In 1995 I met James Kelman in the Cawder Vaults pub in Sighthill, Glasgow. During our conversation I asked if there were particular Scottish writers who had influenced his work. His reply was, ‘Franz Kafka’. I appreciated the joke, but equally I was aware of Kelman’s implication that he wasn’t confined to being influenced by writers from the country where he happened to be born. Why had I asked this limiting question, even in casual conversation? One reason was that I was excited about the incredible writing that seemed to be pouring out of Scotland. At that time new writing was appearing from Agnes Owens, Edwin Morgan, Alasdair Gray, Jeff Torrington, Thomas Healy, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, Bernard MacLaverty (Irish but living in Glasgow), Alan Spence, Aonghas Macneacail, Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh, Robert Alan Jamieson, Jackie Kay, Ali Smith, Duncan McLean, Alan Warner, A.L. Kennedy and Kathleen Jamie. In addition, Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig and Iain Crichton Smith were still alive and writing. The above writers and their work existed imaginatively and artistically in wider contexts alongside the best writing in Britain, Europe and the world.
These days when I come across literary magazines and journals published in Scotland (with a few notable exceptions) they generally tend to be stuffed with creative writing masters students (past and present), and mediocre career writers whose main ambitions (from what I can tell) appear to be raising their media profiles while raiding the coffers of the public purse through Creative Scotland. Then there are the detective writers, the sci-fi writers, the fairy story writers, etc. In terms of fiction, the world of book publishing is no better (again with a few notable exceptions). I’m disheartened because I don’t believe the picture I’m being sold. I know many great unpublished writers are out there. I know they are writing. Where are the new writers who are more akin to Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett in terms of application, commitment, and sensibility? An artist like Kafka explored the truth of the human condition with honesty that was informed by experience, not to mention a highly developed sensibility. For a writer that kind of sensibility is earned over time. It isn’t an instant thing. And you don’t get a certificate in it from a university.
Many committed writers I admire have attended masters courses in creative writing. But it’s the general ethos and elevation of this world that troubles me. It can be fine if the individual brings along their own highly-developed sensibility, artistry and talent like Flannery O’Connor did. Otherwise, in a kind of rush to ‘be a writer’ the individual risks becoming a ‘product’ of a course, a ‘graduate’ with limited sensibility, confined to the narrow parameters of what has been taught and learned in one place. This easy route comes at a cost. Often it is evident in the immaturity of the published work, and in the way that careerism is valued above the actual art. However, my criticism is against the sheer blandness of the output. It makes me long for the existential honesty of Charles Bukowski or Albert Camus. I don’t believe the work being published in this country is the best that is out there. I want more from an artist. In the words of The Smiths song, these writers ‘say nothing to me about my life’.
The generation of writers that came to prominence in the 80s, including Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens, and a new generation in the 90s, amongst them Janice Galloway and Alan Warner, found their own individualistic paths into print. Sadly the generation that followed from the late 90s onwards appeared to cling to identities forged around creative writing masters courses and herded together in self-validating, back-slapping cliques. The resultant work is noticeably less political, less existential, less truthful and aesthetically weaker. I say these words primarily as a reader. The books I’ve appreciated most over the past few years have been produced by writers I was enjoying fifteen or twenty years ago. This is because the best writing being published at the moment is being written by people who established themselves in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I’ve spoken to many people who share my views, but rarely have I encountered good criticism or journalism that has admitted the obvious.
In 1999 I attended a seminar on ‘Scottish Writing’ at the University of Strathclyde and heard a group of academics attempting to dismiss the impact of Trainspotting. One of them described overhearing ‘two young neds’ in a street discussing The Acid House and how ridiculous this was. The concept that these ‘neds’ could read books and offer opinions on writing was almost too much to bear. The academics looked genuinely worried as they discussed the ways in which the university could operate amidst the ‘threat’ of a truly democratic culture of writing in Scotland. Maybe on one level the emergence and promotion of masters courses in creative writing at Scottish universities was essentially an attempt to return the power of expression to the economically-advantaged who could afford the thousands of pounds to become ‘certified writers’.
It could work like this. Take a group of people with nothing much to say. Pocket their money. Teach them a few tricks about networking. Provide them with easy access to publishing. Have compliant journalists give their books positive reviews in the newspapers. Promote them at book festivals. And we can happily say that the good ship ‘Scottish Literature’ is once again rendered safe and neutral. No scary Leonards or Kelmans or Trainspottings in this generation. But where does this leave the reader?
