Patchy and Negligible

Claire Squires, Professor of Publishing Studies, University of Stirling on the Scottish Review of Books controversy suggests it reflects a closed clubbable world divorced from contemporary Scotland.

In the age of diminishing print book review space, the decision to defund a well-established literary magazine might seem questionable. Indeed, initial public reactions to Creative Scotland’s rejection of the Scottish Review of Books’ funding application concurred. The SRB, established in 2004, and – until last month – in regular receipt of Creative Scotland funding, published a quarterly print version via the Herald, with a partially paywalled online version. Creative Scotland’s decision, announced the SRB, would mean it would no longer produce the print version.

Following these initial reactions, a further article appeared in the Herald by its literary editor Rosemary Goring, who is also an SRB co-editor and board member (as well as married to its editor Alan Taylor). The article was republished last week on the SRB’s website, under the provocative headline, ‘Is Creative Scotland more dictator than facilitator?

I read the statement with fascination – and a sense of growing disturbance. A disturbance which, as I started to tweet about it, struck a chord with many in Scotland’s literary community.

In the statement, SRB made public the grounds on which it had been rejected. Creative Scotland withdrew funding but with the encouragement to reapply for a ‘considerably enlarged’ amount which, apparently, would move the SRB away from an ‘(unpaid) cottage industry’ to paid staffing. Creative Scotland also asked for (‘imposed’) a ‘higher degree of editorial and board member diversity, thereby meeting Creative Scotland policy’.

Where was the controversy, I wondered? Who would not want a professionalisation of editorial staff that might enable individuals who otherwise could not afford a volunteer role; and a diverse staffing base?

Conversations around diversity and inclusion in publishing and literature are loud at the moment, and rightly so, given the industry’s preponderance of white, middle-class workers and writers, as well as its gender pay gaps, glass ceilings and centralisation in the south-east of England. Industry initiatives and publications are working to make long overdue positive change, enabling people of all demographics to be involved in the reading, writing and publishing of books. Academic research including Anamik Saha’s AHRC-funded research in collaboration with The Bookseller, Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s work on the (lack of) inclusive UK YA writing, and my own on publishing’s ‘diversity deficit’, adds to the evidence base. And while there might be justifiable criticism of the efficacy of some activity – such as novelist Pat Barker’s recent comments that industry initiatives are ‘fashionable’ rather than concerted – it should come as no surprise that a Scottish Government-funded entity such as Creative Scotland has an Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion policy to which it expects funded organisations to adhere.

But the SRB found Creative Scotland’s urge to diversification unacceptable:

‘while as wide as possible a range of talents, voices, background and experience is important, the pre-eminent consideration for anyone pulling the strings […] is quality and originality. These are the foremost consideration, after which all other matters must join the queue.’

Was this statement effectively telling people under-represented in its pages and its management to ‘join the queue’? To add salt to the wound, Goring added that:

‘Imposing BAME diversity targets […] in a country whose ethnic profile is at best patchy and in some cases negligible, is to put the implementation of an inarguably important principle higher than any other consideration.’

The phrase ‘at best patchy and in some cases negligible’ spread across social media, with Scottish writers, publishers and literary sector workers of colour temporarily changing their profile handles, and suggesting Edinburgh publisher 404 INK assemble an anthology with that title. But the banter sat alongside a real unease at the phraseology, its whitewashing of Scotland’s general population, and of its literary sector, aspirant writers, and readers.

Even the briefest of surveys of writing and publishing in and from Scotland demonstrates that quality, originality and artistic excellence is being produced by people of colour: from publishers and magazines such as BHP Comics and The Selkie, writers including current Makar Jackie Kay, Leila Aboulela and Chitra Ramaswamy, plural and diverse festival and event programming, and groups including the Scottish BAME Writers’ Network.

