There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more…
You rarely hear the question asked; ‘What is Scottish music?’ or ‘What is Scottish film?’ The same goes for theatre, painting, or even comedy. In all these examples the question of their Scottishness or otherwise has long since mattered less than the argument which begins ‘Is it any good?’ But with Scottish writing there is all too often that vexed question ‘What is Scottish literature?’ and it’s one which is, to be frank, a pain in the arse.
It’s a question that has complex roots. The problem is one of language, politics and education, all of which have combined to confuse Scots, because the problem mainly lies with self-perception. In his latest novel, the Saltire Award winning Kieron Smith, boy, James Kelman looks at the pre-teen life of a boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1950’s. It is a brilliant evocation of childhood, and Kieron’s experience in the classroom is one which, I believe, still holds true today:
Ye had to speak right all the time, Oh it is not cannay it is cannot, you must not say didnay it is did not. If it is the classroom it is not the gutter. It is the Queen’s English, only you must speak the Queen’s English.1
These confusing linguistic standards are made even more apparent outside of school where Kieron’s mother tells him to speak ‘correctly’ while his father and his grandparents speak in exactly the way he is being told is some how inferior:
People that talked like me were just keelies and did not go to good schools. That was what my maw said.2
Putting aside the political and social questions that arise from such a situation, it is one which is bound to cause cultural confusion, but here’s my attempt at working it through. Those of us educated in Scotland are taught English as literature and are encouraged to speak English in the school. The majority of texts taught to us are English in terms of literature and language. So when we are given a text that is Scots in terms of literature and/or language then the confusion is understandable. Is it just a piece of English lit with an accent? Is it ‘inferior’ to those other texts we have been taught? Does the language used make it less aesthetically worthy? Is Scots a language or dialect? Is it only being taught to be politically correct? All these questions have been, or still are, applied to Scottish literature taught in schools, colleges and universities and such an attitude bleeds in to society in general.
This situation doesn’t arise with American literature, Irish Literature, Australian literature etc. The identity of native literatures is strong, and necessary, and few would attempt to say that William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac were not leading figures of American literature, or that Beckett and Joyce were not writing in the field of Irish literature. All four of these examples can be taught on Eng Lit courses as well as American Lit or Irish Lit courses, and there are few, if any, worries if the language used is English, American, Irish or purely dialect. They are taught because they are seen as having value. Is it any good?
But the attitude to Scottish literature is changing. The profile of Scottish writing is higher than at any time previously, both abroad, but perhaps more importantly, at home. Book festivals are thriving, readings are common place and, sometimes, well attended, and it appears as if literature is fully integrated into the nation’s cultural conversation as never before. In the last couple of years there has been The Ballad of the Books project which saw writers and musicians in collaboration. There have been theatre productions of Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me and James Hogg’s masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and various Scottish novels have been made into films or TV series. You can argue the reasons for this new confidence in Scottish writing, when it began, or even if it exists at all, and perhaps we will in the months ahead. However it appears as if people are finally concentrating on the what, how and why; three of the most important questions to be asked (whether reading or otherwise), rather than worrying about who belongs where; to my mind one of the least important.
That’s what this column will be discussing. What is it, how was it written and why. And, of course, ‘Is it any good?’ On the first week of each month I’ll be looking at a different novel, writer, poet or short story collection with the aim of working out what the answer to those questions are, or at least enjoying arguing all points of view. I’ll concentrate on modern and contemporary stuff such as Ali Smith, Iain Banks, A.L. Kennedy and James Robertson as that’s where my own area of interest mainly lies, but I won’t ignore any writers without good reason. So if your tastes are more Sir Walter Scott or RL Stevenson than Alasdair Gray, Ewan Morrison or Andrew O’Hagan we can tear into them all. There’ll be no restrictions on what is under discussion, and any suggestions will be given due consideration, although I’m afraid this judge’s decision must be final.
The first novel I’ll be looking at is Alan Warner’s 1995 debut Morvern Callar (later made into a fine film by Lynne Ramsay). Warner became known as part of the ‘chemical generation’ of writers, a term that was used to market a group of disparate novelists and poets as publishers tried to cash in on the success of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, a novel that will be discussed in future. Such categorisation really does Alan Warner no service, and I think he has gone on to write consistently interesting novels (something that cannot necessarily be said about Welsh, but more of that another day). Morvern Callaris a book that I developed a full relationship with, and, like many of my relationships, it was perhaps doomed from the start. At first I was smitten, recommending it heartily to all and sundry. Then after a few re-readings aspects of the book, particularly with reference to the title character, started to worry me until eventually I really began to loath the book. That journey from infatuation to outright hostility will be the basis of next month’s column, but suffice to say it’s a book that has had a profound effect on me so I’m pretty sure it will prove of interest to all that read it. I’d love to know what you think as fourteen years on from buying it, I’m still not sure if it’s any good.
James Kelman, Kieron Smith, boy Penguin Books Ltd 2008,page 207
Ibid page 301
These columns first appeared at Dear Scotland.