Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Towards a National Strategy on Literature

A Discussion Document issued by the Irish Writers’ Centre

Comments are invited and should be addressed to the Chairman, Jack Harte  at

In good times and in bad times, in economic prosperity and in national recession, Ireland’s writers have achieved excellence, have distinguished themselves, and have brought distinction to their country as a place where such excellence is achieved, generation after generation.
The enduring positive image of Ireland in the eyes of the world is largely due to the respect people have for our enormous achievement in literature.

The soul of a community is embodied in its art and in Ireland’s case in its premier art form, literature. But the soul, like the community, is an evolving entity, and a vibrant literature is essential to assist in the evolution of spiritual, cultural, intellectual values.

Ireland’s economy has benefitted in multiple ways from literature. For example, sales of books abroad and other foreign earnings of writers have assisted our international balance of payments. However, through cultural tourism, literature has been and will continue to be, a major contributor to the Irish economy. 55 % of tourists who come to Ireland cite Culture and Heritage as the chief attraction of the country for them, and the primary reason for their choice of Ireland as a holiday destination, and tourism is worth €5 billion a year to Ireland.

The literature sector recognises that the exploitation of writers and writing yields this monitory dividend for the country, much needed in current circumstances, and is happy to facilitate and collaborate in such exploitation, but under certain conditions. Exploitation must be accompanied by re-investment. The designation of Dublin by UNESCO as a ‘City of Literature’ is the result of an initiative from the literature sector, and if carefully and sensitively managed can further enhance the image of our capital as a place where great literature is created, nurtured by the rich cultural life of the country.

Literature is the hen that lays the golden eggs. We must not take the eggs for granted. And in our anxiety to bring them to market we must not forget to feed the hen, or, worse, begrudge her the handful of meal she needs to keep body and soul together.

The myth that writing thrives in adversity is a cosy lie we tell ourselves to assuage our conscience when we realise how little we contributed as a community to the nurturing of the writing we are so ready to exploit. Would an economist do his job better if he got little or no reward for his labours, if he was constantly beset by financial anxieties, had to take on another employment, perhaps, to finance his economic theorising? Great literature is sometimes created in spite of adversity, but never because of it.

A national strategy on literature must address the conditions that prevail today for the literature sector, must identify the means whereby objectives can be met, and allocate the necessary funds by way of re-investing a share of the income generated through literary tourism.

The conditions affecting the literature sector in 2011 can be described without exaggeration as disastrous. Book sales have slumped, bookshops are closing, publishers are going to the wall. Opportunities for secondary earnings by writers are being curtailed when festivals are closed and literary events in the community are discontinued.

The cultivating and nurturing of readers and the reading habit are essential to ensure a healthy literary culture. Recent statistics have shown that literacy levels in Ireland have dropped disastrously in the past decade, and we now rate as one of the worst among the OECD countries. People who cannot read suffer the social and vocational disadvantages of illiteracy, but they are also denied access to the cultural, recreational, and spiritual benefits of literature.

A national strategy on literature must therefore be comprehensive, encompassing the cultivation of readers and reading as well as providing the conditions in which writers and writing can thrive.

The interdependence of all the participants and factors that constitute the national literature project must be recognised. Writers need readers. Universal literacy must be an absolute aim and, therefore, dedicated resources made available to schools to achieve this. Investment in school libraries and public libraries will not only inculcate a love of books and assist the drive towards superior literacy, it will also assist publishers and writers through the sale of books and the creation of a wider readership.

A healthy publishing industry is essential for writing to thrive. In the current economic climate publishing houses cannot afford to take risks on new writers or on books that do not have mass appeal. Serious and experimental literature is in danger of being silenced, and new writers are in danger of never getting that first book published. Support for the publication, promotion, and sale of books is an issue of urgency.

The infrastructure of organisational support for the development and promotion of writers and writing has served the sector well and should be given the resources to continue this work. Funds allocated for this purpose are highly productive in so far as they can largely end up in the pockets of individual writers, having supported administrative jobs, promoted literature, cultivated readership along the way. Support for the translation of books into foreign languages is highly productive in terms of the promotion of Irish literature and yields a substantial return in writers’ earnings. Support for literary festivals can be and should be seen as a vehicle for indirect funding of writers, again having the multiplier effect of supporting administrative posts, promoting literature, cultivating readership, and providing attractive public events to serve both the community and the tourism sector.

Direct support for the individual practising writer must be maintained and developed, whether through bursaries, residencies, awards, cnuas, or other means, as this gives the writer the opportunity of concentrating on work in progress.

Investment in the literature sector, as in all the arts, yields a huge return in employment. Highly talented, highly qualified people are prepared to work in this area and make a major contribution to the cultural, spiritual, and social life of the country if they can earn a very basic income.

A national strategy that engages with all these issues and tackles them in a concerted and determined manner would engage the goodwill and enthusiasm of writers and ensure that the drive to maximise literary tourism is not just a crass exercise in further exploiting the writers of Ireland, living and dead.

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