In Conversation with Gary Raymond

Gary Raymond is the Senior Editor of the Wales Arts Review. Born and based in Newport, he was previously the editor of literary magazine The Raconteur before co-founding Wales Arts Review in March 2012. A writer and critic, Raymond’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, is a regular staple of The Review. His work has also appeared in a range of publications, including The Guardian and The Arts Desk. A produced playwright, Raymond is also a published author; his book, an introduction to the life, work and legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien was published last year. He also lectures in English and Creative writing at the University of South Wales.

Cerith Mathias spoke to him before the release of Wales Arts Review’s bumper end of year edition.

Cerith Mathias: The Review is still relatively new, it’s now just a little over a year and a half old – where did the idea first come from?

Gary Raymond: Myself and Dylan Moore (Wales Arts Review’s Editor-at-Large) first had the idea and set it up after The Raconteur. It didn’t take long to come up with the idea of The Review. The first idea was to go online not to cut costs, but because what we wanted to do was concentrate on content, and not spend time on other things like finding money, finding printers – we really just wanted to concentrate on the best content we could find. Because we knew it was there you see, but we just weren’t reading it anywhere else. We knew there were people who wanted to read what we wanted to read. That’s essentially what it is – it’s an old story, isn’t it? – we produced what we wanted to read. Toni Morrison says the reason she writes novels is because she hasn’t read the one she wanted to read yet – and that’s kind of why we set up Wales Arts Review.

What is the relevance of The Review – where do you see its place within Welsh Culture?

The important thing about what we do, one way or another, is that art – and I refer to it as art and not the creative industries – cannot and never really does exist in a vacuum. It needs to exist in a culture of debate and a culture of banging heads; you know some people will think something is genius and others will think it’s trash. You need a centre point for those debates. Not to say that art is irrelevant without criticism but it is less significant. If I go to see a Rothko in the Tate, I don’t need to read a review to know what that is, but the truth is I would never have understood Jackson Pollock’s paintings were it not for John Berger’s essay on Jackson Pollock. So criticism is part of the experience of art – it’s the conversation. And the conversation is the important thing. I always press this in editorial conversations, I don’t want our writers to look at things negatively or positively – I just want them to have an honest response.

Are you seeking to simply reflect Wales’ cultural scene or do you hope to shape it too?

It’s not an either / or thing. By reflecting something, you can also shape it and that’s what we hope to do. I don’t think arts criticism is like a crazy guy with a notepad running around the circled wagons; I don’t think that’s the way to approach it. We’re part of the artistic community; we may not get invited to all the Christmas parties, although we have been invited to some – I have had some invites! But we’re part of what goes on and we’re all fans – I don’t think we publish anybody that isn’t fundamentally passionate about creating a better country through its art and culture. We don’t publish anybody who has an axe to grind. I think we publish people who genuinely have an interest, and when you have that kind of impassioned, intellectual interest in the arts, you want to say when something does or doesn’t work. We have a team with very varied areas of expertise who I can trust in their writing.

Who is the Wales Arts Review speaking to? Are you trying to bring the arts to a wider audience?

It’s an arts magazine, but we’ve got no intention of being highbrow; we never talk about being highbrow or about being high art. What we talk about is the writing in The Review being engaged. And I would suggest that the reason why we’ve been as successful as we have been is because that type of engaged, interested, intellectual approach to writing arts criticism has been missing for a long time. I think it’s missing in a lot of places, certainly not just Wales, but it has been missing here. The setup of Wales Arts Review was not a response to that, but it became clear almost immediately when we went live – the disproportionate response we had to the actual outreach that we had, when we had a very small mailing list and a very small group of contacts and the way The Review grew very quickly, through word of mouth.

Do you think that’s the difference with being online, rather than in print – being online allows you to grow quickly in that way, through making content easier to share?

