‘Gwlad beirdd a chantorion’: Wales, the Writer and Society

It was time somebody said something. And in some ways it is fitting that the most remarkable intervention on the Welsh writing and publishing industry for years was a non-speech at a non-event by a writer nobody had heard of.

Julian Ruck’s outburst, in a press release sent to the Western Mail but not actually delivered as a speech due to the poor attendance at the Kidwell-e Festival, criticised the use of public money to support writers and publishers and said that ‘since the1950s there had not been one single Welsh writer of any national or international note.’

Both claims were met with understandable rebuke from the organisations he implicitly attacked – Literature Wales and the Welsh Books Council – as well as from writers and the general public. Ruck’s criticisms drew a full response partly because of the strength of his chosen language – ‘The Welsh publishing industry is nothing more than a parasitical, elitist carbuncle on the hide of a struggling Welsh economy’ – but also because beneath the bluster and barely-concealed bitterness, there was a valid question that deserves an answer.

At its crux the argument is economic. Taxpayers, contends Ruck, invoking that amorphous entity in the manner of the other Mail over the border, deserve to know that their money is being spent wisely. Of course, this is true. Second, the ‘struggling’ Welsh economy is given as a reason why the arts should not receive public money. Somewhere near the logical conclusion of Ruck’s argument – if such a thing is possible to discern – lies the notion that everything in society should pay for itself. Implicit in what Ruck calls ‘the cleansing of rejection and reality of commercial brutality’ is a form of social Darwinism. It is a classic right-wing argument: leave everything in the capable hands of the market; unless something is economically viable it has no value.

Given the context, the layers of irony here are so thick as to be barely worth the effort picking through. Ruck intended to make his remarks at a self-funded festival so poorly attended that it had to be cancelled because of a traders’ revolt, against a news backdrop of entire countries’ social wellbeing at the mercy of the markets. When Ruck talks of ‘the hunger to create for an audience [being] stifled’ by a culture of grants and bursaries, he clearly views writers as creators of cultural product rather than works of art. ‘Of course one will never obtain sales figures for the winning works,’ he continues; ‘winning’ presumably meaning a book successful in the sense of its author having been deemed worthy of a bursary, rather than in the sense of winning a prize.

On the face of it, his point is a good one. There must be countless books published in Wales over the last decade that would not exist but for the financial support given to publishers through the Welsh Books Council. These books may well have pitiful sales figures by mainstream commercial standards. This is not something that can be dismissed out of hand. If the writing and publishing community in Wales takes itself seriously, it can not on one hand point to Ruck’s publication through a vanity press as evidence to discredit his views whilst propping up a system that is merely an elaborate, state-sanctified version of a vanity press.

But when Ruck talks of ‘the cleansing of rejection and reality of commercial brutality’ he conveniently ignores the rigorous processes writers undergo in obtaining grants and bursaries. The way he paints it, you would think writers sit on the steps of the Senedd with begging bowls into which Assembly Members deposit wads of cash taken from beleaguered local hospitals.

In reality, the system works in a remarkably similar way to publishing. Writers submit work to an experienced panel that sits in careful, deliberate judgement on its literary merit. Then, in the unlikely event that a writer is deemed worthy of an award, he or she will still have to work hard to complete the intended project before all of the promised funds are released. In the vast majority of cases, writers will also have to arrange a period of absence from their day job, which the bursary funds are intended to compensate. After all of this, the writer is in a marginally better position in regard to potential sales; readers remain the vital link in the chain.

However, it is heartening that as a nation Wales does not hold to a principle where the value of a book is judged purely on its ability to sell. Ruck’s aborted festival has the aim of promoting ‘popular fiction’; he thinks the word ‘literary’ is elitist. In decrying the talent Wales has produced in the last fifty years and more, Ruck asked rhetorically ‘Where are the giants of Welsh writing? Where are the Welsh Seamus Heaneys and James Joyces or for that matter the Jeffrey Archers and James Pattersons? Or even the odd bookish shade of grey?’

Again the contradictions inherent in this argument are so blatant as to be barely worthy of highlighting. On one hand he holds up the author of Ulysses as a figure worthy of our aspiration, presumably on the strength of Joyce’s reputation as one of the last century’s greatest artists; on the other he alludes to Fifty Shades of Grey, the commercial phenomenon of the moment, an erotic fiction appealing to the lowest possible common denominator. From this, it would appear that artistic merit and breadth of appeal are both important factors in judging the value of a book; in this, of course, Mr Ruck is also correct. The problem is – as Ruck’s range of examples clearly demonstrate – that there has never been nor ever will be a correlation between artistic merit and commercial success.