The SRB statement also contained an assumption which habitually meets any act of positive discrimination: that equality measures cannot also be enablers of (artistic) excellence. It assumes that people of colour are inhibited by a lack of ‘quality and originality’, rather than by prejudicial structures and gatekeepers. While the inter-relationship of aesthetics, critical judgement and demographics is complex, evidence has repeatedly shown that across the literature/publishing sector, and the creative industries more widely, there are systemic and institutionalised barriers to equal access, fair representation, social and creative justice.

To call Creative Scotland, then, as the SRB did, a ‘dictator’, or even ‘a manifesto-waving, policy-driven arm of an increasingly authoritarian state’ is histrionic – and perhaps betrays anti-Scottish Government roots (Nicola Sturgeon is notably a regular contributor to the literary scene, including a key note speech at 2019’s Scottish Book Trade Conference and through chairing book festival events).

Creative Scotland is an easy target, and nobody would claim its recent decisions and processes are beyond reproach. But media reports continually underplay its role in literary successes – for example, a lengthy and informative Scotsman article on the ‘rebirth’ of Scottish publishing (following the Man Booker International award to Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies) failed to mention it funds Sandstone Press, Alharthi’s publisher – or indeed any other publisher.

At the end of my Twitter thread, I expressed the hope that what can emerge from the defunding of the SRB is some form of a Scottish review of books (lower case intentional) that takes on board key principles both of literary and artistic endeavour, but also, crucially and centrally, of equalities.

My call to action – ‘So who’s in?’ – received enthusiastic response. It wouldn’t surprise me if something emerges soon…



This article was previously published, in a slightly different form, in The Bookseller.

Comments (20)

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  1. Dougie Harrison says:

    I have from its inception been a regular reader of SRB. I find its contents and editing generally of high quality, and have added not a few volumes to my personal library in consequence. So my initial reaction to the news of its print demise was of dismay, and I found myself in agreement with much of Rosemary Goring’s piece in the Herald.

    But this thoughtful intervention has forced me to reconsider my dismay at the news of Creative Scotland’s withdrawal of funding. I am I hope a decent human being, and opposed to the marginalisation of any groups in our society. This piece has made me reconsider whether SRB’s arguably elitist concern with ‘quality’ over inclusion, is in fact acceptable, and I am forced to the conclusion that it is not.

    So thank you, Bella Caledonia, for yet again helping me think through a contentious issue more carefully… and altering my view in consequence.

  2. Douglas Wilson says:

    Does Oxford educated professor Claire Squires defend equality and diversity for Creative Scotland investment in Gaelic and Scots in literature and film? Or for Scottish working class representation and access to the arts?

    Because I can’t help get this nagging feeling that quite justifiable and laudable diversity and equality targets and goals, hide an implicit class agenda, and an implicitly anglo-centric agenda….

    …in any case, they never seem to apply to the arts in Scotland’s national languages, and are lifted wholesale from a model developed IN ENGLAND, and imposed by Creative Scotland on the Scottish arts community. In fact, Creative Scotland is itself modeled on Creative England…

    To describe Creative Scotland as “dictatorial” is an excess no doubt, but it is an inherently top down power structure with little or no intervention by the Scottish arts community in the way it is run. And with some head of departments and executives who have been there ten, fifteen or twenty years… it is a philosophically flawed model and not fit for service.

    As for diversity and equality targets, the first thing that occurs to me would be to ask the Scottish artists who it is supposed to benefit how they think it should be done… instead of the never ending imposition of rules and regulations by State organizations run almost always by people with posh accents on huge salaries…

    As for the print edition of the SRB, I shall miss it…

  3. Graeme Purves says:

    Check out the composition of the Board of ‘The Scottish Review of Books’. It’s straight out of Snipcock & Tweed. Creative Scotland made the right decision.

