What next for our young writers?
Generations of writers fascinate. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey muddying their boots round Grasmere. Auden and Isherwood making memories in Berlin. Kerouac tapping out the rhythm on a wine jug and yelling go as Ginsberg premieres Howl in City Lights bookstore. We cherish stories about authors, we continue building their mythologies long after they are dead. Often we know the tales of their couplings and fall-outs better than we know the work itself.
A generation comprises a number of writers roughly of the same age of whom a reader might say he can see a number of stylistic and thematic similarities, born largely of growing up during the same time period, subject to the same historical pressures. Frequently they collaborate, sharing ideas, politics, sometimes lovers. Often they are associated with a city, a club, a pub.
Over the past forty years, two significant constellations of talent have remade Scottish literature.
In 1966, Philip Hobsbaum came to Glasgow to teach at the city’s University. Prior to his arrival, Hobsbaum taught at Queens University in Belfast, where he ran poetry workshops in his home. Amongst those attending were the young Seamus Heaney and Michael Longely. In Glasgow, Hobsbaum began another group for local authors. Members included James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, and Tom Leonard.
Influenced by the writers who formed Hobsbaum’s group, Kevin Williamson set up Rebel Inc in the early 1990s. Williamson edited a magazine whose contributors included a pre-fame Irvine Welsh, Laura Hird, Alan Warner, and James Meek. They were influenced by the grit, urban angst, and demotic prose that characterised the work of the generation that preceded them. What they contributed were sketches of the unhinged hedonism liberated during the Thatcher era, surrealism, and a tough sense of humour.
During the first decade of the 21st century, a new generation of young Scottish writers began to be published. Born in the 1970s, they grew up during the Thatcher era, read Kelman and Welsh while studying at university, and began to write seriously as New Labour prepared to take office. Unlike the Hobsbaum authors or those associated with Rebel Inc, this generation did not grow out of a formal grouping, although some graduated from creative writing courses.
The life of a novelist is challenging even in the best of times. Whatever difficulties writers encountered in the past decade, however, look likely to be eclipsed by the problems posed by the age of austerity. The publishing industry is contracting. New technology may one day offer writers the chance to be rewarded directly for their work without a publisher acting as middle man; in the meantime, social networking and video games have absorbed much of the free time people previously used to read. When people do settle down with a book, it appears to be non-fiction that commands their attention; there is a perceived diminishment in the public appetite for fiction. There is also a suspicion London publishers and high-street book-chains have lost interest in new Scottish voices. You wonder how authors will earn enough to keep writing during such tough and uncertain times.
In the first month of 2011, I spoke to five authors based in Scotland: Alan Bis-sett, Doug Johnstone, Sophie Cooke, Zoe Strachan, and Rodge Glass. They are a diverse selection, purposefully so, their novels ranging from genre to literary fiction. They emerged during the last decade, a time of plenty, or so it looked from the perspective of the start of 2011. Four had just completed final drafts of new novels. One, Johnstone, had just had his latest published. They’ve enjoyed a measure of success, but they face a trying decade. If precedent is right, however, if study of those past generations that so command our interest points to anything, it is that the writers under discussion have reached an age where the next ten years may see them produce their best work. How did they intend to meet the challenges they face? Had their concept of why they did what they did changed now that the society they live and work within had changed? To what extent did they recognise themselves as a generation?
* * *
Alan Bissett arrived in the CCA café, a ‘writer’s beard’ darkening his boyish features. He stopped shaving while finishing his fourth novel, Pack Men, which is to be published towards the end of the year. Pack Men is a sequel to his first novel, Boy Racers. It drew upon Bissett’s adolescence. Born in 1975, he grew up in Falkirk, a member of an extended working class family. ‘I’d probably still describe myself as working class. Caveats obviously.’ His father worked at Grangemouth Oil Refinery, where he was injured in a flare line incident in 1987, the subject of a short film Bissett made two years ago. After graduating from the University of Stirling with a first class degree in English and Education. Bissett worked as a teacher in Elgin for a short period before returning to Stirling to complete a Masters in English literature. While on the course, he wrote Boy Racers, which was published in 2001.
Boy Racers, he remembered, was written during an economic boom. Alvin, the central character, an aimless teenager endlessly looping Falkirk’s streets in a car with friends, was working class, but, Bissett specified, he was ‘aspirational working class’. Earmarked as “university material”, Alvin ends the book departing for further education and away from childhood friends and hometown. It’s the classic narrative arc of the gifted working-class kid bettering himself through education.