This is not elitism. This is a question of what we value most in our society. If the world were driven by economic imperative alone, with no thought given to what is beautiful or right or stimulating to mind, body and soul, it would be a poorer place indeed. It is all too easy to support arguments through flippant references to the sacred cow of the National Health Service – born, incidentally, out of the creative vision of a Welshman – but the figures involved do not tally. Ruck’s claim that cancer patients, the disabled and the elderly are suffering as a direct result of a minority-interest literary agenda that ‘contributes precisely nothing for the overall good of society’ is not only wrongheaded; it is morally disgusting.

From a purely financial point of view, it is worth pointing out that whilst on paper – and in ‘the paper’ – subsidies to publishing houses look substantial (hundreds of thousands of pounds should not be trifled with in any sphere of public, or indeed private, life), the way they have been presented by Ruck – and re-presented by the Western Mail ­– is mischievous. £4 million over four years is £1 million a year. To put this in its proper perspective, the Welsh Government spends around 0.000068% of its budget on literature. To put this into further perspective, the Prince of Wales costs £2.2 million a year.

But I am far less interested in grubby arguments concerned with money as I am in literature’s contribution to society. Writers, those who matter, deal in a currency that has far more value.

And if Wales is to mean anything at all, we would do well to recall the words of its anthem: Gwlad beirdd a chantorion – our ‘land of poets and minstrels’ – can only be said to be such if writers are indeed enwogion o fri. And to be ‘honoured and free’ means to be valued by society as a whole.

You can judge for yourself who and what our society values by looking around you. Look out of your window. Look on the television. Look on the front and back pages of the newspapers. Look, for example, at the Western Mail. Now, I am as sports mad as anybody else in this sports mad country, but I have to say it saddens me that WalesOnline covers ‘News’ and ‘Business’ as well as ‘Rugby’, ‘Sports’ and ‘Football’ – each have their own separate dropdown menu – while to find anything at all on any of the arts, let alone books, you need to access the ‘Life and Style’ section, dominated by ‘Showbiz’. I have nothing whatever against either Catherine Zeta Jones or Katherine Jenkins – both are beautiful women and fantastic ambassadors for Wales – but I do question their contribution to society relative to the coverage they receive in the Western Mail. (I’m sure they wish the paper would leave them alone too).

One thing we are very good at in Wales is celebrating the achievements of our own, especially if they are recognised and therefore rubber-stamped by the wider world. The riposte of Elwyn Jones, chief executive of the Welsh Books Council, to Julian Ruck is a case in point. ‘The market [is] dominated by large English and American publishers,’ he said, and ‘it is testament to the success of Welsh authors, publishers and funding bodies that in the past year titles published in Wales have been listed for the Man Booker Prize, the T. S. Eliot Award and the Costa Prize.’ In other words, the people sitting in judgement on grants and bursaries are regularly having their decisions validated by proxy. England and America recognise the quality of much contemporary Welsh writing.

It would be progress indeed if we could reach a point in Welsh culture where confidence in our own value judgements did not need the blessing of others in order to be trusted, but nevertheless it is important that we do not stand apart from the maelstrom of the rest of the English-speaking world, of which we are inextricably a part. What is a shame (shame as in shame, not shame as in pity) is that our national media – print and broadcast – do not devote the requisite resources to covering the arts that would see their growing excellence celebrated on equal terms with other areas of our collective life (The Passion of Port Talbot, for example, was easily the artistic equivalent of a Six Nations’ Grand Slam). Instead of being a forum for informed, intelligent debate about public life in Wales, the Western Mail sees fit to rehash a press release from a self-published malcontent asking dumb questions like ‘Did Lady Charlotte Guest or Dylan Thomas receive hand-outs from the tax-payer?’

And again, the examples Julian Ruck chooses are particularly pertinent not because he is right but because he is so far wide of the real issue that he allows the rest of us to see things more clearly than ever before. In holding up Guest and Thomas as examples of literary ‘giants’ on the same level as Heaney and Joyce (and presumably Archer, Patterson and EL James), Ruck inadvertently stumbles upon the unspoken dichotomy that existed before state subsidy of the arts.

In the past, broadly speaking, writers – like other people – came in two main types: rich and poor. Ruck conveniently ignores the fact that Lady Charlotte Guest was the daughter of an Earl and wife of the world’s wealthiest iron magnate (he also ignores the fact she was English, but let’s leave that one there). His rhetoric skates over the blatantly obvious fact that bursaries were unavailable to Dylan Thomas, who may not have been such a sponging nuisance to his friends and acquaintances if his huge talent had been recognised with a small sum of cash to keep the wolf from his door.

