by Rosemary Goring

SRB Diary: Of Literature and Love Handles

November 10, 2009 | by Rosemary Goring

IN THE COURSE of desultory conversation with a novelist on the duckboards of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I realised how anxious the Scottish literary community has grown of late. The novelist said something mildly critical about one of the twenty-odd organisations that cover literature in Scotland. I raised my eyebrows in surprise and interest, and she froze, mid-sentence. “You must have been told that before,” she said, looking like an investor in Lehman’s the day its staff were filmed carrying their belongings out in cardboard boxes. She didn’t go whey-faced exactly, but there was a definite loss of colour. “Surely I’m not the first person to mention it,” she said, and looked over her shoulder as if she’d heard the jackbooted approach of literary vigilantes, employed to deal with anyone breaking cover. The conversation ended rather abruptly after this, with me sworn to secrecy over what I’d been told, and by whom.

At that moment I had an inkling of what it might have been like to be Maigret or Rebus, an unwelcome outsider whose appearance spells trouble. As a young reader, I could never understand those scenes in detective novels where the investigating officer is met with silence from a room of sullen, nervous faces. In their place, I thought, I’d have been only too keen to fill in details of that day’s activities, of who had been where, and with whom, and to offer suggestions as to what I suspected might have happened. With age, I see things differently, and am gradually learning the wisdom of saying less rather than more. And, as I have discovered lately, the same Cistercian principle as informs witnesses or suspects to a crime is employed throughout the literary world, certainly whenever I am present.

It’s nothing personal. This response is prompted by my role as chair of the Literature Working Group, which was set up by culture minister Michael Russell in May. We started out as a group of nine, comprising novelists, poets, academics, teachers, journalists, and one publisher: Don Paterson, Allan Massie, Jen Hadfield, Valentina Bold, Rody Gorman, Matthew Fitt, Andrew Nicoll and Hugh Andrew. In July we hijacked another publisher, Timothy Wright of Edinburgh University Press.

Our remit is to create a literature policy for Creative Scotland, to help give literature the status and prominence it deserves alongside all the country’s other artforms. When the group was set up there were varying degrees of dismay and scepticism among the literary fraternity, and understandably so. After all, we are trying to achieve in six months what others have been wrestling with for years.

As I write, the first draft of the policy is almost complete. Shortly it will be thrown to the other members of the group like a t-bone into a cage of peckish lions. What shape it will be in when they are done with it, I cannot say. Nor do I know if it will have any real influence.

At worst, it might prove nothing more than an illuminating exercise for all of us, who have been plunged into parts of the literary environment previously unplumbed and, in some cases, that we were unaware even existed. At least we now understand the nuts and bolts that hold together the labyrinthine and in some cases Machiavellian world that underpins Scottish writing.

In my more optimistic moods, however, I hope our policy might become a blueprint for making the most of the limited funds on offer to writers, publishers and those 24 organisations who come under the umbrella of what is known as the Literature Forum, an association of diverse bodies from the Scottish Poetry Library and Scottish Book Trust to the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Scottish PEN.

Needless to say, the working group comprises those who think our policy will prove ineffectual and those who, having been involved in this exercise and believing the mission has been completed satisfactorily, would now like to tackle world poverty. Obviously it is for others to judge how well we have done the job, but none of us, not even the sunniest, thinks we will be given an easy time of it when it goes public.

* * *

For a small country, Scotland is home to an eye-watering variety of literary endeavours, of personalities, talents, ambitions, grievances, and rivalries. One of the first hints of this was a column in the West Highland Free Press by Roger Hutchinson – not, himself, a Gaelic speaker – who complained at the composition of the group, and believed that it should have had at least five Gaels on it.

In person, though, the Gaels were one of the most agreeable and open constituencies I met. They were to be found in the bowels of the Scottish Piping Centre in Glasgow, within sight of my desk at the Herald.

Down the old twisting stone staircase and beyond the loos and locker rooms was a windowless room, where the Gaelic Books Council was meeting. Even though I got off on entirely the wrong foot by referring to Gaelic as one of Scot-land’s ‘Other Languages’ they were extraordinarily civil, and such enthusiastic ambassadors for their language and culture that by the time I left, the idea of relocating to the Outer Hebrides seemed suddenly appealing. It may also, of course, soon be necessary.

The Gaelic Books Council’s urbanity, and their forward thinking attitude may possibly in part be explained by their self-confidence. Their remit is clear, and unequivocal, their commitment to it bred in the bone. They are in competition with no-one in this field, and unlikely ever to be trumped by others with more experience or knowledge, because such people do not exist.

