A diverse range of literary voices were united last week under the cry of #WelshBooksMatter. Writers of award-winning novels, sports biography, strict metre verse, thrillers and psycho-geography put pen to paper in protest and the collective force was mighty enough to overturn government funding decisions.
In December the draft budgets of the Welsh Government were announced, which included a 4.7% reduction for the Arts Council of Wales and a 10.6% cut to the Welsh Books Council, the organisation responsible for supporting the publishing industry in both Welsh and English.
The news took a while to be picked up - but when it did, things moved very fast indeed. Initiated by poet Kathryn Gray and novelist Angharad Price, letters to the Deputy Minister urging him to rethink the cuts were being circulated amongst writers and publishers.
In its own letter to the Deputy Minister, the Welsh Academy Committee wrote about the intrinsic importance of a subsidised publishing industry in a small country: “The publication of books also makes a significant contribution to our civic society in Wales. The deficiencies of the mass media in reflecting the public life of Wales are so well documented that there is no need for us to elaborate here. The publishing industry therefore gives us an opportunity to create a national culture that is vibrant, diverse and self-critical.”
Within 48 hours, and with big guns such as Philip Pullman and National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke adding their voices, the protest had indeed reached mass media. This was to be, ironically, the largest coverage of books from Wales within London-based broadsheets and media outlets. When a group of writers and publishers met with politicians at the Senedd last Wednesday, the decision to reverse the cuts had already been made. The record of the proceedings at the Senedd show the Deputy Minister for Culture, Ken Skates, sharing a joke with the Plaid Cymru AM Simon , who noted “that if one good thing has come out of this, it’s that the Guardian has woken up to the fact that there’s writing in Wales that is of international importance.”
Although this is a wonderful chapter in our democratic history, it’s important to remember that the story is far from over. Gary Raymond, editor of the Wales Arts Review, raised some pertinent points in his comments piece Why Should a United Literary Community be a Flash in the Pan?: “So, I hope today is not just a victory we will be forced to try and emulate at the next round of budget barneys in 12 months’ time. Today was a massive moment. Perhaps it could be the start of something greater, rather than a story to tell our grandkids.”
Cuts in funding for publishing and books directly affect writers, but there are also other significant threats, including the closure of libraries and arts centres. In 2014 several people, including the writer Mike Church, chained themselves to bookshelves in an attempt to save their local library in Rhydyfelin. There is a growing vocal opposition to Cardiff Council’s proposed cuts to arts organisations, including Cardiff Contemporary, Artes Mundi, Cardiff Singer of the World and community led arts programmes. The story reads the same throughout Wales.
Philip Pullman and other high profile writers took to Twitter to trigger an enthusiastic debate on writers’ fees at festivals, naming and shaming several ones which don’t pay their artists. These writers quite rightly point out that you can’t eat exposure. Despite their myriad differences, the united voice of writers can, and does, get heard. But it’s not the time to be quiet yet...
Lleucu Siencyn is chief executive of Literature Wales.