represent the rich ecology of contemporary books from Wales – independent, commercial, creative, unique, popular, high-quality – and our work following the Welsh Government’s review is to ensure they are not one-offs, but represent a growing trend and express an increasing confidence in the Welsh literary voice. My prediction is that quite soon, a Welsh author, published by a Welsh publisher, will go on to win the Booker. Watch this space.
Lleucu Siencyn is chief executive of Literature Wales.