Elsewhere, however, the climate is different. Since Trainspotting whetted an international appetite for Scottish writing, especially of the tough, gruff school, the profile of modern Scottish fiction and poetry has blossomed. This is not the place to debate whether the best of what is being written today is better than, or as good as the best that was being written 50 years ago. What is not in doubt is how healthy, indeed flourishing, the literary scene now is.

But, as business flourishes, so the numbers who make a living from it multiply, be they the writers themselves, who are now legion, or those organisations who promote and enable their work, from publishers and publicists to book festivals and writing classes.

Slowly, insidiously, what started out as a skeleton of support for writers can turn itself into a fully-formed bureaucratic body with love handles. One quality the working group has been able to bring to the task is a dispassionate eye as it views the whole field, and those working in it.

This eye – up to twenty of them, in various states of rheum, bloodshot and myopia – focussed on a series of speakers to our monthly meetings, who gave presentations about their area of work, and answered a slew of questions, some innocuous, some barbed. There we sat, like the cast of an Oliver Stone film, truth-seekers, righteous-doers, policy-makers, scribbling notes, squinting at our expert witnesses, trying to read between the lines and think on our feet at the same time.

Some of these encounters were uncomfortable, to say the least, and others entertaining or illuminating. All of us, I think it’s fair to say, have been rather daunted by the variety and complexity of material we have been faced with. Many of the petitioners, if you can call them that, were impressive: dedicated, articulate, and at times quietly pugnacious or defensive, as I would have been in their position. Others less so.

But as is the case at Westminster, or Holyrood, the real nub of what was going on in the world of literature often only came out in private: in one-to-one conversations in cafes and bookshops, at chance meetings at receptions or parties. Or, indeed, at book festivals.

* * *

The crime or spy fiction analogy has doggedly run through these six months. I, and others on the group, have had informal conversations with people where a training stint at Bletchley Park would have been useful. Everyone knows that John le Carré invented his own lexicon for novels, but less well known is the very particular form of English used by writers and organisations when trying to tell you something they prefer not to say too plainly, for fear of being quoted or garrotted. Body language, too, is a widely used tool, coming in the form of nods and winks, shrugs, sighs, and meaningful – but unfathomable! – silences and stares.

On one occasion I found myself leaning across a café table in what felt like a conversation between someone deaf and someone dumb. Though my companion was at various points struck speechless, raising his eyes to the ceiling as if he had previously glued prompt-cards up there as an aide memoire, by the end of this painful session of mime, grimaces, and half-finished sentences, there was little doubt that I was the one who looked dumb, not simply because the only words I’d spoken were, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

* * *

The question that lies behind everything we’ve been doing is, what can a policy achieve that isn’t already happening? Nobody can argue that literature in Scot-land has not been well served for the past few decades by the Scottish Arts Council’s literature department, even though astonishingly there’s been no policy to refer to.

From various quarters we were urged to look to other countries: Ireland, Scan-dinavia, France, Wales and Canada in particular. So we have. We have discovered that in France writers are much less well catered for by the state than other artists, and noticeably more poorly than here. In the Republic of Ireland publishers look enviously at their Scottish counterparts, while those Irish writers hitherto privileged with tax breaks and the protection its academy, Aosdana, offers, now face a very bleak new financial reality. Meanwhile, Wales has a handful of literary organisations compared to our 24, and so on. In other words, Scot-land in all but a few regards has been offering literature as much support as anywhere else, and often far more.

What a policy can do, however, is create a benchmark, or beacon, that puts literature on the map. Nobody yet is sure what shape Creative Scotland will finally take. Thus, literature has never been at greater risk of being submerged in the headlong rush for status, power and money. What our policy will ask for is not more money, though that as always would be welcome, but more clarity, and a bolder presence. Before the working group came into being, there was considerable doubt (and it remains) as to whether within the new Creative Scot-land structure literature – Scotland’s finest and most internationally acclaimed art form – would finds itself as the cherry on the top, or just a piece of dry sponge on the bottom, untouched even by a spoonful of jam.

We are not asking for jam. Bread and butter is fine, because that’s what literature has always managed on, and look what Scotland’s writers have achieved on that. What we want is recognition of Scotland’s rightful place in society and culture. Beyond which, I am in no doubt at all that, policy or no policy, Creative Scotland or no Creative Scotland, Scottish writers and Scottish literature will survive, and probably thrive. As ever.

Rosemary Goring is Literary Editor of the Herald and Sunday Herald

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