NWR Issue 42

Welsh writing and writers

In an ideal world, Wales's long and distinctive literary tradition would ensure a large market for the work of Welsh writers. The Welsh public would rush out and buy their latest offerings and ensure writers and publishers a reasonable return for their labours. In practice, writing in Wales is, for the most part, a labour of love: writers in both languages work for a pittance. They live with a very small home market (a population of less than 3m.) and must try and compete for attention in Anglophonia, the biggest, most aggressive, publishing market in the world. As a consequence, much writing of literary worth in Wales, in English as well as Welsh, has become highly dependent upon public funding support, channelled mainly through the Arts Council of Wales (ACW) and the Welsh Books Council.

Against this background - and long-standing complaints that Welsh writers have been failing to win an adequate audience, when compared with those from, say, Ireland and Scotland - that ACW decided 72 months ago to create a literary promotion agency. Interested parties were invited to bid for a 3-year franchise.

No new money was made available. ACW has been on a standstill budget from the Welsh Office for the past three years. So it was to be established by devolving functions such as the writers on tour scheme previously administered by the Arts Council's literature department, and by re-allocating half the annual budget of the Welsh Academy to the new body.

Yr Academi Gymreig/The Welsh Academy has a long history. Founded in 1959 by Bobi Jones and Waldo Williams as a Welsh equivalent of L'Academie Française, it acquired an English-language section in the late 1960s and became a vehicle for executing a range of literary activities for Arts Council, from publishing books to organising conferences and festivals, as well as seeking to represent writers' interests. The loss of half its budget to a new promotion body clearly threatened its existence.

In the event (and to the surprise of many), the Academy won the franchise providing for an annual budget of £240,000 a year against stiff competition, but at the price of a major shake-up in its organisation. Changes included a radical rewriting of its constitution and the voluntary departure of its long-serving English and Welsh language administrators, Kevin Thomas and Dafydd Rogers, and their replacement by a single chief executive, Peter Finch, former manager of Oriel bookshop.

In place of a body with separate English and Welsh sections and separate management committees, two separate budgets and a governing council, there is now to be a slim-line management board with co-opted professionals. Writers' direct interests will be represented, day-to-day, by members' committees.

These changes were greeted with less-than-enthusiasm at last month's Academy annual meeting called to endorse the new structure. Dissent crystallised in the first instance around the new management's decision to use "Academi" as a marketing logo in place of the organisation's full bilingual title. It was implied that, somehow, their organisation was being hijacked by alien forces.

Missing in such attitudes was any recognition of the public interest behind the public finance, that the Academy is not being given the literary promotion franchise so as to allow it to return to its origins as an elite, self-selecting organisation of writers.

Writers are always free to create such a body, though they need to note that other, independent, writers' representative organisations exist in Wales already. The Welsh Union of Writers was founded in the early 1980s by English-language writers as an independent voice, precisely because of unhappiness with the Arts Council. Undebb Awduron Cymru offers a comparable autonomous voice for Welsh-language writers.

But the price of winning the literary promotion franchise was the adoption of a more professional approach to the very hard business of raising the profile of Welsh literary endeavour inside and outside Wales. By taking on this new responsibility, the Academy has also survived as an organisation representing Wales's writers as a whole. And, as Wales moves towards a new era in public administration and political power structures after the election of a devolved National Assembly next May, maintaining this overarching unity could prove to be of more than symbolic importance.


previous editorial: A Welsh policy for arts and culture
next editorial: "Re-branding" Wales


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