by Jane Clarke
The theme of the forum was the future of literature in Ireland and specifically how to assist writers to make a living from their art. Michael O’Reilly from Creative Ireland, Sarah Bannon, Literature Officer for the Arts Council, Jo Mangan, chairperson of the National Campaign for the Arts and the novelist, John Boyne formed the panel. The discussion was chaired by author and journalist, Susan McKay.
Michael O’Reilly spoke about Creative Ireland, a five year cross-government initiative which envisions an Ireland where everyone has opportunities to take part in the arts in the belief that participation in cultural activity drives personal and collective creativity. Interestingly he said that the idea for the establishment of Creative Ireland emerged in response to the 1916 Commemorations; during 2016 both national and local events highlighted the role of the arts in exploring cultural diversity and facilitating open discourse.
Sarah Bannon presented the role of the Arts Council in promoting a thriving writing scene where writers are supported to take risks. It was clear that her own experience as a novelist informs her understanding of the obstacles many writers face. She stressed that writers need space, time and income – “writers cannot make good work in poverty.” She outlined the various ways in which the Arts Council supports individual writers through direct and indirect supports, including support for journals and publishing.
Through her involvement in the National Campaign for the Arts, as well as her work as an artist and curator, Jo Mangan has consistently highlighted the problems for artists trying to make a living. In her presentation she challenged both Creative Ireland and the Arts Council about the need for meaningful investment in the arts, quoting Ireland’s abysmally low budget for culture compared to other EU countries. She also challenged all the writers in the room to work together for change, quoting from recent research that 50% of Irish authors earn less than €5000 a year. She asked how many of us had been invited to do workshops, panels, lectures, readings etc. for free and argued that we need to stop working for nothing and push back against the myth of artists working best in penury. She also said writers have a role in making funding for the arts a political issue through pressure on government, TD’s, councilors etc.
John Boyne changed the direction of the conversation when he questioned the previous speakers’ focus on earning a living. “Why do we expect to be supported by the State, are we more special than the nurse or the plumber?” He warned against a sense of entitlement amongst writers and argued that “a real writer will sit down and write”, “a writer will go on regardless of money” and “good writing will out”. The frisson through the room seemed to indicate that both the panel and the audience were taken aback by John’s response. Whether intentionally or not, by repeating the old arguments against support for writers, he functioned as a kind of devil’s advocate. When John suggested that writers participate in the Writers in School scheme, Jo’s answer probably rang true for many writers in the room, “why do we have to work as badly paid educators in order to be able to write?”
The ensuing discussion amongst the panel and from the floor confirmed my view that whilst there are a few writers who “make it” despite all the odds, there can be no doubt that class, gender, ethnicity, disability and other forms of discrimination severely limit access to the time, income security and education that supports writing. Our literature is the poorer for the voices that never get onto the page. Kit de Waal, who gave an excellent input on cultural appropriation earlier in the day, has elsewhere highlighted the continuing obstacles to working class writers and the middle class bias amongst publishers. Anne Enright has written powerfully about her own experience of sexism in publishing, reviewing, festival and conference curating and the recently established pledge, Fired, Irish Women Poets and the Cannon is necessary because gender bias still rules the roost.
Most poets don’t even imagine making a living from their writing so the reading, writing, editing, attending workshops and study groups that is essential to their practice is squeezed into whatever space is left after attending to other commitments, including making a living. During the discussion I also thought of young people growing up on a halting site or in direct provision or in a hotel room; how could we say that they have as good a chance of getting the time, space and encouragement to write as any other young person?