Gary Raymond looks at the Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales and finds it to be a relic of a Wales of amateurism and cabals we would all be better off without.
Once you get to a certain position in the Welsh literary scene you are let in on a little secret: it is a cutthroat business. Dissent at your peril. Tread very carefully. Don’t ruffle feathers. Toe the line. Many writers have made a good living this way. Public subsidy of the arts in this country has enormous upsides, but the downside is that it creates a culture of cowardice (as well as often anaemic literature), too many staying quiet in fear of pissing off the wrong person who may be in charge of some purse strings somewhere down the line. It is an open secret that this is how Wales operates: a culture of cronyism and long-term vendetta.
At least, we believe this is how it once operated. Since becoming editor of Wales Arts Review five years ago, this sort of thing has been peripheral. From this end of the critical desk, it is obvious to see that a new generation of practitioners and enablers are taking positions of importance, and that fresh mature attitudes are coming with them. Talk to any Welsh writer under 35 and most likely they won’t recognise that opening paragraph as a painting of the landscape in which they work. There is a great deal of reason for hope in the air – you could even convincingly argue Welsh literature is on the verge of a bit of a Golden Age. The world of Welsh literature, publishing – the arts in general – is peopled overwhelmingly with good, talented, driven individuals all working to the same aim.
And then, out of the undergrowth comes a galumphing great dinosaur, a punch-drunk, flaking Tyrannosaurus, in the form of the Independent Review of Support for Literature and Publishing in Wales, spitting and bloviating, seemingly desperate to drag Wales back into the mire of its carnivorous old ways. And like all angry dinosaurs, it is only interested in feeding itself.
That the report is a wretched document takes only five minutes to figure out. If you’re unlucky enough to have to read the thing, you will also have found it riddled with typos and bad English, badly designed (in fact clearly not proofread, edited or designed at all); it is structured like no report to government I have ever come across before, peppered with unprofessional language, unsubstantiated opinions, nonsensical arguments, poorly-researched concepts, and… wait for it… swinging at the tail end like a numb limb, page after page after page of raw data dump. (Wasn’t it somebody’s job to analyse and present the findings of this data?)
Five minutes = Dreadful. That’s all that takes.
But we at Wales Arts Review have now spent weeks taking this thing apart. So let’s try and make this quick and painless.
Structurally the Review is weak from the outset. Indeed it fails to deliver on its first two terms of reference. There is no analysis of the Welsh Government’s aims for publishing and literature. The Review claims to have taken “an evidence-based approach”, but sadly there is very little evidence in the Review to back up this claim, let alone all the other claims it goes on to make. What evidence that is used is often misrepresentative, out of context, or is stretched to its most damning for the organisations the Review has in its sights. Time after time throughout the Review, opinions of the panel members are printed without any evidence to substantiate them. But perhaps what is most concerning is that the recommendations in this report that the panel are now asking the Welsh Government to implement have no evidence to support them, either; no arguments for them, no costings for them, no impact reports for them.
And what about this panel? This panel that is so few in number and so lacking in diversity? How was it put together? What was the compilation process when Edwina Hart commissioned it in 2015? There is no published information to answer that. The BBC reported in March of this year how concerns have been raised about panel members’ conflicts of interest and not only have these concerns been ignored, but they have become more problematic now the Review is out.
The undeclared conflicts of interest that Wales Arts Review is aware of make it clear the recommendations in this Review cannot seriously be considered.
But the worrying nature of this report goes much wider than specific instances of opacity.
The panel seems to have, at best, a very out-dated idea of what literature actually is. This dinosaur threatens not simply to inflict its collective vendettas onto the nation as a whole, but it threatens to hobble it entirely, contradicting Welsh Government strategies to innovate and develop in a modern global economy.
