So, it came to my attention a few days back that a post had popped up on a popular politics blog that was ruffling some Twitter feathers. Reading through it, I can see why, and while I had a brief Twitter soapbox moment to defend the organisations involved, I think it’s time to write something more substantial. Stable those drama llamas for now and put away the flameproof suit- these are just my opinions as an ‘insider’.
First, a full disclaimer, since it seems like the decent thing to do (and more on that later). I’m a paid-up member of the SNP, I’ve had a story published by the Scottish Book Trust and I’ve been going to the City of Literature Literary Salon every month since February. I’ll give you a moment to form some hateful, ill-informed opinions about me. Finished? Good. Moving on.
The bulk of the blog piece seems to be a complaint that the arts scene is being run and funded by faceless suits writing dry reports and keeping the Humble Writer down. This isn’t anything new- some folk may recall the open letter sent to Creative Scotland a few years ago. There’s some good points lurking about whether the government has a good grasp of what writers and publishers need, but it’s mostly swamped in ‘government bad! Quango bad! Organisations evil state-sponsored behemoths! Fight the power!’ rhetoric, interspersed with coherent (unrelated) points about Amazon and a complaint about Edinburgh hogging everything as, er, UNESCO City of Literature. Let’s not mention the Dundee, Wigtown or Ullapool book festivals, or any other city’s vibrant literary scene. Maybe there’s some of the ‘everything is London’ in this complaint, but it seems ill-informed in this case.
*UNPOPULAR OPINION KLAXON*
I’m a fairly political lass. I’ve been to manifesto launches, speaking tours, women-only conferences and- shock horror!- events like a Green Party social and the Radical Independence Conference, attended by other parties I’m not a member of. I’ve noticed that since the semblance of coherence indyref afforded folk of disparate opinions has vanished, everything’s descended into tribalism, us-versus-them, only the ‘them’ now seems to be ‘anyone who doesn’t wake up singing the Red Flag’. As I say, I’ve met a lot of people from all parties and none, and managed to have interesting and respectful discussions. So it’s disheartening to fall back on the ‘essennpeebaaaaadd’ bashing I normally associate with more right-wing mobs. Here’s a helpful diagram that was doing the rounds. Maybe it’ll clear things up.
By all means have a laugh about the ‘one party state’ (voted for by actual people and everything) and how I’m basically a fascist because the SNP isn’t left-wing enough for you, but know that I’ll think you’re a knob. Comrade.
Now, I was very sad to read that Peter Burnett thinks that the SBT and City of Literature are some kind of unhelpful monopoly, going as far to say ‘I am a publisher and writer in Scotland, so what has the Literature and Publishing Sector Review 2015 have to offer me? Not a lot‘. And then the kicker- using footage of last month’s egg and spoon race at the Salon to illustrate the piles of cash allegedly being ‘tenderised, laundered and squandered by the egg-and-spoon-racing RFOs.‘ He’s joined in a bit of a pile-on in the comments. Hilariously, one commenter hasn’t even properly read the piece- or, it seems, gone to a Salon- but concludes we’re all the Edina millennials of the piece wantonly wasting YOUR TAXPAYER’S MONEY WHICH ARE AN OUTRAGE &c &c.
Let me give my personal opinion. First, the Scottish Book Trust. Since I was published they’ve been amazingly helpful, keeping me in touch with the other lucky authors and most recently arranging for me to do a reading in a few weeks at a care home. This is unpaid- which is fine by me, because if reading to lonely old people isn’t bringing literature to the community, what is? They also publish top-notch writing advice, stream live discussions with authors (I loved Anthony Horowitz’s one from Glasgow), and offer an annual prize for new authors which is the sort of thing that’s manna from heaven to writers like me. And City of Literature, to the best of my knowledge, is run by a small band of extremely hard-working ladies who also put on a top-notch calendar of events besides the Salon. Incidentally, I don’t think the Salon is a waste of money. There’s a small amount of free food and drink provided, but honestly? The fact that, once a month, anyone can walk into a bar and talk to editors, agents, illustrators, poets and published authors like Charlie Stross- and, furthermore, be treated as their equal– is worth a few bottles of white wine, no? Oh, and I’ve rubbed shoulders with creative writing students, tour guides and residents of local estates that are most certainly not full of the sort of middle-class intelligentsia who love to write with a blind Citizen Smith authority on things they’ve never been to.