Yes, definitely. I think the speed with which we’ve grown has had a lot to do with the fact that it’s online. We’ve got a very strong international following, and if we were a Welsh print magazine – we wouldn’t have that. We’re read in over 100 countries every issue, but we would struggle to get distributed in Bristol if we were a print magazine and I’m not laying blame at anybody’s door – that’s just the nature of the beast. But there’s a flipside to that, our traditional readership are hard copy readers, they are magazine buyers, they are book shop visitors and that is a market that we are still finding our way into because people haven’t discovered us by seeing us on the magazine shelf at Smiths or in an arts centre. But I have mainly anecdotal evidence from people that the only time they go on the computer is to check Wales Arts Review. All of those things are down to the quality of writing that we have.

So there are no plans to go into print?

We’re talking about what the possibilities might be in the future.

You mention the pace at which The Review has grown over the past year, how does that translate into readership figures?

I’ve done a lot of research this year into the conversion of print circulation to readership figures to online. We average over 4,000 individual hits per issue – that’s a circulation, not a readership. The industry stats would have that as at least 10,000 people reading every issue.

What are your ambitions for The Review? Are you hoping that it will contribute to the image of Wales both at home, in the wider UK and internationally?

Yes. I think the buzzword, (if you want to use that horrible buzzword); the buzzword of the Review is just to be honest about things. Arts in Wales are in a pretty strong position at the moment creatively, obviously financially they’re suffering just like everybody else is suffering, if not more so. In my experience, Wales has never had what Wales Arts Review provides, that’s not to say it’s never been there, that’s just in my experience. Other publications do different things. All I want us to do is give an honest reflection of what the arts in Wales are like. If everything was terrible we wouldn’t be read as much because people would get bored of reading how bad everything is, but the truth is it’s not. There’s a lot of rubbish out there, like there is everywhere – but there’s a lot of good too – and The Review is there to champion the good, but to be honest about the bad.

This year The Review covered events like the Green Man Festival and the Hay Festival, but there was no coverage of perhaps Wales’ most iconic cultural event –The National Eisteddfod. Is The Review reflective enough of traditional Welsh culture and the Welsh language?

No, it’s not. And we know that, we know it’s not reflective enough. One of the things that we don’t do is we don’t give it special attention. We don’t think of it like a ghetto, we don’t think ‘there’s a Welsh language thing going on – we’d better cover that’. Geography is also an issue for us. While we have writers across the world, we don’t have any regular contributors in, say, North Wales. We’re working on it, but we don’t have any yet. We’re having conversations with Bangor University that are ongoing at the moment about bringing  people through on their humanities degrees, we’ve also looked into having correspondents based throughout Wales. We’ve got strategies that are yet to come off, but we are trying. We are even more aware of our deficiencies than we are of our successes. I don’t like ideas of positive discrimination – but we are Wales Arts Review, we made a conscious decision to call ourselves that, so we gave ourselves a responsibility to the country and we are very aware of that. So yes, there are plans for Welsh language coverage.

You’ve written previously that ‘Wales is a part of the world … and Tolstoy and Tennessee Williams and Beckett and Alban Berg are as much ours as they are anyone else’s.’ Is international coverage an important component of Wales Arts Review?

Well, our writers are spread across the world. We’ve got Dylan Moore in Spain and Jim Lloyd in Istanbul and a couple of regular writers in the States. I’m interested in producing a magazine about the arts, and it’s only right that we reflect the arts on our doorstep but also it is something created from the personalities of the people who founded it and write for it and we are interested in the arts, in literature everywhere and also so are the readers. I’ve never met anyone who only reads Welsh novels no matter how staunchly enthusiastic they are about the Welsh arts. We try to have a Welsh connection with our pieces of course.

Does the Wales Arts Review have an agenda? There have, for example been contributions from politicians in recent editions.

