Wednesday, 27 December 2017

English-medium writing in Wales

This is a submission I had forgotten about!  From a 2003 consultation.  It's interesting, 15 years later, to see how little has changed.......

Culture, Welsh Language and Sport Commerce (2003)

Policy Review: English-medium writing in Wales: List of respondents
Brian John

I am happy to submit my comments for the Policy review on English-medium writing in Wales. 

(1) The contribution of English-medium books and writing in Wales to Welsh culture. This contribution is immense, and needs to be recognized as a key component in the bilingual heritage of Wales. There is a peculiarly Welsh "voice" to much of the English-language literature produced by Welsh authors, and this voice needs to be cherished and promoted. While I do not for a moment argue against the massive support given to Welsh-language publishing in recent years, I fear that there is a danger of second-rate material finding its way into print simply because subsidies are available and margins are not so tight . Some publishers have told me that Welsh-language publishing is almost a risk-free zone, and when the usual relationship between a book and its market is disturbed too much, there is scope for attractively-packaged dross to find its way into print. But I think that the importance of English-language fiction and poetry (for example) is recognized by bodies such as the Welsh Books Council and Academi, and for this I am grateful. I am saddened that the peculiar regional "accents" of the English-speaking fringes of Wales (eg Little England Beyond Wales, Gower, the Vale of Glamorgan, and the Welsh Borders) are now hardly recognized because of the "politically correct" policy of encouraging the Welsh language even in those areas which have not spoken Welsh for a thousand years. This is a complex issue, and I support the extension of Welsh speaking across Wales, but as a South Pembrokeshire man I would like to see a little more respect for the unique English-language heritage and dialect of my home area. I had a bit of a spat with BBC Wales recently because a play set on the banks of the Western Cleddau near Haverfordwest was acted entirely by actors using standard South Walian Welsh accents. People in that place and at that time would never have spoken like that - the genuine South Pembrokeshire accent is a diamond to be appreciated and respected. 

(2) The support mechanisms available for writers in Wales, including playwrights and screenplay writers. I know little about these, and would have tapped into them if they were more widely publicized. The editorial / refereeing support from the Welsh Books Council for new authors is excellent, and must encourage unpublished novelists to press ahead with their projects in a very hostile commercial environment. I am not aware of any bursaries / grants which are available to writers to help them in developing projects. 

(3) The support mechanisms for the production and marketing of new writing, including private sector support. Again, small publishers are left on their own. There are no subsidies or grants. Even the Welsh Book Council, which used to take 100 copies of new books and pay cash on the nail for them, has retreated from this valuable "support mechanism" and now takes stock, holds it, and pays monthly as and when it is sold . This is valuable, but nothing like as valuable as a straight bulk purchase. On the marketing front, Welsh Books Council is much more helpful, with a helpful marketing / PR team who are always willing to give information and advice. The full-color "Books from Wales" (with reasonably-priced adverts) goes out with the Western Mail and reaches thousands of potential readers.Other joint marketing schemes are also useful, but I am not sure of the cost-effectiveness of some of the effort going into foreign visits and book trade exhibitions. 

(4) The mechanisms for raising public awareness of English-medium Welsh literature and writers. I do not think there are many! Magazines carrying reviews - very few of them in Wales, and the time between book submission and review publication can be up to a year. This is not a lot of use when you need early sales in order to pay the printer's bill. Newspapers - these are often helpful at encouraging local sales, and this "local loyalty" should be acknowledged. Local radio will often do interviews about new books and writers. But there does not seem to be much support from BBC Wales radio and television, which is a pity. Mostly promotion and PR has to come through the hard work of writers and publishers in organizing press releases, setting up events etc. Some people in the book trade are imaginative and helpful, but many are not! Academi should be thanked for their help in setting up many events (talks, discussions, writers workshops etc) every year all over Wales. Suggestions Many English-language writers in Wales find that the London publishers will not even read their manuscripts, let alone publish their books. There is a "blockage" at the London end, and a widespread perception that books about Wales do not sell. I get the impression that Scottish and Irish literature is much more successful internationally than Welsh literature, maybe because most of the effort in Wales goes into Welsh language publication. This makes the publishing scene rather introverted and even a little self-satisfied. ("Are not we clever? Look how many Welsh-language books we publish each year per head of the population!") I do not think that this will change much unless we shift priorities from selling rights in the Australian and American market to getting books about Wales published in London. 

To achieve this, I suggest: 

(a) A dedicated literary agency based in Wales, to sign up Welsh writers and find publishers for them in London. Those working in the Agency should of course have an intimate knowledge of the London publishing scene. (As a matter of interest, I tried to sign up with over 50 London agents and about 25 London publishers before the launch of my "Angel Mountain" Saga. The great majority of them were not even prepared to read some sample material). 

(b) A campaign to find review space in the London daily papers, weeklies and Sundays for new English-language fiction from Wales and also for other key titles. If books about Wales are not reviewed by the UK national media, booksellers will not take them seriously and will not stock them.

(c) Advertising subsidies to enable adverts to be placed in the national media. Sometimes this will attract a commitment to publish a review. This will be expensive, but could pay dividends in increased "UK awareness" of literature from Wales. 

(d) More work devoted to obtaining air time on UK radio and TV. We hardly ever see anything Welsh on the book program. 

(e) A high-profile Welsh / English Literature Festival in Wales. The Hay Festival used to have a lot of Welsh material, representative of its location on the Borders, but it seems to have become more international and less Welsh. 

Hope this helps! 

Brian John

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