By James McConnachie
Writing a novel in Orcadian dialect, as Josie Giles has done, might seem to be a quixotic enterprise. Isn’t it hard enough to find readers in English? But Giles’s decision to write in her own language, like that of the other writers featured in this special issue, is grounded in something deeper than commercial opportunity. She sees her writing as a form of resistance – to monolingualism and, more widely, any system that diminishes what she calls ‘the ordinary polyphony of the human mind’.
This Autumn issue celebrates the polyphony of Britain, and the vibrant writing and publishing cultures of Welsh and Scottish Gaelic in particular. Menna Elfyn describes how writing in Welsh, for her, flung open a door to other languages and cultures. Jon Gower captures the energy of the Welsh-language publishing scene, with its festivals and supportive independent bookshops. Donald S. Murray charts the explosion of Scottish Gaelic literature over the last twenty years. If anything unites these articles, it is a sense that writing in minority languages is anything but a retreat into a corner, it is an embracing of opportunity, both creative and professional.
All this activity, of course, is supported by government grants administered through various boards and councils – from Creative Scotland and Bord Na Gàidhlig to the Books Council of Wales. State support for Anglophone literature, one might observe, is rather less wholehearted. The loss of funding from Creative Europe was a blow – to translators especially. Creative Scotland and the Arts Council offer some funding, but it is striking how modest is the proportion of the Arts Council’s budget that finds its way to English authors — only 3.5% of the Arts Council’s budget between 2015 and 2018 was spent on literature, and that included funding to arts organisations, libraries, festivals and museums. How much made its way into the pockets of the actual authors on whom all these institutions depend? Your guess is probably as low as mine.
UK writers, as a result, stand alone and unsupported in the marketplace, haggling with the legal departments of multinational corporations. It is a cold and windy place, only made warmer by the grants and awards funded by independent organisations including the SoA. This stands in contrast to the attitude of the Irish government to literature, which seems to see the sector as an opportunity for investment. Heather Parry, who is the SoA’s energetic representative in Scotland, compares the situation on either side of the Irish Sea, and tries to resist feeling envious.
This Autumn issue features practical advice, of course. Nicola Solomon stresses the importance, as you get older, of getting your affairs in order. (One of the things you can do, of course, is make a bequest to the SoA’s charities; well, if the government won’t help we have to find other ways to encourage the authors who will remain after we have gone.) We also feature author and agent Anna Davis, who offers invaluable insider advice on how to write a good novel synopsis and pitch letter. I am also proud to publish a ‘letter from Uganda’ written for us by the exiled author Stella Nyanzi. And we offer an extended interview with the biographer, historian and grande dame of the SoA, Antonia Fraser. She turns 90 this year, and has a great deal of professional wisdom to impart.
’m conscious that, in all this, we have not covered writing and publishing in Ireland (or in Irish Gaelic); that will have to come in future issues. Nor have we featured writing in other dialects, or in some of the many languages spoken in these islands, from Cornish to Jèrriais and Polish to Punjabi (the last of which are the two most commonly spoken languages in the UK, after English, in case you’re wondering). I am sure there are members who speak and perhaps work in all those tongues, and many more. Because even if the British have a reputation for linguistic narrowness, we authors are a polyglot and indeed polyphonous lot. And what a glorious sound we make.
Cover Art by Barry Falls
Barry Falls works with pen, pencil, paint and found materials, collaging individual sections of an artwork on the computer. He works regularly with The Guardian and The Financial Times, as well as on editorial projects for WWF and The Lancet medical journal. He has produced book covers for Faber & Faber, Random House and Macmillan and his first children’s book It’s Your World Now was published by Pavilion in 2019.
The emerald-eyed monster – Heather Parry asks what Scotland can learn from Ireland’s support for its writers
Writing a future for minority languages – Harry Josephine Giles looks forward to multilingualism becoming the norm
Cwsg yw bywyd heb lyfrau – Jon Gower surveys the landscape of contemporary writing and publishing in Welsh
Publishing in Gaelic – Donald S. Murray on the recent explosion of Scottish Gaelic literature
Opening doors – Menna Elfyn reflects on a life in Welsh poetry
Dear agent… – Anna Davis of Curtis Brown Creative advises on how to write the synopsis and pitch letter
A short guide to copyright and you – Hannah Berry and Woodrow Phoenix give an illustrated introduction to protecting your work
An endangered species in Uganda – Dissident writer Stella Nyanzi on the silencing of Uganda’s critical voices
Ask an author: Antonia Fraser – Editor James McConnachie talks to the historical biographer as she approaches her 90th birthday
Pre mortem – James McConnachie asks Nicola Solomon what authors can do to prepare for what happens after they die
Noted – Lucy Mangan on books, audiobooks and condolences
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