Arts Council Literature Awards

A very brief history

The Arts Council ran a series of different schemes to support literary writing, often based on a practice of recommendation and sponsorship.

Bursaries were designed to buy writers of merit time to ‘concentrate on their craft for a period of time’, in keeping with the poet Cecil Day-Lewis’ ideas that the state offer ‘first aid’ to writers.1 Successful application for a bursary, which ranged from roughly £800 to £1,200, required prior publication in English, and a recommendation from a member of the literary profession. These networks of peer recommendation were central to the system of literary funding.

Maintenance grants were extended to writers on the basis of recommendation by the publishers to whom they were contracted, equal to a publishers advance. 

From 1969 the bursaries were repackaged under the Grants to Writers scheme, which received applications on behalf of writers from literary editors, librarians, literary peers, and publishers. The scheme was run this way partly to maximise the funds available to writers in real terms.2

In 1981, the sociologist Jim McGuigan published research into the Literary Advisory Panel, criticising its preference for ‘serious writing‘: a floating and undefined term that tended to duplicate the tastes of the Panel.3 The result was significant internal reform to the system of funding to increase its accessibility – for instance by dispensing with the requirement for recommendation from an esteemed member of the literary profession.

The same year, the Arts Council announced it was changing emphasis from writers to audiences:

Following a major policy review by the Literature Advisory Panel, the Council agreed a change of emphasis in the distribution of its allocation to Literature. It established as the main priority the need to increase the audience for Literature. It cannot be argued that there is a shortage of books: rather a decline in an audience committed to buying them. The Council therefore decided to concentrate its funds on readers rather than writers, through increased subsidy for the publication and distribution of books. Funds continue to be made available for grants to writers but in 1981/82 these will be awarded only in exceptional circumstances to a few writers of proven achievement (up to five bursaries of not more than £7,500) for work on a specific project .

Arts Council of Great Britain, 1980/1 Annual Report, p. 22

By 1984 these specific reforms had dovetailed with Council-wide changes led by Chairman Sir William Rees-Mogg under a policy titled ‘The Glory of the Garden’.4 Partly inspired by the work of Rudyard Kipling, Rees-Mogg framed substantial cuts of 40% to the Literature budget as part of the Arts Council’s changing ‘requirements of a multicultural society’.

We have taken a stanza from Kipling as an epigraph for this report. The garden is a familiar metaphor, as in Pope’s Essay on Man, for the life of man. It is a fair metaphor to describe the work of the Arts Council; we can dung and we can water, but we cannot create a single flower. The British garden of the arts has great beauties throughout, and a magnificent display at the centre, but there are empty beds and neglected shrubberies. We would like to see the whole garden in bloom, and all the people walking through it to enjoy the flowers.

The Glory of the Garden: The Development of the Arts in England, a Strategy for a Decade (1984), vii.

What he termed the ‘neglected shrubberies’ of Britain’s cultural landscape Naseem Khan had called ‘the arts Britain ignores’.5 However misguided its terms of articulation, the Glory of the Garden instituted a new and significant stage in the state’s funding of black and Asian writers, as I explore in Chapter 3. As the 1988 Annual Report stated:

The Council has looked very searchingly at the role of literature within the arts and now takes a positive and optimistic view of it, aware of its particular value to the Council’s educational and multi-cultural policies. Underlying this is a recognition that literature, past and contemporary, is one of the glories of the nation.

43rd Annual Report, 1987-88, p. 16.


  1. See Chapter 2. You can read Cecil Day-Lewis’ original manifesto here (see page 15).
  2. As the Literary Advisory Panel discussed in its February 1969 meeting: ‘to avoid the payment of tax it was necessary that the recipient should not himself apply for the grant and that he should not be required to make any return of work.’
  3. You can read McGuigan’s analysis of the Arts Councils here (paywall).
  4. Father of the current Conservative politician Jacob.
  5. Published by the Commission for Racial Equality, The Arts Britain Ignores (1976) was the first major intervention into the distribution of arts funding among immigrant groups in Britain.