by Sean Bell

Testament of Youth – The Creative Writing Class of 2010

August 13, 2010 | by Sean Bell

Stanley Roger Green, in his charming (if forgivably rose-tinted) memoir of literary Edinburgh, A Clamjamfray of Poets, offers a mournful appraisal of our republic of letters’ contemporary denizens: “I am soon made aware of their sobriety and watchfulness… They don’t seem to go to parties for fun, but to ‘network’. No one ever makes a remark that isn’t calculated, and there’s never a Dionysian or Apollonian in sight. It is hard to resist the notion that one is in a market place, that writers are subject to deals and negotiations, that literature is the stuff of commerce.”

Such a conclusion will hardly surprise many. Scottish literature is, regretfully, a market place, and an increasingly desperate one at that. The recession – another notion that is difficult to resist – has made everyone involved a little more hungry-eyed and grubby-handed. The Moving Finger writes, and having writ, isn’t paid much for its trouble. Concurrently, it also appears – especially if one wallows in the narcotic nostalgia of literary history – a less enthusiastically colourful and more business-like place; less wilfully eccentric and ultimately more concerned with its own self-preservation.

Particularly threatened, both in Scot-land and beyond, are short stories, which even prior to the economic collapse were long perceived to be a shrinking niche, regarded as indulgent and unsaleable by many publishers and largely bereft of the markets that sustained them throughout the last century. So here we have two new collections, superficially as representative of new Scottish writing as one could hope for, which, according to one’s perspective, may repudiate some of these impressions, or offer grim confirmation of others.

The Year of Open Doors, edited by onetime Alasdair Gray apprentice Rodge Glass, is at first glance, a defiantly uncommercial venture. Intended in the tradition of Lean Times (the influential 1985 collection featuring stories by Gray, James Kelman and Agnes Owens) and Children of Albion Rovers (a 1997 anthology including Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, which did much to cement Rebel Inc’s adventurous reputation), it has been assembled, according to Glass’s introduction, by concentrating on newer, less known writers, with no age limit and an “internationalist” outlook. The second collection, labouring under the unfortunate title Sushirexia, draws its contributions exclusively from the well-regarded Masters course in Creative Writing at Glasgow University, whose alumni include Louise Welsh and Glass himself.

“The Year of Open Doors isn’t about trying to claim these writers for a Scottish cause, or fit them into a tradition where so-and-so begat so-and-so and all is tidy,” writes Glass in his disarming introduction. While this is no Year Zero manifesto for sweeping away what has come before, there is a sense – articulated in Glass’s introduction and in evidence in many of the anthology’s offerings – that the young writers present have been released from the constraints of legacy, from the constant, jaded awareness of Scotland’s literary history that some might understandably find stultifying. We may chuckle and marvel over oft-told anecdotes of MacCaig and MacDiarmid, Stevenson and Hogg, but we may also wonder how long before these stories become ghosts that haunt young writers – and what might they do to exorcise them?

Despite Glass’s contention, Scottish literature has never been “tidy”, even for those with strong opinions. Across several decades – and, unfortunately, at some points within these two collections – there is that recognisable strain of Scottish writing which Norman MacCaig termed “kitchen sink kitsch” – sentimentality disguised as social realism, full of working-class clichés and twee melancholy. MacCaig’s criticism comes with ample evidence – so what do we do with, say, The Big Man by William McIlvanney, which is both sentimental and social realist, and offers no repudiation of MacCaig’s distaste other than being very, very good?

We can at least argue, especially from our twenty-first century vantage point, that the literature of the country which produced both Burns and Trocchi has few rules, but an abundance of arguments. Furthermore, based on The Year of Open Doors, it seems few are interested in having those arguments anymore. Scottish literature is apparently a less divisive and ideological place than it was forty, thirty or twenty years ago, and that is – probably – a good thing. But the easy-going environment has maybe not forced those writers who have grown and emerged in it to justify their decisions, even to themselves. The judgement is enormously difficult: I, like Glass, would be unwilling to forge a chain between young writers and any imagined, abstract ‘legacy’ of Scottish literature. They should not have to carry such a burden – but they should, perhaps, be more aware of it.