Now, to the egg-and-spoon business. This was arranged by authors based on a drunken pub idea, including the lovely Colin Salter who runs Stranger Than Fiction. The eggs were donated by Zomato. No public purse was harmed in the making of this event. It was also the last Salon before August, where they break for the Festivals, and maybe- just maybe- the literary crowd needed to let off steam. Never mind other cultural monopolies going on, like the recent Free Fringe fiasco, let’s tar a bunch of different people with the same brush. It’s not diminishing my views of some of the Left as po-faced, miserable folk who possibly need to come to some of these wonderful events to form a better opinion of them.
This leads nicely to the author of this piece, who really gives the impression of being hard done by by these awful organisations. I thought Peter Burnett rang a bell, so I took a look online. Here’s what I found:
- He’s the erstwhile head of Leamington Books, now dissolved, who publish back issues of The One o’ Clock Gun Magazine, featuring writing by… you’ve guessed it, Peter Burnett. Why do I mention this? Well, at the first Salon I went to there was a gentleman promoting his writing, handing out free copies of One o’ Clock Gun, who looked awfully like Mr Burnett’s profile pictures.
- It seems one of his book launches was promoted last year on, erm, the City of Literature site.
- For someone so critical of tax-dodging Amazon, he seems to be doing a roaring trade on there. (By the way, charging nearly £6 for a Kindle book about indyref is taking the Michael, Mr Burnett.)
- Creative Scotland get a hiding, but no mention is made of the £2000 book award he received from its predecessor, the Scottish Arts Council. There’s a handy wee public list of recipients and everything.
- Most curious of all, a search on Scottish Book Trust yielded this list of reports on mentoring. While the content is password-protected, it’s clear a Peter Burnett received help with a film script. Coincidence?
All of which leaves a sour taste, if I’m honest. It’s odd the author doesn’t mention any of his previous dealings with organisations he apparently hates. It seems like he’s being disingenuous at best and ungrateful at worst, biting the hand that’s fed him and frankly using one fun, free event to prop up a disjointed, confused argument. Perhaps he’s taking out some frustration at not hitting more dizzying heights of bookish fame despite receiving help. Newsflash: I still haven’t got my urban fantasy published, but I haven’t said City of Literature smell of poo and wee because they haven’t helped. In fact, I’m off to a party at the Book Festival tonight where I’ll meet new writers who’ve benefitted from their help and some agents too. I’ll report back on the fountains of Chateauneuf du Pape that’ll no doubt flow from your hardworking pocket. But hey, if you got publishing problems I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but an RFO ain’t one.
One final note. I’m going to the SNP Women’s Conference in October. It’s not a perfect party by any means and I don’t agree with everything they do, but being a member means I can ask questions, suggest policies and make a meaningful difference. There’s not much available on their cultural policies, besides a manifesto section on diverting some of the licence fee into the creative industry. But member input is the way to improve this- my husband, a veteran campaigner on privacy and digital rights, has been questioning them on these things, for instance. So here’s the deal, guys. I’ll fire off an email to Nicola and another MSP who’s a family friend, then if you have any specific questions/comments on how they can make us literary folk a wee bit happier, let me know and I’ll take them with me to Aberdeen in the autumn.
I’m on your side. I’m not The Man. I’d quite like to be Scrooge McDuck sitting in a pile of money from my book deal, and I know the machinations of government are a bit crap, but maybe doing something instead of sitting on our arses and churning out diatribes and incoherent philosophy is a better way to address it. Just a thought.