Brexit has resulted in the best of times, the worst of times for literature in the UK. It has destroyed much of what I believed in and worked towards, in the thirty years since I became a BBC journalist working on a new programme dedicated to exploring European issues (Eurofile) and in the ten years since I created the European Literature Network to support the publication and promotion of writing from Europe in the UK. Three years ago I helped launch the EBRD Literature Prize, one of several prizes in the UK promoting international literature in English. The recent thirtieth anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the revolutions of eastern Europe stand as reminders of everything we are about to lose in the UK.
The anger, disbelief and frustration following the 2016 referendum result have however sharpened our minds, pens, creativity and campaigning zeal. Yes, we whined and wailed but it galvanised us. We pulled up our sleeves and tackled the problems head-on with a surprising amount of positivity and passion. Things were already bad in the arts; literature had always been neglected and poorly funded. We became more organised, collaborative, inclusive, diverse, gender-busting. Translators, publishers and booksellers created stronger professional associations. In 2016 libraries and bookshops were already closing; local and national spending on the arts, and the cultural ignorance of our various politicians, were already chronically bad – we had a lot to fight for. The threat of losing our hard-won funding and trade links with the rest of Europe was the hardest blow of all. To be an artist or writer in the UK you are inherently international – something we had taken for granted; today, as result of Brexit, we can’t. We can’t ignore Tolstoy or Flaubert, Ferrante or Knausgaard; British television adaptations of European novels are legion; writers from across the world long to attend our famous literature festivals, from Hay to Cheltenham to Edinburgh (and we to attend theirs!), because these remarkable mass gatherings have become essential tone-setting, creative communities for many of us who feel shut out of the political debate. We long to discuss what’s happening to our blighted country and literature festivals provide an open forum for free speech. Brexit has also focused the minds of the directors of these festivals: in the face of a narrowing of minds and of territory, their strategy has been to turn their festivals into beacons of inclusivity and international debate. Concurrently, a tightening of visa restrictions for some artists and writers entering the UK has – in the eyes of many – created a new form of cultural censorship. This will get worse post-Brexit, also for those of us who rely on travel abroad for our work. I dread it.
The arts – unlike society as whole – have become less polarized. Many of us in the arts have also been necessarily humbled as we’ve realised how elitist and exclusive much of the arts in the UK had been, not helped by politicians accusing us of exactly that. I do think the situation has changed positively – possibly as a result of renewed democratization in the arts post-Brexit. Do our politicians actually read books or attend opera? Look at Obama and the excitement over his annual reading list: will anyone ever really want to know what Boris Johnson is reading?
There has been a mini-boom of Brexit ‘state of the nation’ novels in the UK, as though this is a necessary rite of literary passage. Some of our greatest writers have taken up the challenge: Jonathan Coe, Howard Jacobsen, John le Carré, Ali Smith and Ian McEwan. I’m sure there’ll be more. The best fiction can really help us try to understand this revolution taking place in Britain.
The UK publishing industry has issued several gloomy predictions for trade post-Brexit: not a single statistic signals that anything positive will emerge for the book trade. The European Literature Network was born ten years ago on a crest of a thriving and ambitious UK-European collaboration wave, much of it EU-funded (if you could wade through the Creative Europe bureaucracy). Our funds have dried up. We are today poorer but more passionate and arguably more important as a networking and meeting space for those working in the field. We are defiant in the face of adversity. Our partners and successes are impressive; we print magazines and publish regular reviews; we are quoted. The percentage of translated literature in English has risen from the much-quoted 3% to 5%. My independent publisher and bookseller colleagues continue to scout out talent from Europe and struggle to bring writers to the UK, in the knowledge that they will rarely gain big sales or audiences but not to do so is giving in. There’s Brexit – which we are powerless to control – but there’s also a Brexit of the mind, a closing down and wilful ignorance, and that we will not allow to happen. Looking forward to seeing you ‘on the other side’.