No, we don’t have an agenda. If anything in the magazine touches on social issues, then I personally don’t hide my beliefs, which might come across as The Review leaning in a certain direction, but it’s just a reflection of the people who write for it – that’s not our editorial policy. I publish things which I disagree with passionately. But the only thing I’d ever take out is something I thought was factually wrong, or something that was cynical or sexist or racist. But there have been times when I’ve published things I don’t agree with, there’s probably something in every issue. That filters all the way down though; I will have seen shows that somebody else has reviewed and I will disagree in the strongest terms about how the show went, but I’m not going to interfere with somebody’s piece of work. All I want is honesty and for the writing to be good. If somebody from the extreme right or anywhere on the political spectrum wanted to write something about, say, how Leni Riefenstahl framed an image, I’d publish it. I think people come to us as readers for a number of reasons; I think people come to us because there’s a diverse range of opinions and ideas. There are some things we publish that border on the academic, while others read like a chat in the pub, and I really like the way it comes together.

So how does it come together? The Wales Arts Review doesn’t have a physical base – there isn’t an office and as you say, your writers are based all over the world. What’s the day-to-day life of The Review like?

We have an online office, where everybody interacts and we all talk regularly on email, and when we can we meet up – it’s important that we feel like a team. Really it works, without wanting to sound twee, because everybody wants to make it work. But most of our contributors don’t write for every issue, we have a core that do, but most of our writers don’t. Since we began we’ve published over 80 writers, some of whom have only written one thing – for example we publish short fiction through the Rhys Davies Trust – but many of our writers have written for us on numerous occasions. We have a central hub, which is myself, Phil Morris (The Review’s Managing Editor) and Dean Lewis (Design Editor) and our Deputy Editors Ben Glover, John Lavin and Steph Power, and things spark off all around, and I think if we did have that central office it wouldn’t quite work in the same way.

Beyond that central hub, you also run a mentoring scheme for young critics. How important is it to encourage young people into getting involved with the arts?

We set up a pilot scheme in association with the Young Critics Circle in Bridgend and we linked with them and took some workshops, and a number from that group came to write for us. Now we’ve set it up as a proper scheme because it worked so well, we’ve had so many good people come through it. We realised that not everyone writing for us will be writing for us forever; we haven’t set it up and thought that’s it now; we know we have to find the system for keeping it going. We have to keep looking for and finding new people with fresh passion. We’ve got long term goals. Finding that next generation might seem like a bit of a cliché, but it’s really important to us. I’d love in ten, fifteen years or so to not have anything to do with the Wales Arts Review, but to be able to look at it from the outside and be proud of something that myself and all the others who helped set it up, have left behind. My personal goal for the Wales Arts Review is to able to look back and be proud to see that we’d created something good that was now in the capable hands of the next generation.

What have been your highlights of The Review so far?

2013 has been amazing. I’ve been putting things together for the end of the year issue and looking at what we’ve done and thinking at the beginning of the year Steph Power was starting her series on David Pountney’s first season at the WNO, Dean Lewis’ artwork really stepped up to another level with that. It was great stuff because we didn’t really have a reputation as a classical music publication before then. From an editor’s point of view that was a great highlight. Jim Lloyd moving to Istanbul two weeks before the Gezi Park protests; that wasn’t just a great series of articles, written by a brilliant writer, but it also opened up what we could do internationally, it made us think differently about who are writing for and changed the in-house attitude of us thinking about ourselves as an international publication. There have been a few special editions too. We’ve had a special Newport edition, the short story special, the music special and most recently one to mark the anniversary of Emily Davison. The Newport edition was a special thing. A core of The Review team are from Newport, and what it did – it raised our profile again, we saw a massive spike in readership which we haven’t lost, the Newport edition is still our biggest issue to date.

Where would you like The Review to be in 12 months’ time?

I think on a small level – I’d like to see development of the site, I’d like to continue to raise the profile of our writers, finding new ways of doing that. And I’d like to increase our coverage of cultural events – including things like the Eisteddfod. But also raise the level of debate, which I think we’ve started doing, people have responded to the many essay topics we’ve had, we’re going to have more special editions and we’re going to publish more fiction. We’d like to broaden our readership and to build on what we’ve done so far. And from my point of view as editor, to make Wales Arts Review the place where everybody goes if they want to know what’s going on in the arts in Wales and beyond.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis