The second half of 2017 was a difficult time for the organisations charged with the nurturing of the Welsh literary landscape The Independent Review into the industry proved controversial, prompting a Welsh Assembly enquiry into the fallout. As the publication of the Senedd’s Culture Committee report seems to put The Hughes Review out of its misery at least for the time being, Gary Raymond asks if its worth debating some home truths about how the Welsh literary industry operates.
There is a constant danger in thinking Wales is any different to any other place, but also that it cannot extricate itself from the damnation of others. This may sound like an anti-Brexit slogan, but in actual fact it is just a reminder that there is a viable philosophy emerging in certain quarters that the future is brighter than established commentators may have us believe; the idea that beyond this shift to the right is a youth movement gaining maturity that will realign moral responsibility. The kick back to the absurdities of the recent political phenomenas of the West could well be a resurgence in liberal revolutionism, and a wake up call to those hitherto un-woke. Progressives, it seems clear now, were under the misapprehension that struggles had been overcome for good, and victories could never be erased. The educative strand of these times is that moral goodness is an ongoing adventure, not a plaque to be nailed to a closed door. But must we wait the designated time-frame for this new generation to get in the saddle and make up for the lost ground of the generation that let things come to this. I think perhaps there could be a little more urgency.
As with all revolutions there will be casualties, and some of them will be sacrificed brutally, as martyrdom has never been more out of fashion. Shamed politicians don’t resign, sexual predators retire to rehab… cleaning the stables is never supposed to be this quaint. But things are shifting, and hope, almost entirely, lies with younger people. For many (although of course not all) in the ruling generation, the Baby Boomers, the nuances and demands of righteous causes such as #MeToo and the diversity debates are just quite simply beyond true comprehension. The white males in charge, you see, have been told since birth to talk and not listen, and that they know best. This privilege is too engrained, and to many it is unrecognisable. Maybe a bad example to use such an obvious figure, but last week twice in three days Andrew Neil looked down a BBC camera and arrogantly scoffed at the idea that a homeless white man could conceivably be a beneficiary of White Privilege. How can a person be poor and privileged? (Ask the homeless person of colour across the street, Andrew, and listen to the explanation). That Neil is ignorant of what White Privilege actually is is one thing, that nobody in the days following the first time he asserted this on live BBC television sought to correct him is another.
Recently too, responding to accusations by members of the theatrical communities of Wales that the Welsh theatre establishment is not doing enough to encourage diversity, Welsh National Opera’s Artistic Director David Pountney issued an unfortunately defensive statement saying that WNO proudly practises a policy of “colourblind casting”. That the phrase “colourblind casting” is in fact a euphemism for “treating you as if you are white” does not seem to have been explained to one of the most powerful figures in the arts in Wales is about as damning as it gets. It is all very well that gatekeepers talk about the need to listen, but the truth is that for most Baby Boomers, this is not their default setting. These two non-isolated examples go just a little way to displaying how white male privilege continues to dominate the parameters of public debate at a time when it should be listening from the cheap seats.
The change to this status quo that we suspect we see on the horizon is in the form of the next generation, the young adults now who have had one privilege the Baby Boomers never did – essential exposure to cultural diversity. As Britain has changed in the last 50 years, so has its classrooms and workspaces, and so has its literature, television screens and music (Baby Boomers listen to their “black music” through the appropriation of the Rolling Stones for example, whereas as now youngsters listen to actual people of colour). We may have to wait a little while for its boardrooms to do the same, but the upcoming generation, far from mollycoddled and ill-prepared for the trials of life as some Baby Boomers insist, have been mapping out a progressive future through global connectivity and the open minds that often brings.
