‘A culture speaking to itself’? The IWA Media Audit and the Welsh Periodicals.

Malcolm Ballin calls for more recognition for the role of English language periodicals in Wales.

When Stefan Collini spoke of the British periodical tradition as ‘the noise of a culture speaking to itself’ it was a positive comment. He was writing in the context of his discussion of the way political and cultural opinions were interrogated, discussed and sometimes validated. And he was also considering the importance of periodical media in serving the needs of writers who sought platforms where their views could find expression. In Wales the presence of English language periodicals such as Planet, Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review, or the IWA’s own the Welsh agenda have maintained a long tradition of such debate, recognised via the Arts Council, and more recently by the Books Council, as justifying significant public support. The Wales Arts Review is a newcomer to this scene, relying solely on its online literary journalism.

Very recently the nature of this public support has been subject to serious scrutiny and a demanding new financial regime has been instituted by the Welsh Books Council. This innovative sector of the media in Wales is not in crisis but it does face new challenges, including adaptation to the digital age and the projection of its creative products beyond its traditional core audience.

I find it surprising, therefore, that the extensive IWA Media Audit 2015 does not address this relatively small but nonetheless important element in the Welsh media scene. The Audit deals extensively with broadcasting and print journalism, setting out key factual data and proposing innovatory options for future development. But the Audit nowhere considers the role of periodical production in initiating and sustaining intellectual debate on political and social affairs and promoting creativity in literature and the arts.

A glance at some recent issues illustrates the quality and variety of material on offer in these periodicals. The magazines usually work in the miscellany format, mixing commentary with creative work. Emily Trahair’s editorial in Planet’s Autumn issue discusses how ‘incubating new forms of political community which transcend borders’ might contribute to raising ‘cultural confidence’ throughout Wales. Poems, short fiction and reviews reinforce Planet’s emphasis on national cultural development and present the issues in a broad international perspective.

The New Welsh Review website provides opportunities for accessing material such as the periodical’s original short story magazine and it offers a series of audio reviews and live interviews. The latest issue of the New Welsh Review concentrates on the major role of the short story in contemporary Welsh writing and also pursues the season’s theme of the family. It, too, mixes prose and poetry, comment and original work. The periodical’s recent strategy divides key subject areas between its New Welsh Reader (the print version of the magazine) and the online Review. The Reader offers original fiction, poetry and literary essays while the Review prioritises more immediate cultural commentary. This realignment illustrates the attention these publications are currently giving to meeting the demands and taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by new media.

Where, if not here, is such material to be found in Welsh print or online culture? The culture does not speak only to itself. The periodical press in Wales is more than an entertainment for intellectuals. It offers prospects for recording and developing the cultural aspirations of a new generation of writers.  It projects images of Wales internationally and links creative Wales with a wide range of other countries. News journalism and broadcasting have of course a wide popular audience. But these regular publications are key elements in ensuring the continuity of Welsh cultural expression.

It is important that, in the course of future consideration of the recommendations of the IWA’s Audit, room should be found for serious exploration of the role of periodical production. The emphasis here should be on the quality of cultural and creative debate that can be generated and extended in Wales. These publications are at the core of such a process and they deserve the attention of all people who are concerned about future developments in the Welsh media.

Malcolm Ballin is an independent researcher, based at Cardiff University. His Irish Periodical Culture was published by Palgrave in 2008 and his Welsh Periodicals in English by University of Wales Press in 2013.

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