Republic of Books
Tuesday’s presentation of the White Paper was one for publishers to admire; with everything that can go wrong in launching a new tome (and it certainly fits that word; running Booker Prize winner The Luminaries close for longest paperback of the year at 670 pages), the launch was slick, sophisticated and delivered a document that – whatever side of the debate you’re on – is a major moment in Scottish history. Pretty much everything a publisher could ask for.
And the paper itself was a beautiful piece of fiction. And I don’t use that word in the way that unionists might. What is fiction other than to imagine the world different, or to re-imagine it? The best fiction, as many critics are forever telling me, holds a mirror up to the world and shows it as it is and as it could be. And the White Paper did that — taking the wealth of statistics (mostly on the wealth of Scotland) and proposing an alternative world view of what we can do with what we have. It was a world we recognised, but one where Scotland was fairer, healthier and more prosperous.
“The development of a Scottish overseas diplomatic and trade network will provide Scotland with the opportunity to promote and share our culture and traditions with nations across the world” isn’t Proustian in its profundity or full of Wildeian wit, but it is a fine line that I enjoyed from the cultural section of the paper.
To understand my excitement over that statement, let’s survey the present situation. Scottish arts success is mostly defined through one prism – London. And this is understandable; we live close to a maelstrom of media, drawing in upon itself and showing almost little to no regard to the “regions”, to borrow the BBC innuendo, that surround it. When a Scottish artist makes a splash in London, this is a validation of success. A favoured tactic of Britishness is to absorb only the success stories as “British”. This way, Rockstar Games and The Rolling Stones get to be from the same culture, despite the fact they share nothing but the fact they’ve sell rather a lot of products and are from the same island but totally different cultures.
Problem is that the enormous competition for resources and opportunities leaves little room for anyone other than the smash successes that do it on their own two feet. Even the cultural mechanisms of the British state such as the British Council, cannot possibly represent the diversity of Scottish arts; they can barely cover a fair representation of the English arts. The current arts minister at Westminster, Maria Miller, even confessed that she hadn’t bothered to visit the current UK city of culture, another one in the “regions” – Derry/Londonderry. “Too busy,” she said.
So, with all that in mind, why am I so excited by that mouthful of a White Paper quote? Because it is an end to clinging onto the cultural coattails of a London that does not care. No more just being the Highland jig at the end of a British government cocktail attache. No more our finest artists branded British, even when many of them are disdainful of that institution.
From a publishing view, no more seeing our world-view through the prism of London. What has always baffled me is Scottish publishing’s clinging relationship to the UK market solely; this despite the fact that we enjoy the skills of magnificent authors and the fruits of writing in the most popular language on the planet.According to Publishing Scotland, Scottish publishing is worth about £343 million a year in the UK. The US book market is worth roughly $27.9 billion; even a small slice of that pie is better that crumbs from the table. In 2011, we partnered with Faber & Faber, one of the UK’s most prestigious independent publishers, to sell rights to our books worldwide; the overwhelming reaction from China to Chile, is a deep fascination with how varied and eclectic Scottish culture is.
But independence isn’t just about being better able to reflect our own culture and arts in the world; as I’ve mentioned, it’s imagining a new one. Two things drive cultural explosions in my opinion – talent and socio-economics. The Beatles’ skill with instruments is nothing without it being cheap enough to press that to record and then having a music-loving population have enough income to actually buy it. Scotland is overflowing with talent. Point two is the sum total of the White Paper – building a more prosperous, wealthier Scotland, but one that is fairer, more equal.
Why not use that prosperity toward the arts? Look to Norway; the government there buys 1000 copies of every published Norwegian novel; it also pays every published writer $19,000 a year. They demand bookshops (all owned by the same public organisation) keep all Norwegian books on shelves for two years – the result of all this? Norwegians read constantly and they read new, young, exciting authors from their land.
Scotland can build a trade network that allows us to take the arts out to the world on our terms; it can build a wealthier nation that can take the approaches that fit our creative industries’ needs. There’s no reason why we can’t enjoy a golden age of art. Sounds like fiction? Or just re-imagining the world better?
Mark Buckland is a director at Cargo Publishing, Margins Book & Music Festival and an advisory board member of Aye Write! Book Festival.
This artice first appeared on his blog Storm Money here.