by Rosemary Goring

Hyperventilating with self-congratulation

October 28, 2009 | by Rosemary Goring

Carl MacDougall’s recent BBC 2 series, Writing Scotland, swept a magisterial yet kindly eye over the history of Scottish literature. It was an intelligently economical programme, deftly simplifying complexity to make a highly watchable, informative series that until recently would not have got past the preliminary round of producers’ offers. Ignoring the girning background of breastbeating as the nation’s intellectuals bewail its cultural meltdown, its paranoic sense of dumbing-down, MacDougall let loose an elegant quiver of literary arrows that illuminated not only the wealth and fascination in Scotland’s literary past but, perhaps as vividly, its current state of vigour and confidence.

Indeed, it was impossible to view this evocation of past writers without sensing the looming presence of today’s literary clan. It is fashionable now to consider Scottish fiction one of the most vibrant cultural arenas in Europe, but from the first episode of Writing Scotland the calibre of past masters cast a faint pall over the glory that is heaped somewhat indiscriminately on current writers, our novelists in particular.

In that first episode, Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig and Hugh MacDiarmid lit up the screen, by turns harsh, thoughtful, self-absorbed: men whose writing not only made a spiritual connection with their own times, and those of an earlier Scotland, but hooked into the future too, where their words remain as barb, guide and counterpoint. Watching these archive recordings, it was hard not to ask who among modern Scotland’s novelists has attained anything approaching their standard.

MacDougall’s commentary was augmented by a raft of contemporary writers who had been invited to contribute their thoughts. Throughout every episode they appeared in such numbers it was as if someone had picked up a list of those who’ve ever received a Scottish Arts Council grant, maybe even just a Christmas card, and called them all in for a chat. Liz Lochhead, William McIlvanney, Jackie Kay, Andrew O’Hagan, James Robertson, Edwin Morgan, Anne Donovan, Chris Dolan, Ali Smith, and many, many others sat in judgement on their predecessors, showing acute awareness of the patterns of fiction that have shaped the fictional landscape, and of their own links to these patterns.

Whenever someone passes comment on another person’s work, it’s inevitable that they sound superior. One doubts whether any of those interviewed consciously felt this but, deliberately or not, the sense came across of a platoon of fresh writers confident that they are worthy of taking their place on the same ladder as, say, Sir Walter Scott, or Lewis Grassic Gibbon or Muriel Spark. Yet while they reflect critically on their predecessors, who sits in judgement on them? And what verdict would they come to if they did?

Had any of those on MacDougall’s programme been asked to dissect the content and career of their fellow writers, one suspects the screen would have gone blank. It is one of the more intriguing features of the Scottish literary establishment that while it enjoys – indeed revels in – the freedom to write whatever it likes, it bristles like a porcupine when criticised, and scurries mole-deep when asked to pass anything other than eulogistic comment on its peers. Those whose fiction savages the political structure of Scotland, or pulls the rug from under hypocrites and charlatans, suddenly become painfully sensitive when anything adverse is said about their own work. It may be an understandable instinct, but in the long term it’s not a helpful one.

A backslapping culture has arisen in the last fifteen or so years in which it is widely assumed, and frequently reiterated, that Scotland is undergoing a literary renaissance. “We are enjoying a golden age of literature” is one of the most over-used phrases on the literary circuit, dragged out at almost every award ceremony, as judges, politicians and sponsors hyperventilate with self-congratulation. If adjectival excitement and hubris can sustain a movement, then Scotland’s renaissance is likely to outlast and outclass that of early-modern Europe. Personally, I prefer to use the word flourishing. But just how good are the novelists working in Scotland today? Are they world-class? Does their work play on a bigger stage? And if it does not, should we care? Take this year’s Booker prize. Of a long list of 22 candidates, not one was Scottish, despite the fact that those eligible for consideration included James Kelman’s You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, and AL Kennedy’s Paradise, highly accomplished works by two of our most respected writers.