The panel seems to believe that ‘literature’ constitutes the process that goes into the creation of a book. It claims that the only relevant ‘live’ element of literature is in the promotion of that book. The Review has almost no space in its 212 pages for spoken word, digital storytelling, performance poetry, instapoetry (the proponents of which are followed by millions of people world-wide), blogging, graphic novels, gaming, songwriting (remember how Bob Dylan just won the Nobel prize for LITERATURE? – the panel seem to have missed this). Interesting too how a Review that iterates time and time again that publicly funded literary ventures must be commercial in nature have completely ignored some of the most financially lucrative growth areas of the industry (sales of graphic novels went up 12% last year after hitting $1 billion dollar sales the year before, for example). The Review suggests that public funding should concentrate on supporting “professional writers”, perhaps an understandable bias coming from a panel wholly lacking in representative cultural diversity. The dinosaur roars.
But perhaps the most striking element of the panel’s understanding of literature is how it makes the reader an utterly passive consumer of a product. There is no space for the understanding of literature as a tool for social good, as a collaborative, restorative, cultural phenomenon that has built nations and defined peoples. There is no respect paid to the myriad other forms of literature, or what that literature can do beyond filling pages glued to a spine.
The panel seem to have no respect for any writer they deem to be outside of this “professional writer” bracket – ie. writers without a bibliography. The report is utterly ignorant of those who make a living from writing who have seen no need, or never sought, to publish a book. The modern landscape is a vast diverse realm, and in one corner a dinosaur does its business.
There is no respect in the Review paid to the power of literature to change lives, and how public funding bodies work extremely hard in cultivating such cultures. This complete dismissal of literature as, for instance, a tool to heal and regenerate, to soothe mental health problems, must be a particularly difficult pill for the Cabinet Minister who has inherited this mess from the portfolio reshuffles in 2016, Ken Skates, to swallow, seeing he has spoken at length, (in Wales Arts Review, no less) about how writing, drawing and acting saved his life when living as an undiagnosed depressive in his university days. The panel implicitly deny Mr Skates the relevance of his own experiences, one must assume, seeing as he has produced no best-selling novel, sold no paintings, or won an Oscar.
In fact, the panel seem to have a deep-seated disrespect for literature and the majority of its practitioners. The language used in the report is not just unprofessional at times, but is condescending toward writers, insulting even. At one point it even refers to those who attend writing workshops as “retired hobbyists”.
That the compilers of this report only understand literature as a commercial entity means that they do not understand literature at all.
In fact the panel seem to not understand much of what they have been asked to Review. Throughout the report they keep mixing up Academi and The Welsh Academy. They recommend the need to invest in ebook publishing in Wales seemingly unaware ebook sales are in a steep decline, that they peaked in 2014, and publishers around the world are investing in other areas now. It is unable to deal with simple data (its methodology is loosely defined and then subsequently ignored); it is contradictory, unevidenced, unprofessional, and littered with inaccuracies (statistical, analytical, and narrative).
If this report is to result in changes to the infrastructure of Welsh literature and publishing it will be a travesty for Wales, not because of what the Review says, but because of what the Review is. I welcome a real report into this subject, conducted thoroughly, professionally, and transparently. But this report is a shambles, and it is shameful.
There is only one thing that saddens me more: the silence.
Apart from Jasmine Donahaye, who is always prepared to stand up and be counted, no writer in Wales has called this report out for what it is (and even she takes the Review at face value, not calling it up on any of its inaccuracies and misrepresentations). Countless writers across the country have read this Review or Donahaye’s blog, and have decided to say nothing. Many of them, I guarantee have done so for fear of damaging future career prospects by pissing off the wrong people. (They’re not even career prospects, they’re just the mystical notion that somewhere down the line they may crop up). To allow this Review to be taken seriously, given how easily it is deconstructed, is to suggest Wales is a backwater banana republic, where writers dissent at their peril. That this Review has been published at all suggests some people believe they will absolutely get away with it.
The only real outcome of this Review, in any sane, civilised world, is a full investigation into how public money came to be spent on what has amounted to little more than a kangaroo court for the perceived enemies of the panel.
There are young, energetic, talented, innovative people across Wales (many of whom I have had the privilege to get to know in the last five years as editor of Wales Arts Review) who must be looking at this report and wondering what time the next train to England is. Because what the Review says is this: this is how we do things in Wales, and it is ugly.