Literature doesn’t need more cheerleaders

Rosemary Goring's take on the Creative Scotland debate from the Herald Saturday arts section September 22, 2012

“There is no such thing as art. There are only artists,” said E H Gombrich in The Story of Art.  It’s a dictum that the architects of Creative Scotland should have noted. Much of the firestorm that has engulfed that beleaguered institution of late might have been averted if its apparatchiks had had the wisdom and humility to appreciate that the state’s function in funding the arts is solely to disburse money to artists in the most effective and simple manner possible.




Poet Don Paterson’s recent broadside against this body, as reported in The Herald, was blistering in its contempt for an organisation that is widely perceived as interfering, labyrinthine and arrogant. His courage in doing so is commendable, given that for the past couple of years writers from all quarters of the book world have been railing against Creative Scotland, yet none has gone public, for fear of blackballing. That fear, incidentally, is not imaginary. I know one person who phoned several times to find out the result of a grant application  – some weeks after the date she’d been assured it would be announced – who was told that if she called again, the decision would go against her.

High among Paterson’s catalogue of complaints was that the Literature Working Group, set up in 2009 to consider ways of funding literature in the nascent Creative Scotland, and in which he played a major part, was ignored. As he wrote, “The report was charged with providing a strategy. That the one we proposed was summarily rejected was bad enough; perhaps it was the wrong one. But that precisely [italic] none has been seen or enunciated since [end ital] is wholly unforgivable.”

I was chair of that group and agree when he concedes our ideas may not have been wholly right. That the gap this policy was intended to fill was left empty, however, was disgraceful, particularly for a government that claims to have Scotland’s best interests at heart. But arts has always been a blind spot for the SNP. Following Paterson’s denunciation, it may become an Achilles’ heel.

Set up by Michael Russell when he was Culture Minister, the Literature Working group delivered its report shortly after Fiona Hyslop took his post. I remember a civil meeting with Paterson, me and Ms Hyslop. Our sense that this was seen as an awkward document – as indeed was the group who composed it – deepened when we met CS’s director Andrew Dixon and his colleague Venu Dhupa. They spoke in an officialese so impenetrable that afterwards we walked the length of Edinburgh’s George Street and back, trying to figure out what they’d just said. When the report was published, vigorous representations were made to the minister from the groups and bodies we had criticised and those who disagreed with our conclusions. There was nothing odd or wrong in that. But the wholesale muffling these protestations produced was. By the time they’d had their say, the report was roadkill.

The one single recommendation that was acted upon was the forthcoming Book Week Scotland. That notion was originally Allan Massie’s, but there was no mention of the idea’s source in the publicity for this initiative, suggesting that some people would prefer that the report, like plutonium, be forever buried.

Nearly three years on, and literature funding in Scotland is in a mess. Writers cannot work out how to apply for grants, let alone get them; those judging applications often have no knowledge of books and the trade, and preference is given to the new and shiny rather than the established and good. Bookshops are toiling, libraries can hear the axe being sharpened, and Scottish publishers are in a state of escalating crisis as sales of printed books plummet, and the cost of digitising backlists, among other things, grows prohibitive.

Meanwhile, literature organisations flourish, staff numbers multiplying as if what literature really needs is more cheerleaders and administrators than properly funded and well-treated writers. If one is to judge the health of our literature by the number of events, community activities and press releases, then everything is dandy. Sadly, like the comic, it is anything but.