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Volume 1 – Issue 4 – Editorial – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Volume 1 – Issue 4 – Editorial

October 28, 2009 | by SRB

GARRISON Keillor, the droll Minnesotan raconteur, once wrote a story called ‘Jack Schmidt, Arts Administrator’. Schmidt’s job is to administer a plethora of arts organisations, his principle task being to find funding. By his own account he is phenomenally inventive and successful. “I got the Guild of Younger Poets fifty thousand from the Teamsters to produce some odes to the open road,” he boasts, “and another fifteen from a lumber tycoon with a yen for haiku. I got a year-long folk-arts residency for a guy who told Scandinavian jokes, and I found wealthy backers for a play called Struck by Lightning , by a non-literalist playwright who didn’t write a script but only spoke with a director a few times on the phone.”

You may laugh. You may think “only in America”. You would be mistaken. In Scotland today arts administration is one of the few growth industries as towns and cities desperately vie with one another to attract visitors. Having been for so long ignored culture is now regarded as one of the mainstays of the economy. Indeed, the “economic benefit” of this or that ‘art’ is often assessed ahead of the art itself. Anyone naïve enough to make the ‘art for art’s sake’ argument has little chance of receiving public funding. In today’s climate, it seems, it is necessary to assess how art will ‘benefit’ society at large. It is not enough for art simply to exist; it must justify its existence.

Such thoughts are prompted by the first anniversary of Edinburgh becoming UNESCO’s first City of Literature, an event celebrated with a party in the capital’s City Chambers. What, you may reasonably ask, is there to celebrate? What, in short, has been achieved in the space of a year? Well, Edinburgh has hosted the inaugural ceremony for the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded in June of this year to the Albanian novelist, Ismael Kadare. It has developed a citywide campaign to get Edinburgh citizens to read one book, which will be launched in the autumn of 2006 with Kidnapped. (By the by, we are quoting from a press release.) Furthermore a literary map of Edinburgh’s city centre has been produced and a “specially-created” dossier about Scotland’s literary heritage has been distributed to every library and secondary school in the country.

There is more, much more. A series of literary residencies is planned across Edinburgh, in such places as “prisons” (there is one), department stores, “the Festival of the Middle East”, daycare centres for the elderly, schools and museums. A rights guide has been “put together” with the Scottish Publishers Association to help international publishers buy rights from Scottish publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair and the “literary salon tradition” of Edinburgh has been revived with “regular” Edinburgh City of Literature “gatherings” at the Traverse Bar. We kid you not. Oh, and work has started on a series of posters on buses with “various partners”, using poems, “micro-stories” and extracts from children’s books.

We could go on, but you get the gist. Certainly, the Jack Schmidts of the world would have no difficulty making a living in such an environment. What is conspicuous by its absence, however, in the City of Literature bumf is any real acknowledgement of literature itself, of writers and the work they have written. As ever, mention is made of the bestselling triumvirate of Alexander McCall Smith, J.K. Rowling and Ian Rankin, but no other living writer is named. This is not unusual, if depressing. Literature, as perceived by the City of Literature, smacks of an industry, whose output can be quantified.

Surveying the list of the City of Literature’s ‘achievements’ what is also striking is the extent to which it appears to be duplicating the work of other organisations operating in what might broadly be called the book business. The Literature Forum for Scotland, the umbrella organisation for these bodies, has more than twenty members, the vast majority of which receive public funds in one form or another, often from the Scottish Arts Council. Of the ‘achievements’ listed above, it is hard to see why they could not have been achieved by one or other of these organisations. Why, for example, could the Scottish Publishers Association – a recipient of a healthy arts council grant – not itself have compiled a rights guide? Is it not the public library’s job to encourage citizens to read at least one book? Indeed, ought not the arts council to be dealing with a literary residency in the Festival of the Middle East if one is deemed necessary?

From our perspective, the City of Literature is another job opportunity for Jack Schmidt and his chums. It is a familiar pattern. Reports are commissioned, recommendations made and new posts created for arts administrators. Writers, meanwhile, continue to live off crumbs, given that the scant public funds already devoted to literature are continually being drained to finance organisations such as those mentioned above. No one, it would appear, in the headlong rush to anoint Edinburgh as a City of Literature, is really interested in the person who writes the novels, poems and plays.

From this Issue


by Alex Massie

Living History

by Rosemary Goring

Blog / Discussion

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