In late November, I had the opportunity of attending Literature Alliance Scotland’s This Is It! event: a Literary Cabaret that would showcase some of the best writing talent Scotland has to offer. Hosted by writer Siân Bevan, the evening took a tour of Scotland’s literary world, with five speakers ‘representing different areas of our literary country’. The audience was welcomed by Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop who opened the evening with a warm introduction. After a captivating reading by poet William Letford, of his poem This Is It, Siân Bevan introduced the first of the evening’s five speakers.
Francis Bickmore, Publishing Director of Canongate Books, held the daunting position of first speaker, discussing the state of the publishing industry in 2017 and a note towards its future. Reflecting on the year as a whole, Bickmore began by questioning why we continue to write and publish books in such unstable times. In times where we have become worryingly disconnected from one another. The answer, quite simply, is that books offer us hope. As Bickmore reasoned, they are a ‘crash course in empathy’ and a means of demonstrating the change we wish to bring to the world. Our need for hope and empathy has been reflected in the rise of a new book trend. In response to a year of despair, the publishing industry was witness to a new trend in the form of ‘Up-Lit’: books that have optimism and positivity at their core. Bickmore went on to discuss the importance of diversity and equality, which has become a hot topic within the publishing industry after a recent survey found that around 90% of the workforce identify as white British. After praising the solidarity of online communities in their fight for equality and their highlighting of inequalities, Bickmore declared that the industry is moving ‘to be as diverse as the population it serves’. While Canongate Books has made progress in this regard, with 35% of their new writers coming from BAME backgrounds, he admits that there is still a long way to go. Bickmore’s focus on equality, however, was not limited to the subject of racial equality but also encompassed the importance of gender equality and its benefits for everyone. The current patriarchal environment has not only put unfair limitations and disadvantages on women, but has also created a strict and rather damaging definition of what it is to be a man. Admitting that men also lose out with patriarchy, Bickmore wished that 2017 would prove to be the year in which men woke up to feminism and joined the fight for true gender equality. Although such change will not come quickly or easily, books can be a powerful tool in starting the conversation of change as ‘changes on the page take shape in the real world’. Canongate recently published Robert Webb’s memoir How Not To Be a Boy, which Bickmore named as an excellent example of books tackling these damaging gender norms. Bickmore rounded up his segment by reminding us that we should be proud of Scotland’s literary culture and continue to celebrate writers, for in such unstable and challenging times ‘we need [them] to keep hope in the dark’.
The second speaker of the night was Adrian Turpin, Artistic Director of Wigtown Book Festival, who recovered well from the delicious error of being introduced as Adrian Turnip. He discussed the importance of book festivals in the book world. Beginning by conveying the sheer vastness of the Scottish book festival scene, Turpin revealed that Scotland now boasts over 45 book festivals, with the Edinburgh International Books festival being ‘the largest public celebration of the written word’. Turpin claimed that the greatest strength of the book festival scene in Scotland is that no two are the same. But what really makes our festivals so important? Aside from being ‘producers of content’ and places of discussion, they are, very importantly, great resources. Book festivals are resources not only for young people but for community groups, for the elderly. They are resources for Scots languages and vital for the Scottish tourist industry and publishing sector. They are resources for current writers and the next generation of writers. Book festivals are an intrinsic part of the Scottish book trade that help bring in new audiences and spread the love for the written word.
Our next speaker was Pamela Tulloch, the Chief Executive for Scottish Libraries Information Council (SLiC). Responding to the growing concern for the future of UK libraries of late, Tulloch insisted that despite facing difficulties in a decade of austerity, Scottish Public Libraries are still going strong. This is in no small part due to their Ambition and Opportunity strategy that was launched in 2015. This strategy aims to promote and support reading and literacy, digital inclusion, economic wellbeing, social wellbeing, and culture and creativity. In order to fulfil the aims of the strategy, Scottish Public Libraries have introduced various features that have really set them apart from other libraries. These include off site online resources (eBooks), opportunities for film education and support for new upcoming businesses. They have also introduced 3D printers to their libraries with guidance on how to use them. As part of the strategy, SLiC aims to promote libraries as excellent public services. In an effort to make the library process simpler for its members, SLiC introduced their new One Card initiative in November. In its trial run, the scheme allows members access to the resources of any participating library within the trial areas. The simplicity of the One Card is important as it makes access to libraries easier from a younger age. Although the trial is due to end in April 2018, SLiC hopes that the initiative will be adopted across Scotland. However, despite the encouraging progress and stability of Scottish Public Libraries, Tulloch noted that libraries across the UK are still at risk and implored her audience to join the Libraries Matter campaign, urging us to go online and share why libraries really matter.
After Pamela Tulloch’s address, William Letford returned to discuss his experiences as a writer and the opportunities for writer development. He began by admitting that he didn’t move into poetry without help. After deciding to embark on a dramatic career change, Letford attended a council funded writers group. The writers group enabled upcoming writers to discuss literature and poetry with already published writers, and offered valuable guidance. It was through such guidance that Letford was soon encouraged to apply for the New Writers Awards, an award scheme run by the Scottish Book Trust and funded by Creative Scotland. Recipients of the New Writers Award are given a £2000 cash award and continued support in the form of mentoring, training in performance and presentation, and opportunities to show their work to agents and publishers. The Scottish Book Trust continued to support Letford after he won the award, providing one-to-one grammar lessons on his request. Letford then discussed the benefits of the Live Literature Fund, another programme run by the Scottish Book Trust. The Live Literature Fund provides access to a database containing over 700 writers across Scotland, with the intent that organisations and communities can use it to find and apply for writers to perform live for them anywhere across Scotland. The fund then covers half of the artist’s fee and all travel expenses. While Letford notes that the extra income this fund provides for authors is helpful, the power of the project is most important as it acts as ‘a bridge between reader and writer’. Letford also praised the writers and publishers before him who had paved the way for writing in Scots, because ‘the more words we use, the more mischief can be made, and the more mischief, the merrier the show.’ Letford then finished his segment with another poetic reading and a challenge to the audience to step outside of our literary comfort zone.
The final speaker of the evening was best selling author Louise Welsh, who discussed an international perspective. Returning to some of the themes introduced by Francis Bickmore, Welsh began by discussing the diversity of Scotland. Although she considers Scottish literature to be ‘almost as diverse as its landscapes’, Welsh questioned whether it is diverse enough. In a very effective demonstration of the publishing industry’s lack of diversity, Welsh asked the audience to take a look at the faces around the room. It took only a brief sweep across the crowd to realise that most, if not all, of the audience was white. After voicing her hope that this reality will change if we work at it, Welsh declared that to do so we need to reach out. As we reach a time in which many countries are turning inwards, it is more important than ever to engage with each other across the globe. The networks and friendships we create will foster empathy, creativity and hope. ‘We need to continue to take the world to Scotland, Scotland to the world’. Welsh concluded her address by urging the audience to celebrate Scotland’s place in the literary world.
A thoroughly enjoyable evening, This Is It was a clear demonstration of the passion and dedication that this industry has in abundance. The ability to admit where it is failing, and still show such enthusiasm and commitment to making a change for the better makes me proud to be a part of the publishing industry. As the year comes to a close I am thankful for all the opportunities I have been given to be a part of such a fantastic industry and the celebration of the literary world, and I eagerly await the opportunities 2018 may bring.