Assisted literature

Wales has been left out of the limelight a little recently. The recent successes of our rugby and football teams notwithstanding, we are overlooked by the rest of the UK in terms of our culture and national identity. Welsh publishing falls into the same pattern.

I remember studying Irish literature in school and Scottish literature at university. It was fantastic stuff - some of the best writing in English in the whole world - and in the middle of all this, I never studied Welsh writing in English. The situation today is slightly better. The centenary of Dylan Thomas in 2014 - which was supported by the Welsh government and led by a consortia of publishers, national companies, festivals and prominent figures - helped to promote the vibrant literary culture of Wales to the world, but more importantly, to Thomas’ fellow countrymen too.

Defining literature from Wales poses a dilemma. Do you go straight to the ancient traditions of Welsh-language poetry and point out that the craft of cynghanedd - strict-metre verse - has been practised unbroken (mostly by men) for over a thousand years, and is still listened to in pubs and halls throughout the land? Or do you mention the rough and tough (mostly male) fiction writers of the post-industrial valleys? What about the women, BME and LGBT writers?

What, then, are the opportunities for readers and writers of Welsh literature to encounter and articulate the different voices in our country? Devolution has certainly been a positive step towards a sense of nationhood. And wherever one stands on the political spectrum, most by now believe in increased devolved powers (we are not currently on a par with Scotland). The two key areas which are devolved are education and culture, and the agendas within these are quite different to the ones in England. The Welsh government is supportive of culture and sees it as an inherent aspect of national identity. This means that initiatives supporting and subsidising the literature sector, for example, have been solidly maintained in comparison with what is happening across the border.

The publishing industry is supported and led by the Welsh Books Council, based in Aberystwyth. It receives grants directly from the Welsh government to develop and lead the publishing sector. It does this by offering block grants to Welsh publishers and running an impressive distribution centre for all publications. There are several small Welsh publishers specialising in both Welsh and English - with most producing books in both languages - throughout Wales.

The main literature prize, Wales Book of the Year, is funded by the Arts Council of Wales and organised by my organisation, Literature Wales. We are in turn part of the Arts Council of Wales’ portfolio of national companies, and our responsibility is to develop literature as a lively, contemporary and inclusive artform. We distribute funds to both writers and organisers of literary events. We also work in partnership with charities and initiatives outside of our sector to make sure that we fulfil our mission statement: that “literature belongs to everybody and can be found everywhere”.

The investment in the development of literature in Wales over the years, both in the publishing sector and in the promotion of live events, has meant that today there is a varied and energetic scene. Throughout the summer, you will find a literature festival in practically every small town and village - as well as the Hay Festival, of course. In certain areas of Wales (Gwynedd, for example) you are never more than 10 miles away from a poet. Cardiff, Newport and Swansea are full of grass-roots, live literature events. Those who win the main literature prizes at the Eisteddfod festival are treated like popstars.

This means that the Welsh books scene is uniquely impacted by government intervention, at both local and national level. Although these are uncertain times, I’m hopeful. One of our other traditions, unbroken for centuries, is sponsoring writers. From the Gododdin, to Dafydd ap Gwilym, to Dylan Thomas, writing has always been supported and subsidised in Wales.

Now, perhaps this is the right way to define our national USP...?

Lleucu Siencyn is chief executive of Literature Wales