      1. Graeme Purves says:

        Joining all the dots wouldn’t take you very far beyond the leafier parts of East Lothian and EH2, or the favoured watering holes of former Hootsmon and Herald journalists, though it might be necessary to take a pleasant excursion into Scott Country on the Waverley Line. I note with particular pleasure that not one, but two of Sandy McCall Smith’s publicists have found places on the Board. Who needs diversity when the Editor has convivial support of that quality?

  4. Murdo Macdonald says:

    If I were making CS funding decisions I would make my priority the small scale funding (with minimal bureaucracy) of as many small magazines as possible. I would encourage (by increased funding to pay reviewers) all of those magazines to have a review function. It is the editors who are obsessed enough to work on minimal funding who create energy and diversity. It was minimal funding that enabled Peter Kravitz to make Edinburgh Review work in the mid to late 1980s. It is still a good model in my view. It became a bit more staid when I took over, but was still useful. What we needed is an actual diversity of editors (and magazines) and that means as well as different backgrounds, as many as possible editors in their twenties and thirties.

    1. Good point Murdo – and while there’s a straining for something ‘big’ to replace SRB there’s also the argument that there’s a great many established outlets that should be supported to develop.

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      Spot on, Murdo! Scottish literature has no future as a family business.

  5. I’d rather not say says:

    To be fair to all involved, this piece was developed by Prof Squires off her own bat, before the Bookseller picked it up and now Bella Caledonia.

    She deserves major credit for the clarity of her thinking. And for at least being willing to accept that rarely uttered thing – that Creative Scotland actually funds lots of very good stuff.

    Behind every “Creative Scotland turned us down” story is invariably a series of reasons….most of which never surface (because Creative Scotland have certain boundaries about what they’re able to say in relation to unsuccessful applications) and also to ensure any confidential, sensitive or IP issues are not broadcast more widely,

    Bella Caledonia have been as guilty as anyone else in jumping on bandwagons when they turn up…and taking a ‘Creative Scotland is bad’ start point rather than trying to actually get the range of views on things.

    So maybe this piece signals a change. A willingness to think more, knee jerk react less, and actually try to explain and discuss things from a position of knowledge. Here’s hoping….

    1. Thanks I’d rather not say – Claire’s view of the situation is widely shared and we were delighted to commission her to publish her views to a wider audience.

      You are right we have been highly critical of Creative Scotland in the past – and believe there to be systemic problems in arts funding – and we are not alone in this view.

      However we are also very happy to support good decisions and to celebrate that CS does indeed fund some very good stuff.

      These two views are not antithetical.

      We are very happy to share insights and contributions from artists, writers and producers to get a full picture of what’s going on and how we can do (much) better.

      We do this from a position of never having received any public funding, nor expecting any.

  6. Jean de McKluskey says:

    Claire Squires’ insightful essay concludes with 1the call for some new form of a (lower-case) Scottish review of books. But that title should be ditched alongside any new start. It symbolizes the worst side of Scottish literary culture – the fawning attempt to be “as good ” as utterly incomparable hegemonic literary cultures: think where it got its name from , New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books. As a Scot who is not a literature professional, I’ve always given the latter my previous reading time, instead of giving it to the McCall-Smithist SRB: the writing in the LRB is incommeasurably finer and more diverse; it’s also not shackled by the aspiration to be faux middlebrow. If Squires and her associates are serious about a new Scottish literature platform, they may wish to look back to Joy Hendry’s magnificent Chapman, which managed class and internationalist diversity – it was an effin achievement to bring Rilke to Scots in the 1970s – without stopping to a “culture ” based on box -ticking funding applications. Where does the best writing by BAME writers worldwide come from? Where has Zadie Smith or Franz Fanon’s writing come from? Surely not by going cap in hand with the funding form to the structurally racist powers that be?

    1. Douglas Wilson says:

      Well, exactly, I get the feeling that few people are really that interested in enabling interesting work to be produced so much as ticking the boxes, right? I mean, anybody with a real passion for the arts wants maximum cultural diversity, without any question, but is this the best way to ensure it?

