“you’re only new once,” Rodge Glass said when interviewed for this issue’s essay on Scotland’s young writers. In an age-obsessed era, literature remains one of the few fields a practitioner can still be described as young even as they enter their forties. There is a reason for that. It’s based on the recognition that writers take time to mature.
Most often they show promise over their first few novels, only realising mastery of their talent when they publish their third, fourth or fifth. Examples come to mind. While Saul Bellow’s first two books, Dangling Man and The Victim, are by any standard accomplished, he didn’t find his voice until his third, The Adventures of Augie March. Jonathan Franzen’s first two novels are ambitious but burdened by an excess of style. Franzen was three novels down and thirteen years into his career before he found success with The Corrections. Yann Martell wrote two not terribly good books before Canongate took a chance on a third that was rejected by five London publishing houses: Life Of Pi is now officially the best-selling Booker Prize winner ever. Closer to home, William McIlvanney’s debut and sophomore are callow dramas that don’t entirely deliver but hint at the triumph of his third, Docherty.
Sorry if this is obvious to you. It is not apparent to everyone. One suspects sectors of the publishing industry have forgotten. Living in a results-based society, expectations of new writers are raised from the start. It’s not enough that they win critical success. Publishers are commercial enterprises that exist to make a profit. Building a writer’s reputation over a number of years in expectation of later success is a gamble.
In his recent speech in defence of libraries, Philip Pullman was blunt: “It used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. Publishing was a human occupation run by human beings. Not any more. Publishers are run by money people now.”
It is true, novelists continue to appear whose debuts are acclaimed and whose sales impress. But the myth of the genius writer fully-formed from the off is just that – a myth. Zadie Smith and Joshua Ferris enjoyed great success with their first novels, and were talked up by many critics. Yet even they tripped up with second novels that disappointed. The point is, talent is capricious. It needs to be coaxed out, not threatened. And that requires publishers demonstrate as much imagination as the young authors they sign.
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One of the novelists interviewed in the SRB, Alan Bissett, took the title of his third novel, Death of a Ladies Man, from a Leonard Cohen album. In this issue, the SRB publishes three new poems by Cohen. They are marked by his customary wit, intelligence, and soul. Although better known as Canada’s finest living songwriter (no offence to Neil Young fans), Cohen began his creative career as a poet. His body of work, comprising volumes of verse, experimental novels, and a dozen studio albums, is an endorsement of providing artists with opportunities to grow and deepen their talent not merely over years, but decades. One would like to think a publisher today would still take a chance on such an idiosyncratic venture as Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers.
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A section of another Bissett novel, The Incredible Adam Spark, takes place on the day of the march in Glasgow in February 2003 protesting the then yet to be launched war in Iraq. The passage features a cameo by Tommy Sheridan, who is pictured speaking at the rally that took place at the march’s conclusion. Whatever you think of Mr Sheridan, he made an undeniable contribution to Scottish political and cultural life which that passage pays tribute to in its way. This issue’s Diary covers the last days of Mr Sheridan’s perjury trial.
When asked about their politics, many of the young writers featured in this issue expressed a wish to vote for a socialist party. Their desire was frustrated by the collapse of the Scottish left-wing vote following the accusations that led to Mr Sheridan’s libel trial. Many of the writers expressed a sense of political homelessness. Which begs a question: is there a generation of young Scottish politicians who can talk as directly to the public as the country’s writers?