When Scottish novelists are overlooked, the response is one of mystification and anger: those were my own feelings, certainly, on hearing this year’s selection. Compared with some of the titles that reached the long list, and with most on the shortlist of six, Kelman and Kennedy were in a different league. For style, depth and originality they matched the best of the Booker nominees. For them not to be winners is in itself no reason to grouse. Not even to have been placed, however, is perplexing. In those years when a Scot has reached the Booker shortlist – Muriel Spark in 1981, William Boyd in 1982, James Kelman and George Mackay Brown in 1994, Shena Mackay in 1996, Andrew O’Hagan in 1999 – we feel exaggerated pride. Isn’t it curious, though, that Kelman has been the only Scottish Booker winner in its 36-year history? Using this as a benchmark (a dubious one, admittedly), what good is our much-vaunted renaissance doing us south of the border and beyond? If what we’re producing is so excellent, why don’t others think so?

Beyond the regular snub of the Booker prize, Scottish writers, especially those published by Scottish publishers, are frequently ignored by English literary pages. The heart of the British literary establishment still beats in London. By the time an author from beyond the border comes into view, the pulse registered on the metropolitan radar is poor, and fading.

One thing we’ve proved very good at recently is producing bestsellers. If JK Rowling can be gathered under the “Scottish” umbrella, then she would top the list, putting Scotland at the forefront of international fictional success. Behind her come Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin, an outstanding double-act in terms of Scottish sell-ability, followed at some distance by other criminal talents: Christopher Brookmyre, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and so on.

The age-old Scottish talent for storytelling underlies these triumphs of popularity. Yet while one wouldn’t wish to detract an iota from the credit deserved by such successful work, none of these writers has produced a book that has in any degree significantly altered the way Scottish writers think or write.

Of the novels published in the last ten or so years, however, a handful have done just that, standing out as snow-tipped Himalayas amid a sea of Lammermuirs: James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late; AL Kennedy’s So I Am Glad; Candia McWilliam’s Debateable Land, Frank Kuppner’s Something Very Like Murder; Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Andrew O’Hagan’s Our Fathers, Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, Ali Smith’s Hotel World, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, Janice Galloway’s Clara, James Robertson’s Joseph Knight. (Absent from this list are the later works of some of our best writers: Muriel Spark, for instance, and Robin Jenkins, whose recent novels represent a coda to these careers rather than a further advancing of it.)

If we are to assess the fictional state of Scotland today, it needs to be by focusing on the best; by ignoring the hype and the tendency to tell ourselves how good we are, and by looking hard at what Scottish novelists are doing. For a nation famous for its ability to see its own faults, we are strangely myopic these days when it comes to our fiction. It’s as if to take issue with the quality of our writers is to attack the heart of Scotland’s sense of itself and deal yet another blow to its battered self-image. For me, the plethora of Scottish novels being published and the relentless enthusiasm that dogs each emergent writer has a depressive rather than exhilarating effect. Maybe I am simply too sour to embrace the glut of self-confidence that sits so uncomfortably with the cautious, self-deprecating old Scottish psyche.

In the last ten years I have read countless works of new fiction, whether as a reviewer, or as a judge on prize panels and the Scottish Arts Council. What has struck me most forcibly is that while fashion has a huge impact on the fringes of our literature, it does not impinge on those who have a vision of their own; those who, in effect, set the trend. Only imitators toe the line. In this country we have a handful of originals, and a hundred times as many acolytes who produce perfectly good, but unstartling, work.

On the evidence of the past decade, compared with English novels Scottish fiction is in a healthier and more interesting state: fresher, more imaginative, more vibrant. It may have taken us twenty years to reach parliamentary devolution, but in terms of fiction there have been several powerful and independent parties working steadily on their own tack, parallel to, or even regardless of, the political weather outside.

What is also clear, however, is that there exists an invisible apartheid in this country. You see it in the way some writers are deemed less Scottish than others: those such as Ronald Frame, a Glaswegian to the bone, but not of the dark, sleazy, aggressive Glasgow that give such a strong setting to so many novels, but of the douce, introspective, emotionally seething middle-class Glasgow, where passions may be violent, but the streets are cleaner and the only low life to be seen are privet hedges. Or there’s Candia McWilliam, an elegant, haunting writer, who lives in Oxford in, one suspects, a state of perpetual homesickness, her geographical distance and upper-class accent setting her apart from her less patrician contemporaries. Allan Massie, too, largely as a result of his unabashed right-wing sympathies and undisguised public school background, is seen less as a Scottish novelist as one that happens to live in Scotland. Meanwhile the uncategorisable Frank Kuppner works on in his inimitably powerful, sardonic style, as unconcerned about changing his ways to fit the season as Andrew Crumey, whose droll and scientifically-rooted fiction distances him from the mainstream Scottish school. Such writers are not embraced in the fold in the way that some willing exiles are – Ali Smith, for instance, or Jackie Kay, who rouse no suspicions about their Scottish passport despite their resolve to live far away from their homeland.

What separates the main brood of Scots from those eyed with mild suspicion is tone: the coolth and restraint, the emphasis on manners and on the unspoken in works by McWilliam or Frame or Massie do not suit the more robust, rugged, transgressive or plain angry mood of our times. Hence their lack of imitators.

Yet for every Scottish writer who is elbowed off the main stage, there’s one who has come to Scotland, started to write, and never left: notably Michel Faber, Kate Atkinson, Bernard MacLaverty and, of course, J K Rowling. The infusion of outsiders into the writing fold is one of the most optimistic signs, in many ways, for the state of Scottish fiction, a symptom of the confidence this country can offer, in terms of support and inclusion.

It seems to me that the diagnosis of the fictional state of Scotland has altered in the last handful of years: perhaps as recently as the day we got devolution. And there are two novels that, to my mind, are symptomatic of the best of what is happening in Scottish fiction. One harks back to a history that has nothing directly to do with us; the second is utterly contemporary, written in the moment to such an extent that the whole novel takes place in the space of only a few hours.

The first is Janice Galloway’s Clara. An intense, interior account of the life of the composer Schumann’s gifted pianist wife, it is set in 19th century Europe and written with little of the Scottish vocabulary that has characterised much of Galloway’s earlier work. Yet in every line this extraordinarily powerful, imaginative, domestic, and daring novel reeks of its Caledonian roots.

As she explores the feelings of a woman forced to bend first to a father’s will and then to a husband’s, Galloway immerses the reader in the mental world of the artist, in this case a musician, thwarted and willingly warped by the overwhelming demands of her male loved-ones. In her psychological penetration and rigour, in her rhythmic, musical, yet devastatingly unsentimental prose, Galloway takes the historical novel and turns it into a masterly modern medium.

Clara touches on many areas – gender politics, autobiography, cultural history, romance and tragedy – yet is never so full it becomes burdensome or loses its immediacy as a work of pure fiction. It takes a writer of great assurance and skill to carry off such a feat. With this novel Galloway has not only come of age, but pulled Scottish fiction up a peg in the process.

James Robertson too in his uncompromisingly political The Fanatic, and more recently Joseph Knight, has raised a standard for using a historical story for modern purposes, while at the same time paying homage, albeit highly critical, to our heritage. The use of old secrets, newly minted for our own times, is one indication of cultural maturity, of writers able to find the mental space to stand back and evaluate the origins of our society and selves.

Pre-devolution literature had a political urgency, and a powerful cultural repetitiveness, one novel to the next, which, for all the ails of our present political climate, is now lacking. In its place is a mood of individuality, epitomised in the second novel I consider emblematic, James Kelman’s You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free. As with Clara, in this novel Kelman makes no concessions to the reader. He never has, of course. It is not his fault that many have tried to ape his tone, his political outlook, and his stream of consciousness technique, ending up with feeble or dull imitations. In You Have to be Careful…, Kelman has honed all of these into a mesmerising nightmare of introspection as a Scot, who has for many years lived in America, makes the journey to the airport for his flight back to Glasgow. What impresses is the steadiness of this novel’s focus, Kelman’s insistence on living in the skin of his narrator so fully that the reader’s breath begins to synchronise with his. The lack of compromise in this novel’s complex, tightrope construction, and Kelman’s insistence on giving voice to the roller-coaster of thoughts that run through his hero’s head, work brilliantly, if riskily, on several levels. Not least is the sense that although the Scottishness of the hero is crucial to his psychology, this novel is in many ways free of Scotland. Its politics are universal, and timeless. Particularly exhilarating is the ambition behind it, the sense of pummelling an almost indescribable series of emotions and perceptions into tangible shape. If ever there were a cry for Scottish writers to find their own path, to remain unswayed by convention or trend, this is it.

Slowly, I believe, the Scottish literary scene is widening its horizons, although you might not think so to read The Knuckle-End, the first compilation of work by graduates of the influential Creative Writing MA at Glasgow and Strathclyde universities. Much of the rather callow material in this anthology seems rooted in what Alexander McCall Smith has dubbed “Scottish miserabilism”, that wilfully downbeat attitude that has dominated the past few years, beginning with Irvine Welsh’s groundbreaking cultural blast, but now feels jaded and dated.

By snail-like degrees this outlook is evolving into a more subtle and interesting world view. Witness works such as Anne Donovan’s Buddha Da, or Luke Sutherland’s Venus as a Boy, or the postmodernism of those such as Alice Thompson, who are as much a part of the literary landscape now as the new urban fiction produced by writers such as Des Dillon, Zoe Strachan and Collette Paul.

And there are voices as yet uncategorisable, still early in what promise to be long and interesting careers: Andrew O’Hagan, Louise Welsh, Ali Smith. What some in this generation of writers lack compared with those before them is intensity. I think it’s this intensity that makes much of our best Scottish fiction difficult for those outside our country. There’s no mistaking the anger in Scottish fiction – it crackles off Kelman, sighs from Kennedy, and dances on every word Galloway writes. Although with Lanark Alasdair Gray became the godfather of modern Scottish fiction, these three are our trinity, the closest we have yet come to world-class.

The recognition that these, and other Scottish writers, receive beyond Scotland is not proportional to their talent. That shouldn’t matter, but it does, both financially and emotionally for the authors, and culturally for the country. It is painful to see such voices ignored or undervalued by readers unwilling or unable to appreciate their calibre. Perhaps it’s Scottish writers’ refusal to be anything other than uncompromising that deflects some readers. It may be no comfort to those who feel neglected or slighted, but in many ways the current fictional state of Scotland is a product of a porous insularity, which nurtures its self-confidence but also perhaps helps to alienate it from a wider recognition. Scottish fiction bubbles like a bottomless cauldron into which as many ingredients are flung as there are hands at the pot. What emerges is a myriad of voices, loosely connected by a quality that might be defined as reach, or ambition, or focus.

Of course, it matters if Scottish work doesn’t travel onto a bigger stage, but writers seem not to let it matter too much. There is so much encouragement in the literary scene within Scotland, such a wave of self-belief, that the wider field can easily, if not wisely, be dismissed. It is worth noting, however, that many of the writers who reach the London radar and the metropolitan judges’ prize lists, live in the English literary heartland, among them Ali Smith, William Boyd and Andrew O’Hagan. It’s as if these writers, in escaping a homeland for which they harbour mixed feelings, have diluted the off-putting scent of clannishness that disturbs or irritates or bores English arbiters of taste. The mere hint of such prejudice should be enough to make indigenous novelists even more uncompromising. No-one should write from anything other than the passion and commitment to say what they have to say in their own distinctive way. Whether that reaches a wider audience than their nation is not a reflection of its worth. The only true judge of a novel’s quality is time, which lies in no single reader’s gift.

While I don’t subscribe to the view that this is a golden age for Scottish fiction, it is clearly a time of rare opportunity, when the steeplechase of obstacles that for generations has stood between many would-be authors and publication has been removed. Of the many who are currently rushing to grasp the chances on offer, only a very few will attain literary immortality. Surely that’s a healthy fictional state for any country to be in?

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