It is a Rubik’s Cube that most of the Scottish media has been studying in bafflement. What twist can crack the mystery? Freight Books, the independent publishing outfit from Glasgow, had received £234,189 over seven years from the arts quango Creative Scotland, as well as all the prestige of a “Publisher of the Year” award from the Saltire Society. Freight issued a solid portfolio of titles from highly thought of authors who had been variously garlanded with the Dundee International Book Prize, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Green Carnation Prize, Saltire Society literary prizes, and similar baubles from the Guardian and the Observer. And then Freight was liquidated and this month 30,000 of its books were pulped. The Herald’s Iain Macwhirter led the wailing and rending of garments on Twitter:
But this isn’t just a case of another sorry business failure. There is no doubt that Freight could have been viable. Its collapse was an act of cultural vandalism. The publishers blame Creative Scotland; CS blame the directors; the directors blame each other.
For the 80 authors on Freight’s lists it is a catastrophe. They have lost large sums in much needed royalties. Worse, they’ve lost visibility as their books fell into a publishing limbo, swept from the shelves just as they were beginning to gain recognition and readers.
You are no doubt on tenterhooks, so let me reveal the surprise solution to the whodunnit. Freight Books was not viable; its collapse was not “an act of cultural vandalism” but a perfectly normal and natural outcome. Nobody wanted to buy its books. In fact, it was cheaper for the liquidators to pulp them, potentially recycling the raw materials into something that people actually want to read, than it was to sell them back to the authors. And this was ultimately because the authors’ writing was just not good enough. It could not raise the day-to-day capital that was needed to keep Freight functioning, even with Creative Scotland’s enforced handouts from Scotland’s taxpayers and lottery players.
Likewise, Freight’s former director Adrian Searle is hardly, as the Scottish press implies, the latter-day equivalent of J. Bruce Ismay, the top-hatted chairman who had snuck on to a lifeboat whilst most of his passengers went down with the Titanic. That Searle spent sixteen years at Freight and then got out last April, months before the liquidation, looks admirably nimble to me. Had he been bankrupted by the project, we would be now calling him incompetent, starry-eyed, and so foolish as to believe in the quality of the writing that he was selling. In a crowning indignity, this previous publisher of books by Irvine Welsh and Alan Bissett immediately set up a new company and its first title was The Willow Tea Rooms Recipe Book. Alas and alackaday! – the cream of Scottish writing exchanged for literal cream!
The collapse of Freight Books should inflict some sorely needed creative destruction upon Creative Scotland. It is not the management or conduct of Creative Scotland that I primarily deem objectionable. It is rather the smug, self-congratulatory, conformist and risk-averse mind-set that it appears to have virtually standardised amongst an entire generation of Scottish artists. The attitude that you should manage a creative project, tick the stipulated boxes (e.g. promote community diversity and inclusivity), speak in an unthreatening corporate patois, and then you will be awarded a living as though you were an imbecile son in the nineteenth century who had been loaded on to the church. The repulsive tendency of writers of middle-class warblings to try to ride in the same state-subsidy wagon as theatre companies that provide assistance to disabled performers.
Worthy art is pure will to power. It does not pander to the requirements of bureaucrats. It ideally says “fuck you” to the community and jumps up and down on their received wisdom. Commenting on his own writing in the light of Freight’s implosion, the rapper Darren McGarvey, a.k.a. Loki, proved especially virtuous:
There is a reason I did not apply for public money to write my book: it contains loads of things ‘the country’ doesn’t want. Ironically, the book is actually having an impact on that. Art and writing are supposed to shape what ‘the country wants’ not submit to it.
For artists to be kept as pets by the wealthiest in society (Titian/Shakespeare), or for artists to rely wholly on the free market (Dickens), or for out-of-favour artists to collaborate and finance each other’s exhibitions (the Surrealists), might strike you as being models of funding that belong to crueller or less progressive societies. But they worked – they produced great art! Creative Scotland, by contrast, doesn’t do either of these things. It has probably corrupted the potential of a thousand more artists than it has helped. We would not have reached the point where 30,000 unwanted books need to be pulped had Creative Scotland kept our money to itself.