Laura Waddell: Review of Scottish arts is not private members’ club

Reviews should reflect the country at large. Picture: Neil Hanna
Reviews should reflect the country at large. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Parochialism does not serve emerging Scottish literature blooming with new voices, writes Laura Waddell

Last week there was a ripple in the world of Scottish letters when the Scottish Review of Books (SRB), following the loss of a Creative Scotland funding bid, published a response written by Rosemary Goring that took exception to the funder’s advice to both pay staff and have a higher degree of editorial and board diversity.

The statement argued that “quality and originality” are the foremost considerations, after which all other matters must join the queue, and that Scotland’s “ethnic profile is at best patchy and in some cases negligible”.

It’s difficult to square these comments with the excellent Emerging Critics scheme run by SRB, which aimed to train new critics at a time the critical landscape is in flux, with increasingly dwindling print space for arts coverage and more emphasis on dispersed digital review. In its inaugural year, I was fortunate to be mentored by SRB editor Alan Taylor and learned a lot from his years of expertise and wit, returning the following year as a mentor myself with the remit of giving perspective on entering criticism nowadays and engaging with digital platforms. I visited each group of emerging critics in turn; I saw hungry minds being encouraged.

New critics entering today’s fray often advance independently and submit speculatively; almost gone are the days of permanent, in-house positions, working closely with editors. The scheme was excellent in honing practical skills of book reviewers, who often begin with natural flair but little experience in writing to print demands, and also providing camaraderie that’s hard to come by as a freelancer. Pitching takes confidence; encouragement can make a real difference. Beyond polishing core skills, the scheme underlined the necessity of investing in the future of quality criticism as part of the wider literary and arts ecosystem in Scotland, and to consider platforms, perhaps even by creating something anew.

Scotland does need literary review with national scope. It’s important to our body of literature to have a dedicated critical eye, particularly to place books within a Scottish context and tradition not traded in by London-based critics, and to grant our writers with deserved esteem.

But while print books more or less hold a steady grip on shelf space, print press is less secure. How to maintain critical rigour in fast-paced, attention-span depleting online environments? How to retain value when writing that deals in art and nuance becomes content floating in a sea of ads, sponsored content shouting louder than critical insight? Shifting to digital is in its infancy; we have also only just begun to glimpse the tip of the iceberg of how our data is owned and monetised, and how information flows algorhythmically.

Finding a place within this communications sprawl is no easy feat, but securing the future of review in any instance means harnessing, not alienating, new critics who’ll venture into the maze.

Piling up sandbags in response to calls for diversity and professionalism does not help. Writers of the so-called “negligible’ population (some Emerging Critics among them) are, in fact, looking on – what message does this send to them?

Does the Scottish Review of Books want to be a national review, or a special interest one? In their statement, the words “cottage industry” were used; but a publication with “Scottish” in the name is surely bigger in scope than that, particularly in receipt of public money.

In March author Sara Sheridan tweeted a photograph of the SRB in Aye Write festival goody bags. Of its writers, over two thirds were male. Of its subjects, over four fifths were male. It was frustrating in itself, but also to think of new critics well trained by the SRB but not commissioned. Like other schemes, such as the BBC’s Expert Women, new talent repeatedly hits a road block at the stage of booking. A lack of gender and race parity is not rare in literary publication. The VIDA count analyses this each year, with particularly poor results for both the LRB and NYRB. Anecdotally, I know of established, talented woman critics who have never bothered to pitch to the LRB, so bad is their record. Men are not naturally more talented writers: the cream is not rising to the top. The answer is not commissioning by the numbers but being aware of barriers and bias that might be in the way.

There’s a risk of talent loss, or critical flight, when Scottish women writers and people of colour are not engaged by established, publicly funded channels. My own experience, of benefiting from mentoring schemes in Scotland, but being commissioned almost entirely by London-based and further flung literary publications, follows suit. No Scottish show has ever invited me to talk about books on camera, but a Korean TV channel managed to track me down.

When the scene is small, as it is in Scotland, alienating emerging talent is as concerning to the future of arts coverage and review as it is to digitisation. I can see a distancing happening to writers I’ve mentored myself, who feel adrift enough from the SRB to openly criticise this latest turn of events – what have they got to lose, if they’re not being published, anyway?

But diversity is only half of the story here; it shouldn’t become a scapegoat. Payment is the other. National arts funding is an imperfect beast in every instance, not least the pressure of balancing demand with resource. Bureaucracy is rarely the friend of artists. There are many components of our national art and culture which are unlikely to turn a profit but still deserve the preservation of funding. Publishers often straddle both art and business, seeking commercial avenues as well as much needed foundational support. Literary review has a very tricky job.

As a board member of Gutter magazine, not a critical review but publishing poetry and prose, our recent funding included payment of both staff and writers. We question sustainability; there’s an anxiety about maintaining outgoings in years to come, reliant on subscribers as well as funding. But we also recognise the professionalism that comes with staff payment, removing potential financial barrier to those who have no time to work for free. It reflects the serious status we strive to for the magazine and its role in Scottish literary culture.

Publications and review in the interest of Scotland’s art can’t be operated as a member’s club – parochialism does not serve emerging Scottish literature blooming with new voices and forging international relationships. But neither does resisting change encourage the future reviewers who have their work cut out for them in preserving, a vital component of our artistic culture.