      Has anybody even asked that question? Or other questions such as, is it better the diversity money is spread across the arts equally, is it better to concentrate it here or there, or…. I mean, there are dozens of questions here, dozens of questions I don’t know the answers to. I’ve never seen them discussed because it is politically dangerous to even raise the questions.

      What I do know is that a diversity and equality model can’t just be taken from England and applied to Scotland wholesale because it has a different set of cultural coordinates to England. Unless people just think Scotland is North Britain? Which many people do think, and are maybe right to think by now….

      As for Zadie Smith, she was educated at Cambridge University. And that is the point I’m making. You have this huge cultural diversity, and you have these filters, and they are class filters. They’re the universities, the private schools, and the arts funding bodies…

      And Frantz Fanon was a revolutionary, none of them would touch him with a barge pole, not CS, not the SRB either….

      1. Jean de McKluskey says:

        Douglas Wilson is quite right in his class analysis of the subject; and utterly wrong to attempt to dismiss Claire Squires informed arguments merely on the basis of her Oxford education. Would not 98% of working-class people in Scotland accept if they were offered a place at Oxbridge? Knowing nothing of Prof. Squires biography, I presume she studied bloody hard to get the grades to get into Oxford. I do note that the class element of the diversity question is absent in her essay; I’m genuinely interested in her stance on it. This dialogue has been civil and respectful until now; would the editor care to put this question to Claire Squires?

        1. Douglas Wilson says:

          Jean de McKulsey

          I’m not trying to dismiss Claire at all, she makes some valid points, and she is right to defend diversity and equality in the arts.

          My tone is absolutely respectful of Claire – I’m not sure hers is of the SRB and Rosemary Goring- and if I reference her Oxford background, it is because the equality and diversity model she champions was probably drawn up by people with her kind of educational background, and it is widely acknowledged – including by Oxford University itself – that they have some major issues with working class access..

          Oxford and Cambridge are notoriously elitist institutions, which doesn’t make everybody who studies there elitist of course.. but it IS relevant to the point I was making…
          What I am wondering can be summed up in the following question: is it reasonable to apply the same diversity and equality model drawn up for London, the most multi-cultural city on earth, to an arts organization based in, say, the town of Inverness? Without any kind of tailoring to the cultural differences between Scotland and England?

          I really can’t see how anybody can argue that…

          As for the SRB, I remember a great, in-depth interview they did with James Kelman a few years back which was very good. Let’s hope Claire Squires and her colleagues do indeed have another venue in mind so we can carry on reading serious essays and interviews with Scottish writers…

          1. Douglas Wilson says:

            PS: Does having a Gaelic speaker on the board of an arts body count as a diversity and equality element for Creative Scotland? I bet it doesn’t…

            Well, if it did, that would work for a theatre company based in Inverness say, right? It would increase diversity in the arts in Scotland too…

            And the Gaels are a minority ethic group in Scotland surely? There are only about 50,000 Gaels and they are hounded and persecuted by elements of the press for speaking their language. Why are they not included in an inclusive diversity and equality model by the Scottish national arts body?

            Maybe because that model was drawn up in England?

  7. Xeno Albannach says:

    I love the sound of white privilege crying.

  8. Jim Fraser says:

    I’m not in the business of literature but I think the idea of working out better ways of evaluating diversity is important. Many years ago a friend at a Scottish theatre organisation showed me the diversity section of an application which said they had to prove their workforce represented the ethnic mix of the country (Scotland or U.K. I can’t recall if they stipulated). They were quite happy to comply, in fact they were enthusiastic embraces of the need for equality and diversity in their staff. But as there were only six of them, how exactly do you do it?

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      It appears that the SRB weren’t keen on employing staff at all.

  9. Craig P says:

    I read once the biggest predictor of your life chances was your parents’ income – but nobody ever asks for that on equalities forms or mentions it in diversity training. Wonder why that is (genuine question)?

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