If the above is too cynical, and the whole thing isn’t simply financially profitable censorship, then the finger of blame needs to be pointed at editors and publishers. I often ask myself if they can actually read fiction, if they understand the nuances of language, and can discern the nuances of fiction writing? Where are the editors in Scotland or Britain who care primarily about art? Where are the publishers in Scotland or Britain who care primarily about art? Do they exist?
In thi wurd you will find writing from people of different classes and nationalities, but I think it is fair to say that working-class writers in particular are struggling for publication within the current set-up. One problem is that the vast majority of the ‘gatekeepers’ (editors and publishers) come from a much more economicallyadvantaged culture and are often out of sympathy with the subject-matter of writers from less privileged backgrounds. What would I say to a working-class writer who had written a great story collection or novel from within their own culture and was subsequently attempting to get it published in Scotland or Britain? I’d tell them to expect rejection from middle-class publishers who won’t have a clue about their culture and will ignore the art and structure of the work in order to conclude that their themes are too bleak. It is debatable whether this is willful censorship or ignorance. It’s certainly a reality.
I think most fiction editors and publishers working in Britain today (and probably in most places) feel extremely alienated by genuine representations of the lives of the majority. This perceived alienation leads to a form of blindness through which those in publishing can’t (or don’t want to) distinguish between the multifarious and diverse art of working-class writers. This in turn leads to tokenism right at the heart of publishing. If a term such as working-class can be taken to loosely represent a group of people, then within that concept extreme differences and range must be acknowledged. Surely part of being a good editor or publisher of fiction should encompass openness to other lived experiences and other lives, regardless of class, or gender, or nationality? For example, let’s imagine what might happen if a writer from a working-class background in Edinburgh similar to that of Irvine Welsh’s was to emerge. Let’s say this new writer creates brilliant fiction about very different experiences from those depicted by Welsh, but within the same broad cultural context. In addition, let’s say the new writer employs radically different techniques and narrative forms in their art. What would happen? My guess is that the new writer would be rejected for being derivative. The conclusion would be ‘we already have one Irvine Welsh we don’t need another’. Meanwhile, the same criteria aren’t applied when it comes to middle-class writers. This situation comes about because the typical editor or publisher, when confronted by working-class subject matter, doesn’t discern the content and views it all as being fundamentally the same. Chances are the work, regardless of artistic quality and even actual subject matter, will be dismissed as ‘grim’ or ‘uniformly depressing’. Of course this blinkered thinking is part of the wider problem that those in positions of power prefer to seek out and promote art from their own perspectives.
When economically-deprived communities are rendered in fiction it is often the case that these accounts are written by ‘approved outsiders’ who sanitise the culture, misrepresent it and make it palatable to a readership that is also outwith the culture. A recent example of this is Alison Irvine’s book This Road is Red. On a website about the Red Road flats, we are informed that this author lived in:
The above biography makes this author the perfect ‘outsider’ to write an account of life in the Red Road flats. All the author is required to do is to interview some local residents and then set her imagination to work. I would guess that such a book will even generally receive a positive reaction from some within the community it depicts, but this I believe has a lot to do with how underrepresented these communities are, leading to any cultural representation – authentic or not – being welcomed to a degree. But for me, as someone who grew up in a nearby scheme in the north of Glasgow, Alison Irvine’s book is an offensive misrepresentation of a culture, a cosy denial of reality. It is colonial and patronising and wrong on every level. I’m not saying that writers aren’t free to write about other cultures, but this entire enterprise strikes me as a denial of a culture’s intrinsic worth.
Maybe someday I’ll read a great fictional representation of the Red Road from someone who actually grew up there and lived there, but until that day I expect that most published representations of working-class life in Scottish fiction, slight as these will undoubtedly be, will be written by people from places like Bearsden and Newton Mearns. Unfortunately this is the way things are at the moment and for the foreseeable future. I hope things change, although I’m not optimistic.
But imagine there is a writer in the Red Road at this very moment who has written about their own community from within that culture and who, faced with knowledge of all the above, despairs at finding a place where their work will be read fairly and without prejudice. This is an area in which thi wurd hopes to play a small but important role in choosing the authentic over the inauthentic. A strong motivation in setting up this publication is to give an outlet to those who, in the words of Tom Leonard, exist ‘outside the narrative’. And while certain other magazines and publishers in Scotland fail to look beyond creative writing graduates and genre writers, we will strive to offer something much better.