Who ever heard of Britain's state- sponsored literature?

Who pays the piper, or rather, the writer, was a question that not only bothered authors and artists, but also governments after the Second World War, when the British government made historic strides to support literature financially, rather than simply play Big Brother.

What happened was something that seems unthinkable – state investment in innovative writing with few strings attached. But we’re still largely in the dark about what this meant in practice, who it included or excluded for what reasons, and what those strings turned out to be.

State Sponsored Literature: Britain and Cultural Diversity after 1945 (2020) discusses state funding of the literary world in the era of migration and multiculturalism, a period when the modern state became a major material condition of literary production, even as the composition of large parts of Britain underwent significant demographic change.

We often think of the state in the guise of Big Brother, but it has had other roles too – including using public funding to head off some of the more obviously commercial threats to art and literature. Timothy Garton Ash and Cory Brettschneider call this kind of phenomena the state's 'expressive acts' ; the state acting as an ‘educator, spender or subsidizer’ through putting up monuments, commissioning or buying art, funding museums and libraries, hosting events like the Olympic Games opening ceremony, instituting professional codes and standards, enforcing copyright, subsidized literary and cultural works, giving out grants, awarding prizes, offering tax relief or threatening its withdrawal. These expressive acts 'say' something, and what they say, one way or another, is this: that acts of creative writing matter.

Organisations like the Arts Council, set up by the economist John Maynard Keynes after the war, have an important part in this history of the democratic state’s efforts to offer economic protection to writers, as have the British Council, the examination boards that supply schools with materials for the National Curriculum, and even international bodies that transcend the nation state, like UNESCO.

This history can make us think about even well-known literary figures in a different light. Take George Orwell for example. Though often used as a poster boy warning against the oppressive functions of the state, as imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell saw that authoritarian governments were not the only problem for writers: the public's failure to buy books over cigarettes could be as detrimental to the production of literature, and its right to exist on its own terms, including as art. Economic competition was a worse tyranny than the State, Orwell remarked, because it was more irresponsible. The trouble with competitions, in other words, was that somebody always won them.

This kind of research not only invites us to look again at the writers that benefitted from state grants or protection – from George Orwell and T.S. Eliot to The Satanic Verses. It also changes how we think about the state itself as a complex set of institutions with an evolving history of acting as literature’s guardian, investor, or protector.

A historical perspective on state literary support strengthens the case to “bring the state back in” today, especially when the evidence suggests that a commercialised literary culture only replicates structural inequalities.

The record of the state's involvement in the literary world for the sake of its own existence ought not to be lost to history; instead, we need to understand the reasons why the state sanctioned particular kinds of literary creativity at particular times for particular reasons, and the implications for us as readers – citizens of literature’s many worlds.


Arts Matters

At the College of Arts and Law, we explore what it means to be human – in historical and cultural contexts, within ethical and legal norms and through languages and communication.

Arts Matters is a series of lunchtime lectures from across the College’s wide range of research disciplines. Each week our researchers discuss their work, sharing the concepts and ideas that matter to them - and why these matter to all of us. 

From 27 October 2021, a new lecture will be broadcast on the University’s YouTube channel, every Wednesday at 1pm.