With arts funding in the United States in a perpetual state of crisis, the concept of publicly funded literature sounds like a fantasy.
“You mean, the Croatian government just gives money to writers and publishers each year?” I asked the literati I met in Zagreb.
“Of course,” they said and, further, most people thought the government should be spending a lot more.
In the United States, writers beg for fellowships, small grants, or prizes from nonprofit arts organizations or regional arts councils, and fully expect they won’t get a dime. Competition is stiff and unless your writing fits into certain niches, chances to compete are few. A very, very select number might receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds all arts activities with a budget of about $148 million, an amount that has decreased by 11% since 2010. Most European countries fund the arts at significantly higher rates per capita. It’s been reported that Germany spends about 40 times the amount America spends on the arts.
In Croatia, the Ministry of Culture not only pays authors to write and publishers to publish, it provides support for the two national writers’ organizations, translations, and the promotion of authors abroad. The system has roots in the days of Yugoslavian socialism, and many writers still regard the funding as a rite of passage to becoming a legitimate and recognized writer. The grants to writers and publishers are small—certainly not enough to live on or to cover all production, printing, and distribution costs—but they are a key financial boost to a country with great literature and a small market.
The Croatian Ministry of Culture released its 2016 Book Program this month and, in a country with a population of 4.2 million (about the same as the entire states of Louisiana or Kentucky), at least seventy authors will receive financial support and more than a dozen publishers will be subsidized to publish specific books in 2016. Projects are selected via a committee of literary and publishing experts and well-established writers.
Now, who’s going to translate their books and publish in them United States so we can read them?