What has this to do with Welsh literature? Over the last year or so a cloud has hung over the literary industry in the form of the Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales, commonly known as The Hughes Review (as it was chaired by Professor Medwin Hughes). This week the Senedd’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee has finally published it’s response to that report, and the furore it kicked up back in July 2017. The whole debacle has been a tiny speck on the national fabric, but stands for something much more culturally significant. The Hughes Review should stand as the final push of the old way of things in Wales. It stands now only as a monument to the corruption of a noble process by vindictive influences, but also as a porthole into the battlefield that is the Welsh literary landscape. It is a battlefield that will be most likely unfamiliar to any Welsh writer under the age of 30. And probably more fabled if you’re under 35. But over that, then you know what I’m taking about, even if you’ve never fought on it.
You can read the Committee report here, in its mercifully concise 34 pages. It’s a good read, and it cuts the Hughes Review down to size, in all but the starkest terms rendering it and the £14,000 it cost to produce it a waste of everybody’s time. It also goes some way to be balanced and tries very hard to emphasise the independent panel have simply failed in their honourable intentions to do right. It has no intention of “impugning the integrity” of the panel members. The Committee may be shocked to learn (maybe not, I don’t know) that a cursory knowledge of how literature in Wales works would make these “honourable intentions” extremely unlikely. The literature industry in Wales is a spitting swirl of conflicting interests, clashing egos and jagged vendettas. There are many beautiful, generous, talented people at work (it is one of the great privileges of my life to come into contact with them every day), but the clouds still chug across the plains.
There are the big old clash of clans – West Wales versus Cardiff for instance; there is the language divide, and the divides within Welsh language as to just who gets to be the custodians of the Mother Tongue; there are the institutional divides (the Committee themselves claim to have little confidence that the Welsh Books Council and Literature Wales have a bright cooperative future – although I would strongly disagree with this); there is the animosity between publishers (who would you bet on in an Anchorman-esque gladiatorial encounter between Parthian, Seren, Y Lolfa, and Honno?); the friction between magazines (I am no saint in all this – I’m writing here as a whistleblower rather than an investigator); the generational divides (the old white male gatekeepers clinging on to them gates); the gender divides (some men will never take Literature Wales seriously so long as the executives are all women); there are the collectivised individuals who believe their lack of fame and adulation is the fault of someone else rather than, just… well… life. It is a veritable cat’s cradle of animosity. And it can eat a person alive, and has done to many, but it might also swallow the entire industry if the Hughes Review is not made to be the end of it.
And I am fully aware how awful this all sounds, and how it paints “the sector” in an appalling light. But perhaps it’s just about time somebody put it down in black and white. The cliques, the “personality clashes” and animosities at work in Welsh literature will end up destroying it, unless the entire culture finds new custodians from the up-coming generation of writers. It is time to free the literary industry, free up the Books Council, Literature Wales and other literary organisations to look at exciting new platforms, new voices, new ideas and projects, and invest in the publishers new and old who can bring inspiring work to the public.
In 2016, the Welsh Government threatened a catastrophic 11% cut to the funding of the publishing industry. The Welsh literary community came to together as one to fight back, to makes its case. But despite the clear signs that victory here would only push the problem down the line, everyone scuttled back off to their corners of Wales as soon as the threat was rescinded. It was extremely disappointing not to see that as a watershed moment, but rather a call to arms out of desperation. But now we have a second attempt, with the milestone of the Hughes Review about to disappear into the rear view mirror.
In April, Wales will have its first national stall at the London Book Fair for the first time in twenty-odd years, the culmination of the heads of all of these organisations coming together to work to make it happen. The Committee is wrong: the grubby jabs of the Hughes Review is the past – the future can be stronger than this if what the Hughes Review symbolises is jettisoned. But as I say, this will require sacrifice as well as hard work.
This insular, grubby way of doing things is becoming a thing of the past. The Hughes Review might hopefully yet prove to be its final rally. Because I see in the next generation of Welsh writers a band of positive, open, talented, hopeful, serious individuals who will not put up with their time being wasted by these craven old ways. Look at the Hay Writers at Work, at the Literature Wales bursary recipients, at the pages of Wales Arts Review and the new voices given a platform by the New Welsh Review and Planet. There are talented writers out there ignorant of the crippling factions and insecurities of the Baby Boomers, who just want to write and debate and work.