Yesterday I went along to the Pow Wow Festival of Writing. In a short time it has become a fixture on the Midlands writing scene, along with the Literature Festival and Writers’ Toolkit, though it has a fringe feel to it, like Hay might have been before it became a massive international institution. Writers talking to writers in the midst of a general election.
No one mentioned the election, of course. They didn’t have to. Writers deal in narratives, and politicians just love those.
So what’s our narrative? It is that these are difficult and frightening times, but that emergencies can lead to emergence – to new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things, new ways of connecting readers and writers, consumers and producers.
Danuta Kean, writer, industry analyst and Book Editor of Mslexia sketched out the terms of the debate with verve and style. She described a publishing industry too heavily concentrated in London; drawn from a shrinking social base, and almost impossible to get into unless one is able to work as an unpaid intern in central London for a couple of years. As gatekeepers to publication, their narrow tastes risk limiting readers’ access to stories which reflect diverse lives.
She authored the recent report ‘Writing The Future’ which looked at BAME access to the publishing industry, and described a situation which might stand for that in many professions. In the 1990s, she suggested, fine new Black and Asian voices were breaking through, but that that process has now been choked off. A similar situation obtained for people who came from economically disadvantaged sections of the population, and from some regions. Accessibility has gone into reverse.
Oddly, some of this was echoed, perhaps inadvertently, by the final speaker of the day, Andrew Davies. The star screenwriter responsible for Colin Firth’s soaked shirt, for the original House of Cards (he said he’d tried to turn the Tory novelist’s novel into an anti-Tory satire), and a forthcoming War And Peace, Davies reflected on how the industry he’d worked in for over fifty years had changed. In particular, his experience of radio drama as an accessible training ground for new writers, with producers having the power and authority to progress projects without too much interference from above recalls a time long gone.
Most frightening is the constant decline in pay to writers. The average full-time writer now earns well below the minimum wage – £11,000 p.a. and falling – and they may be the lucky ones with the contacts and the networking skills to keep those tiny contracts rolling in.
The event was not miserably pessimistic or nostalgic, though. In the middle of the afternoon came a session devoted to new ways to work in publishing, or to get published. The state of the conventional publishing industry, nicely satirised in Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, may be one in which agents blow their brains out, but the problem remains. How are writers to get their work out to readers in a fit state to be read, i.e. having been properly edited and proofed? And how are readers to know that a new author is worth reading. Indeed, how is a reader meant to find anything fit to read in a jungle of self-publication?
Whether the ideas posed by Scrolla, Alchemy Press and Macguffin will resolve that problem, who can say as yet. But there has to be some way that is neither self-publishing and self-promotion, nor the conventional agent-editor-marketing department combo.
On one level, the scene in the tent yesterday was a world away from manifestos and opinion polls. But on another, it was exactly what the election ought to be about. Serious, diverse, committed people, some talented, some hesitant, some successful, some deluded, all hopeful, despite the difficult circumstances in which we work. People who need the BBC to reconnect with all regions fairly, and who need publishing not to be as geographically concentrated an activity as hedge-fund management, but to have hubs right across the country. People who value the arts, and libraries, and education, and creativity. People who – to my mind, at least – ought to be mad as hell!