NWR Issue 40

The market for Wales's literature

The unforgiving demands of the market are of concern to everyone involved in the business of literature, particularly here in Wales where attracting a good audience for home-produced literary endeavour has to be fought for; usually in fierce competition with the Anglo-American publishing combines which have now replaced more traditional obstacles and villains.

Writing over half a century ago (see "By the Forelock..." p.8), the editor of The Welsh Review, Gwyn Jones, bemoaned the treatment which Welsh authors had generally received at the hands of English publishers but expressed the hope that the worst was over: "There was the initial prejudice against Welsh names and settings and subjects; a long lasting unwillingness to print Welsh authors. Our theory is that we overcame these by merit and hard work. For the most part we wrote from remote places and lack 'contacts', we dined not with makers of opinion, nor supped with publishers. We hoed a hard row. And most of us haven't complained, for we prefer it that way."

Professor Jones was writing in a different era, but his picture remains familiar. The big difference between then and now is that Welsh writers in English are no longer obliged to go to London or Dublin in order to get their work into print. The Welsh publishing scene, although still relatively modest and fragmented, has developed in remarkable ways which could not have been foreseen. More than thirty years of financial support from the Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh Books Council, combined with the more recent astonishing technological advances leading to desk-top publishing and the internet, means that the opportunities for publication here in Wales have increased beyond recognition.

However, the market is still a problem. Many more thousands of titles pour from presses each year. At the same time, metropolitan ignorance and prejudice against writing out of the Welsh experience is still alive and well, and making life difficult for writers seeking - and deserving - recognition not only beyond Wales's borders but also, through reflection, within Wales itself.

Hence, the Arts Council's latest initiatives to try and raise the profile of Wales's literatures at home and abroad. They include the assistance being given to translation of deserving Welsh works into continental European languages (plus funding of a literary translation fellowship at UW Swansea), the setting up of Wales Arts International, the funding of London representative for Welsh publishers, and now the creation of a literary promotion agency.

When it announced last autumn its intention of reducing the Welsh Academy's budget in order to fund a new agency, which would also take over responsibility for long-established promotional mechanisms such as the writers-on-tour scheme and residencies (previous handled by the Arts Council itself), the Arts Council of Wales triggered a painful crisis in Wales's oldest writers' organisation.

The Council clearly had not anticipated that the Academi (as it has now been renamed) would fight back with such vigour. But the latter's revamped organisation and development proposals, linking in with the Ty Newydd Writers' Centre, north Wales, proved impossible to resist when it came to awarding the new agency franchise from among a large number of competing bids.

But nobody should expect miracles. The resources at the disposal of the Academi as a promotion agency will be modest. It is not going to deliver a mass market for literature from Wales and nobody, least of all the Arts Council, should expect it to do so. We shall all be in deep trouble if quantity - be it sales of books or attendance at poetry readings and similar literary events - starts to replace quality as the predominant measure of literary worth. There are plentiful examples in history of literary excellence being not immediately recognised by the market place - and always will be. It is a lesson which needs to be remembered in the period ahead.


previous editorial: "Re-branding" Wales
next editorial: A home for the Welsh Assembly


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