One voice to tell a positive story

 

The importance of writers to Ireland’s international identity is widely recognised, yet funding for literature does not reflect their influence. So can a new alliance of literary organisations help secure the support that is needed, asks FIONA McCANN

IN THE CURRENT debates about the role of the arts in rebuilding the nation, a lot is being made of the reputation, at home and abroad, of our writers, a reputation which plays no small part in the accepted view that, culturally speaking, this small country punches well above its weight.

Yet despite this importance, literature here remains sorely underfunded, with the Arts Council’s current head of literature, Sarah Bannan, receiving only 4 per cent of the total council budget to allocate to the organisations and individuals she funds. But how do you ask for more money when there’s so much less to go round? And how can Ireland’s literary community ensure its voice is heard in the clamour of requests from across the arts?

One step in the right direction is to get together and speak with one strengthened voice, which is part of the thinking behind the recent formation of the Literature Alliance, comprising Poetry Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland (CBI), Ireland Literature Exchange, Publishing Ireland, Munster Literature Centre, the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency and the Irish Writers’ Centre.

So what are their aims? “We’d be asking that, within Arts Council policy, literature is looked at as a priority area,” explains Mags Walsh, director of CBI. “So far this year, just 4 per cent has gone to literature. It’s a tiny amount – dance is at 5.5 per cent and opera is at 7.5 per cent.”

While Sarah Bannan admits that her budget is proportionately low, she stresses that Arts Council funding for writers and literature does also come from other areas, including festival budgets, the Young People, Children and Education (YPCE) programme, and organisations such as Aosdána, many members of which draw a cnuas from the council. “From the Arts Council point of view, no sector is over-funded. Their slice of the pie may feel too small, but the pie isn’t very big to begin with,” she says.

Mags Walsh is quick to acknowledge the council’s position. “The Arts Council needs a bigger cake, and literature needs a bigger slice of that cake,” she says. “Arts as a whole is very important to the Literature Alliance, but what we are saying is that you can’t take literature for granted.”

She sees the reluctance to fund literature as partly down to a perception “that all you need is a pen or computer and then you’ll be fine if you’re a writer”. Yet Bannan agrees that the council shouldn’t just be funding bursaries for writers but also needs to look at funding publishers so that writers have a platform. There should also be greater support for festivals and reading opportunities where writers can engage with and cultivate readers. “The challenge is making people connect with the fact that Claire Kilroy doesn’t make books out of nowhere,” Bannan says.

IN THE SEARCH for an explanation of literature’s low funding, some have pointed to the fact that only one of the 13 council members, chairwoman included, comes from a specifically literary background. Bannan, though, doesn’t see this as a factor. “Just because Colm Tóibín is the only practising writer on the council, it doesn’t mean there isn’t expertise in literature across the council,” she says.

Yet for Joseph Woods, of Poetry Ireland, there is a pressing need to address the dearth of funding for literature. There are serious risks, he feels, in a failure to do so. “When the big names score the big hits, everyone is happy that they got through,” says Woods, referring to recent successes such as Colum MacCann’s US National Book Award and Anne Enright’s Man Booker Prize. “What concerns me is the generation coming up after that . . . You need to nurture and cultivate the next generation.”

One organisation seeking to do just that is the Irish Writers’ Centre, which received no funding this year from the Arts Council, despite a real and successful effort to address the council’s worries about the running of the centre. Funding was cut entirely in December 2008, with the Arts Council citing concerns over the capacity of the then staffing complement “to deliver high-quality literary programmes” and the high salaries being paid to its four full-time staff members, which totalled €237,550.

After the funding was cut, however, the centre parted ways with then director Cathal MacCabe, as well as many of its board members. Writer Jack Harte, who had founded the centre back in the late 1980s, returned to the board last March and took over as chairman in September, though he still does not draw a salary from that position. “I felt it shouldn’t be let sink without a fight,” he says. “I had a sense that if it was lost it was lost forever, and you’d never have something like that again.”

Harte amassed a team of volunteers to help him rejuvenate the centre, bringing with them new energy ideas to ensure that it returned to operating as Harte had originally envisaged. The centre is now focused on running its Parnell Square building as a venue for readings, workshops, self-development seminars and book launches, as well as “doing for prose what Poetry Ireland does for poetry”. Harte describes this latter function as “developing an ongoing readership for prose writers, especially while they are in between books, by having regular prose readings”. He’s also keen to maintain the centre’s role in development, through writing workshops and public readings for new writers, as well as promoting writing in the Irish language. All this is being kept going by some minor funding and a whole lot of goodwill. There are 12 volunteers, not including Harte himself.

“There are two factors that could close the centre down,” admits Harte. “If our bills and overheads outstrip what we raise, then we’ve got to close it down. If the young people working there were no longer able to offer their time for free, then we would have to close it down. We’re hanging on by our fingernails.”

Despite this, the Irish Writers’ Centre was refused funding again this year. “I don’t think anyone doesn’t think we should have a writers’ centre,” says Sarah Bannan. “ has changed, and changed aggressively, in the past few months. I accept their concerns. We can’t talk about one funding decision, but the council is aware of how much work has been done.”

The Literature Alliance is eager to make a case for the centre and for a renewed focus on literature, particularly given the campaign for a Unesco city of literature designation for Dublin. “All of the alliance would be horrified if the only dedicated literature space in Dublin went,” says Mags Walsh. “If something happened the Writers’ Centre and it wasn’t there . . . It’s done a great job of keeping things going, but the idea of not having any living literature space in Dublin, when we’re nudging towards Unesco city of literature status, that would be abhorrent to the alliance.”

Harte agrees that the precarious position of the centre could have a detrimental effect on the Unesco designation. “The Unesco decision is not based on the fact that Dublin is the city of Joyce, Yeats and Wilde,” he says. “It’s based on contemporary factors, not historical ones. If they come here and the Writers’ Centre is gone, it doesn’t augur well for that designation.”

Harte argues that if the Arts Council funds the Irish Writers’ Centre, the money will end up in the pockets of the people who need it most, namely the writers. “We’d be able to create employment, offer services, but also put money in writers’ pockets. Last year we put €50,000 into writers’ pockets.”

IT’S THE KIND of case being made by the Literature Alliance, which points to the big returns from literature for the funds invested.

“This is a good story, and it’s cheap. It’s not costing a lot of money, and it’s good for the country. Culture is a good story. It’s a positive story, and it’s very positive advertising for ourselves,” says Woods. “A very small shift, even in terms of percentages, a shift in thinking, could make a huge difference. It’s small money and it’s economical, and it’ll go very far.”

From the Arts Council perspective, Bannan welcomes the establishment of the Literature Alliance. “The Arts Council is interested in funding good ideas, so the Literature Alliance needs to put a shape on what added resources can actually buy,” she says.

Walsh is aware that times are tough for those looking for funding. “The alliance is hopefully a long-term strategy,” she says. “We know situations are difficult for funders, we know there are smaller budgets, but if and when things change, people need to know what’s going on in literature.”

For Woods, it’s about making a case for literature and its contribution to Irish cultural life. “It’s not about stealing the money from theatre or visiual arts or opera or any of the other sectors. It’s about saying, ‘look, we all know the value that literature has nationally and globally’ – why isn’t that recognised from the top down? It’s a very simple message really.”