In as much as an overview is possible, The Year of Open Doors offers plenty of variety, but lacks adventurousness. Possibly the most experimental effort is Kirstin Innes’ ‘Beefcake’, a story of delusion and desire, which shows a knack for extreme imagery and only occasionally lowers itself to shock tactics. New York-born Nora Chassler has a gift for translating vivid emotion into the parlance of small talk, but her story, ‘She’s Awfy No’ Well’, suffers both from its epistolary format – the story-as-email is a device that has yet to find its feet – and its perspective; viewing one’s homeland through foreign eyes can be revelatory or tedious, and unfortunately Chassler’s digressions on the mysterious attraction of pies and Irn Bru fall into the latter. Alan Bissett’s story, ‘Celebrity Gossip’, is one of the most assured in the collection, capturing a poignant despair over the adolescent fascination of modern junk culture, but lacking the space or the savagery to deconstruct it effectively. ‘Playground Rules’ by Doug Johnstone, meanwhile, does not break any new ground in its snapshot of a grieving widower and his young son, but as with any honest work dealing with violence, succeeds in becoming positively unpleasant to read. Kevin MacNeil’s ‘A Snake Drinks Water And Makes Poison, A Cow Drinks Water And Makes Milk’ is the most successful and epic story in the book, an escalating narrative leading up to the Asian Tsunami, which pulls off the difficult trick of being both fast-paced and introspective.

The lack of adventurousness mentioned earlier may have as much to do with the editing style as the content, however. In his introduction, Glass explains that stories were jointly selected by himself and Mark Buckland (who set up Cargo, the publisher), each acting as the other’s deterrent: “I was more of a Carver man, he was an admirer of Borges. I was always looking to use less [sic] words, more ordinary words. Mark wanted the opposite.” Having established this opposition, which might have yielded a more fascinatingly varied collection, the pair then decided no story would be included without a vote from both of them. With this in mind, it’s astonishing any stories were chosen at all, and I cannot help but wonder about the stories too extreme in their convictions for the partnership, beloved by one but rejected by the other. But then, as the editors proclaim in a rather ominous frontispiece, in what Douglas Adams might call “large, unfriendly letters”, “A SHORT STORY COLLECTION IS A JOINT EFFORT”.

This communal ethic continues in Sushirexia, though since all its writers emerged from the definable community of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, it is perhaps more natural. It also helps that all thirty-two stories are themed around Hunger. As any such collection should do, it fully explores the possibilities of interpretation that a single concept can encompass. And as with The Year Of Open Doors, it is a mixed bag: the title story, by Jackie Copleton, does not quite justify its grim voyeurism; Duncan Muir’s ‘The Crabman and the Fishwife’, admirably grotesque, owes a little too much to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, while ‘Whit Div Ye Want Me Tae Say?’, Fiona Ashley’s deceptively light-hearted story of sexuality and weight issues, is the collection’s best example of writing in Scots, a test of skill that avoids the perils of transcribed Broons dialogue and successfully evokes the musicality of language in Scotland. The best and most confident entry, however, is Linda Duncan McLaughlin’s ‘First Taste’, an unapologetically romantic portrait of youthful emotion, stunningly presented through a juxtaposition of poetry and prose, possessing the bravery to have an embarrassment of style.

Sadly, it is the exception rather than the rule. Zoe Strachan, one of the alumni of Glasgow University’s Masters in Creative Writing argues in a blurb that the anthology “absolutely gives the lie to the notion that creative writing courses churn out formulaic work.” And she is not entirely wrong – and then again, not entirely right, either. One can understand the snippiness of those talented writers who emerged from a Creative Writing background over its arguable merits, especially when so many of them seem intuitively sound: how could young writers do anything but benefit from being in each other’s company, and learning from each other’s criticism?

The answer is the fear that the detriment of such an environment – much like the editorial compromises of Glass and Buckland – may be if not a lack of ambition, then an excess of humility. It may sound glib, but this is the last quality a young writer needs. Where flashes of daring appear, one wishes such extremes would be embraced, rather than shied away from. This is not to imply the conditions that spawned such stories were gulags of sterile conformity, but still, one wonders how many gorgeous notions may have been killed by the cloying kindness of classroom advice, and how much such practices have contributed to creating the networking “stiff-backed generation” that Stanley Roger Green bemoans. But then again, the most important lesson of creative writing classes may be to teach young writers to ignore the criticisms of morons… This critic included.

Both of these collections – whether in Glass’s comparison with Lean Times and Children of Albion Rovers, or the impressive track record of Glasgow University’s Creative Writing course – seek to live up to standards set before them, while at the same time escaping such legacies. An obvious solution to both would be to allow writers to turn inward and reject the advice and influence of their peers. Literature is not formed by committee, and writing, whatever some may say, is rarely, if ever, a joint venture.

Rodge Glass is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 14.30 on

21 August and 15.30 on 30 August

THE YEAR OF OPEN DOORS Edited by Rodge Glass

CARGO, £13.99, ISBN 9780956308320, PP235

SUSHIREXIA:THIRTY-TWO STORIES ABOUT HUNGER Edited by Gordon Jenkins and Robert Smith

FREIGHT, £9.95, ISBN 9780954402464, PP240

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