Do the Arts Need to Look Upward and Outward?; AGENDA: In the Welsh Literary Scene, the Same Names Crop Up Again and Again
Byline: MARIO BASINI
WHEN it comes to squaring up to the arts establishment in Wales, the Broadcasting Minister, Dr Kim Howells, punches his full weight. And then some.
Those who run the arts here, he tells us, are a bunch of "constipated old wrinklies", a "self-appointed elite" perpetually doling out hand-outs to each other and closing ranks against those who dare to try to break into their magic circle.
Dr Howells, MP for Pontypridd, confesses that as a 55-year-old he is himself a "wrinkly".
Like all good polemicists bent on creating an argument, he has a way of framing his point in terms so extreme they border on caricature.
But I do believe they contain a fat kernel of truth.
Let me say immediately that what follows is almost exclusively based on the English-language literary scene in Wales since that is the area I know most about.
I suspect it is also the area at which Dr Howells's venom is particularly aimed.
The trouble with couching an argument in terms as emphatic as Dr Howells's is that they leave no room for nuances of meaning.
His words suggest, for example, that all those who run the arts in Wales are entirely self-regarding despots concerned only with clinging to their small patches of power.
That is clearly not true of the Welsh literary scene that I recognise.
It contains many, perhaps even a majority, of dedicated, well-meaning people who are committed to literature and who are doing the best they can for Welsh writing.
But they do form an oligarchy, a dangerously small elite who share an almost uniform set of talents, tastes, standards and aspirations.
Too often, anything that does not quite conform to those standards is rejected and despised.
The problem with an oligarchy, in literature as in politics, is two-fold.
The first is the perpetuation of a power base that promotes consensus and mediocrity and comes to rely on them to sustain them.
The second is the danger that genuine talents are denied the opportunity to discover their own voices and to find a platform from which they can develop.
I know of prize-winning poets, for example, who find it almost impossible to get published in Welsh literary magazines and by Welsh publishers, perhaps because their poetry is too political, too "committed" for sensitive literary stomachs.
The opposite side of the coin is also true.
You can find the same names cropping up again and again when it comes to those selected to represent Welsh literature in English at prestigious events abroad.
I was recently e-mailed a copy of an online magazine called Welsh Literature Abroad. At the end of that was a list of Welsh literary events overseas and those who had been selected to attend them.
Since March one well-known Welsh poet has been to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, to Brussels, Romania and Portugal.
She was also scheduled to go to Amsterdam to launch an anthology of Welsh poetry in Dutch translation, to New York this week to take part in a "UK in New York" week sponsored partly by Wales Arts International and to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the British Council. It is a graphic illustration of just how small the pool of Welsh writers of any reputation is.
As I have already hinted, I believe many of the ills that afflict Welsh literature can be attributed to sheer size.
In major cities like New York, London, Paris or Milan, a variety and quality of literary achievement is guaranteed by the proliferation of newspapers, magazines, publishers, television channels and radio stations.
The commercial arms of publishers dedicated to selling books and making profits subsidise those divisions concerned with creating a more literary product with limited sales appeal.
Mass market professional journalists moonlighting for love as opposed to money add their polish to the columns of literary and political magazines. …