Arts Council England must treat literature more fairly

Today’s political talk is all of austerity: we’re told ‘hard choices’ have to be made. In 2014 the grant Arts Council England (ace) received from government was £600 million, a third down on just four years earlier. Whatever you make of the wider financial picture, recent cuts are particularly worrying in the context of literature’s traditional position as a poor relation at the ace table. Currently, it receives just 2 per cent of spending on the National Portfolio, the flagship scheme under which organisations themselves, rather than just occasional projects, are funded. Theatre, which is separately funded and a whole other story, needs an article to itself.

Public funding is justified by public benefit, so we might start by asking who needs literature funding. Clearly, it’s not just those who work in and for literature who benefit but, crucially, audiences: students, events audiences, community members, readers… not only book addicts but occasional ‘consumers’ too: widows picking poems for a memorial, bands who – thanks to one amazing teacher – quote Michael Morpurgo and Seamus Heaney. There are films-of-books and Poems on the Underground; even tabloid headlines pun on famous quotations. Literature is woven into daily life.

It’s also seen as cheap to make. Easy to ignore the time required to produce 90,000 words of literary biography or fiction: these are private, unseen hours. The same isn’t true of opera or dance, whose collective rehearsals can’t be gainsaid. Some inconsistency has grown up. ace regularly funds the making of performance arts – including theatre – but not of literature. A few writer’s awards are given every year: this only underlines their rarity. Formerly awarded by annual literary competition, they’re now part of ‘Grants for the Arts’, an umbrella programme whose criteria include ‘public engagement’ and ‘project management’.

The traditional justification, that there’s no need to pay writers because publishers pay advances, is increasingly outdated. It also punishes literature, and publishers in particular, for success: it’s sales that pay advances, after all. However, ace does subsidise some independent publishers and literary magazines, as well as literary translation into English, though recently it’s retrenched from some more established independent presses and started to work with newer imprints – And Other Stories and Penned in the Margins – and with Faber & Faber.

It’s a different picture in Wales, much of whose national identity has traditionally been bound up in yr Iaiath, the (Welsh) Language. The Welsh Books Council disperses publication grants and promotes Welsh books; Wales Literature Exchange awards publishers up to 100 per cent of translation costs for contemporary literature in both languages; and the Welsh Arts Council revenue-funds (ie gives the equivalent of National Portfolio funding to) the national literature agency, Literature Wales, to the tune of £851,915. North of the border, in 2014 more than 12 per cent of Creative Scotland’s £90- million-plus budget went to literature. The pattern of English subsidy isn’t an automatic outcome of economic pressures, but a set of choices.

In October, ace was taken to task by a Commons select committee for disproportionate spending in prosperous London: estimates cite £69 per head compared to £4.60 per head in the worst-served regions. Behind this challenge lay the glimmer of an idea that the arts are a social good, part of a healthy civil society, not just a specialised form of entertainment: a riposte to former Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s notorious 2013 claim that ‘focus must be on culture’s economic impact’.

But how has regional disproportion arisen? Following restructuring, decisions formerly made at regional level – by art-form officers developing infrastructure with and for their regional community – are now ratified at the central office in London. As in any organizational change that locates relatively more power in relatively fewer hands, this has laid ace open to charges of perpetuating a narrowed view of what is and should be going on.

‘Hard choices’ do have to be made. In the round of cuts announced in 2011, a leading poetry festival at Aldeburgh, Suffolk,lost its core funding, while a new grant was given to the nearby cross-arts Norwich and Norfolk Festival. The Poetry Book Society, which as well as a quarterly recommendation scheme runs the T.S. Eliot Prize, lost all its funding. Nor has work outside London been disproportionately protected for 2015. In Grasmere, the Wordsworth Trust’s literature programme is cut from the National Portfolio, and the Arvon Foundation sees a cut of 10 per cent in real terms, while the Manchester-based literature development agency Commonword has had its funding restored only after lodging a formal complaint. 

Could it be that austerity gives ace a chance to change the literature scene in ways it simply wishes to see? Is it possible that, in order to deal with a London-centric public- funding culture, arts organisations have felt compelled to maintain headquarters in the capital? Might it be time for a new, transparent and truly national organisation to take responsibility for distributing public arts funding with commitment and accountability? Who can say?


Arts Council England sent the following response to RSL Chair, Jenny Uglow:

Dear Jenny,

I read your Leader in the latest edition with interest but would like to clarify a few points that you made.

Whilst Arts Council’s funding is a small part of the overall landscape of literature and publishing, it is an important one.  We are the largest funder by far of grants for writers.  In 2013/14 literature Grants for the Arts funding for individuals was approximately £700k. We know that writers need time to write and we are well aware of the context of falling advances and we work with Society of Authors to think together about the implications for the future.

Grants for the Arts often works better for smaller organisations too– in 2013/14 we spent just over £2m on literature and this figure rises to almost £14m when you look at the last three years.

We were really pleased to extend the National Portfolio to three new independent publishers over the last two rounds – Comma, And Other Stories and Penned in the margins. We see this as part of our role in supporting new artists and editors.

Funding decisions are made at a local level, drawing on detailed regional knowledge, artform expertise, a national overview and a consistent basis across the country. These decisions take into account a wide range of factors including geography, artform, the quality of the art and cultural experience produced, diversity, size and type of organisation.  Many London based organisations work nationally- for example Booktrust and the Reading agency work with millions of children across the country.

We very much see our role in funding literature as supporting access across the country – supporting writers wherever they live, helping people read great international literature, and promoting reading to our diverse population.  We will be launching strategic funds to support children and young people’s creative writing outside London because we know provision is patchy at present.  In addition, our Grants for the Arts Libraries fund has been able to fund many literature projects in rural areas.

It’s a challenging time for traditional publishing and for arts funding but there also are exciting opportunities;  we will continue to work towards our goal of bring the pleasure of reading and writing to as many people as possible.

Yours sincerely,

Antonia Byatt, Director Literature, Arts Council England