It is futile to speculate of course, but who knows? Given a few bob, he might have been nicer to his wife, gone a little easier on the drink, written more poetry, lived a bit longer. It is certainly worth imagining what his life had been like and what the impact might have been on his craft and sullen art if he’d been able to cash in on his work during his life to the extent that everybody else has after his death. Of course, the Dylan Thomas heritage trail – the Boathouse, the writing shed, the Prize, the Centre, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive – is testament to how we value writers in Wales. But the material element to our tradition of honouring poets came too late to be of any benefit to Thomas himself.

Something we learn from many titles in the Library of Wales – another Welsh Government cash injection for literature – is that, by and large, Wales’ writers of the last century probably did not achieve their full potential. Even if we conceded Ruck’s point about the lack of genuinely world-class writers Wales has produced – although personally I would categorise R.S. Thomas, Raymond Williams and Jan Morris, amongst others, as such – we could argue with his central thesis by crying how bright the frail deeds of Wales’ writers might have danced had they been allowed a little time out from their day jobs to concentrate solely on writing.

The best Welsh poets and novelists also underline the fact that, far from being elitist parasites or ‘carbuncles’ on the longsuffering taxpayer, writers are very often engaged in other work that contributes to ‘the overall good of society’. Dannie Abse was a doctor; Kate Roberts, Gwyn Thomas and many others have been teachers; there have also been many politicians and journalists, if you count those professions among those that are good for society.

And if we are to truly repudiate the Ruck ‘speech’ – while admitting that its misguided hyperbole and misleading figures will inevitably resonate with much of the public – we must come out fighting. But equally, we must be clear what the fight is for. What it is certainly not about is our own next chance of a grant or bursary. There is nothing more humiliating than small-mindedness, short-termism and looking after one’s own interests when there are far bigger issues at stake.

We must be innovative and invent new models for supporting our writers and honouring the vital contribution they make to our public discourse and our nation. In an ideal world, of course writers and publishers would not receive financial support from the state. In an ideal world, a highly educated public would be continually edified by the musings of writers, from whose pens would flow nothing but the utmost wisdom, perfectly expressed. Writers would be like Plato’s philosopher-kings. In Wales, the chairing of the bard would be the swearing in of the First Minister, or, perhaps, the President.

But we do not live in such a fantasy world. We must accept not only economic realities but also the fact that a significant proportion of the public still equate ‘the arts’ with elitism. The press release sent by Julian Ruck to Western Mail journalist Rachel Misstear, far from being a voice in the wilderness, makes a vital contribution to the debate surrounding not only public funding of the arts but the role of the writer in society. Literary Wales is far from the place Ruck would have us believe, but it is long overdue a stock-take.

This storm in a teacup reveals much about the state we are in, not least the fact that we are in a teacup. The fact that Lleucu Siencyn was moved to issue a full rebuttal of Mr Ruck’s contention is evidence that The Western Mail, despite all of its limitations, still matters. If we are to truly support the next generation of Welsh writers onto the world stage, and ensure that they deserve to be on such a stage, we must raise the bar in terms of the quality of debate. We must avoid pettiness and axe-grinding and backbiting. And above all, we must avoid money-grabbing.

Ruck’s contribution is not a threat to the idea of a publicly funded literature sector. It allows us to celebrate how far we have come. The official response from Literature Wales fairly rebuts Ruck’s assertion about Wales’ lack of writers ‘of international note’ with a list of names. The most interesting aspect to this is not the quality of the writers listed but how we are defining Welsh. One of the world-class authors Siencyn is quick to claim in her statement, Philip Pullman, was born in Norwich; he is only Welsh insomuch as his secondary school years were spent in Harlech. Many of Wales’ other great writers were not born here; many of those born here are ‘classified’ as something else. Is Roald Dahl Welsh? Martin Amis? Iain Sinclair? The definition has been broadened beyond recognition in recent years and this, in itself, is to be celebrated.

Lleucu Siencyn’s response also robustly emphasises the socially inclusive nature of Literature Wales’ work. To begrudge what little support our writers and publishers get belittles us all. We are a proud country; proud of our long, illustrious literary tradition in (at least) two languages; proud of the achievements of our fellow countrymen and women in a variety of fields. We punch above our weight in a huge number of areas. In literature, our past achievement has been remarkable; our future ambition is – and needs to be – even greater.

You can argue about names – who is and who isn’t the Welsh James Joyce or Seamus Heaney and whether those two particular writers are suitable barometers in any case – but ultimately it is not a question of particular writers (although we need those too). What matters is that we continue to see ourselves as a country of writers, and that our children are brought up to understand how reading and writing – how literature – can unlock the doors of possibility, both imagined and real. Doors to other worlds and to our own. Gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o fri.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis