RECENTLY, Stuart Cosgrove, a television executive, bemoaned the miserabilist tendency of our national culture. In his opinion our writers, artists, musicians and, in particular, film-makers, are stuck in the doldrums. “Dismal, dreary, depressing”, ran the headline in the Observer’s Scottish edition, “what a senior Scot thinks of Scotland.” Later, and after various commentators had extracted his finger-nails, Mr Cosgrove, a seasoned media watcher, protested that his remarks had been taken out of context. But there was no denying his overall impression: “grim, social realism” rules.
At the end of February, a conference was held at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow during the Aye Write! festival. Among the participants were Culture Minister Patricia Ferguson and James Boyle, head of the Cultural Commission. Both could not have been more upbeat were they tennis commentators asked to evaluate Tim Henman’s chances at Wimbledon. Less gung-ho, however, was Jenny Brown, erstwhile Literature Director of the Scottish Arts Council, now a literary agent. What we need, she said, is less black humour and dark sex and more “gorgeous sexy novels.” Where is our Jilly Cooper? she wanted to know, as if one were not enough. Ms Brown added that it was significant that no Scottish novel had been selected for Richard and Judy’s book club.
Both Mr Cosgrove and Ms Brown are consumers, not creators. They are in the business of selling, taking the labours of others into the marketplace and flogging them to the highest bidder. There is no dishonour in that; everyone must make a living. But it is hard to see how a serious writer would listen to what messrs Cosgrove and Brown say. No writer who has half an eye on posterity cares a whit about trends or fashion. They can no more write to order than Mr Cosgrove can predict the outcome of an Old Firm game, about which he appears to have greater knowledge than the state of Scottish fiction or art. Nor can we recall any great work of literature which came into being because a literary agent wished it so.
The writer who was mentioned both by Mr Cosgrove and Ms Brown was James Kelman. Asked what he thought of the latter’s remarks, he said: “I’ve nothing to say to that kind of nonsense.” William McIlvanney was marginally more expansive: “I disagree with all of this prescriptive stuff about writing. I would let it happen as it happens.” Which, from our point of view, rather neatly sums up this vacuous debate. Well-meaning as Mr Cosgrove and Ms Brown no doubt are, they played straight into the hands of the philistines who are always with us. Yes, Scotland should celebrate success but it must be done in a sophisticated manner. We would rather, for example, read more about Mr Kelman’s achievements than those, say, of Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and other popular writers whose names crop up with monotonous regularity in the media.
But we have what we have and what has lately exercised literary Scotland is a list produced by the List magazine whose raison d’etre is to produce lists. Its latest list is the 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time, from which Robert Burns and Liz Lochhead, to highlight but two, are conspicuously absent. To say more would be to give this bleary idea more attention than it deserves. As Janice Galloway said, “Lists like this are so ineffably stupid, competitive and whimsical they make me despair.”
We do not blame the List, which must sell copies however it can. Much more alarming is that the Scottish Book Trust is behind the venture which, apparently, was the “brainchild” of Willy Maley, an English literature professor at Glasgow University, where Ms Galloway – not to mention Ms Lochhead and Mr Kelman – was formerly a tutor. The Book Trust is one among a blizzard of organisations behind the Literature Forum for Scotland which wants literature to be removed from the ambit of the Scottish Arts Council. The new body – prospectively called Literature Scotland – will advocate that “the cultural rights of citizens be validated through opportunities for genuine engagement with literature.” Among the things the Literature Forum for Scotland believes we need is “an international ambassador commanding institutional status and respect”, presumably sponsored by Ferrero Rocher. We can think of no worthier candidate than Professor Maley. The more time he spends in foreign parts the better.