More than references to ‘personal stereos’ and Robbie Williams, that attitude to university makes Boy Racers a period piece. Few can easily believe anymore that graduation is the ticket to social advancement it once was, not when the average student leaves tertiary education shouldering a considerable sum of debt and with graduate unemployment high. Bissett, who taught Creative Writing at the University of Leeds, described the system as a ‘sausage machine’. Pack Men deals with the recession and is set, Bissett said, ‘in the graveyard of graduate dreams’. Ten years after he left, Alvin is back in Falkirk, caught where he began as if he had never left. The dream is over.
But another dream persists in Bissett’s fiction. The lie-dream of popular culture. It has rushed in to fill the space communal, religious, and political ties once filled. Few books can contain as many references to comics, rock, TV, and commercial cinema as Boy Racers: ‘Hallgreen receding behind us like stars at warp speed cos it’s Friday, seven-thirty, time for Top of the Pops and tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.’ In Death of a Ladies Man (2009) blocks of film and book titles break into the text as if they were as crucial to our understanding of what kind of man its hero, Charlie Bain, is as the actions he takes.
Beginning with Boy Racers, and developed in The Incredible Adam Spark (2005) and Death of a Ladies Man, Bissett dramatised the tragicomic gap between media mirages of the good life and the cold reality we live in.
‘Popular culture is the advance guard of capitalism, the friendly face. And it’s an illusion,’ he said, before surprising me. ‘I don’t believe in it anymore.’ He expressed a desire to isolate himself from it. ‘I’ve said all I can about it and as I get older, I’m less impressed by it. There’s something to be said for the Jonathan Franzen approach.’ Franzen revealed in interviews given to promote Freedom in 2010 that he doesn’t own a television, has disconnected his internet portal, and wears earplugs while writing. Franzen inspired Bissett to stop watching TV. It’s like hearing Graham Greene renounce Catholicism.
The prevalence of popular culture seduces and infantilises. Charlie Bain is an enthusiastic consumer. Tellingly, although 30-years-old, he lives with his mother. ‘Genius is staying a child for as long as possible,’ Bain thinks. He is a man whose idea of a chat-up line is to ask women who they fancy more: Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Often he appears childishly naïve about the consequences of his actions, particularly with regard to sex and love. A teacher, his need to remain “with it” and “down” with the kids leads to disaster when he makes an ill-starred decision to attend a pupil party.
Death of a Ladies Man highlights how attitudes to sex have changed in Scotland. Compare it with one of its obvious inspirations, Kelman’s A Disaffection. That novel came out in 1989 and the twenty years that separate it from Bissett’s book reveal a sea-change in terms of attitudes to sex. Both books centre upon men on the cusp of their thirties. Kelman’s Patrick Doyle and Bissett’s Charlie are teachers in secondary schools. They’re both left-wing in their politics and express doubt about their jobs, whether they’re merely softening up kids to serve an unjust society.
Patrick is trapped in an unrequited passion for a married colleague. He doesn’t appear to have made love for some time, toys with using prostitutes, and you suspect his rage is in part fuelled by involuntary celibacy. Charlie, on the other hand, has multiple sexual partners. He’s not an exception. Glasgow clubland is a vision of venery, sex a social lubricant like alcohol for a previous generation. Whereas Patrick expresses some astonishment that his sister-in-law admitted to him that she had had sex with men before meeting her husband.
‘Sex is a way to bond with someone which you can’t do in any other way,’ Bissett commented. ‘When two people have sex they understand each other in a way that doesn’t happen in conversation.’ His depiction of the consequences of pursuing sex, however, is not so benevolent. Bain leads a life the cast of Boy Racers could only dream off, yet when his story ends, he is a shattered drunk, abandoned. ‘The horizon of pleasure recedes the closer you get to it,’ said Bissett. ‘There’s never a final orgasm. It’s constant motion. There’s always another illusion on the horizon. It’s like capitalism. You can never satisfy the customer.’
After Pack Men, he intends to do something completely different. ‘I’ve said all there is to say about Falkirk.’ He has experimented with theatre, and performed in monologues written by himself. If he writes another novel, he said, it will be nothing like what’s gone before. ‘Something way outside my range. A historical novel, or a futuristic one. Or I’ll completely embrace the e-book and do something that plays to its strengths and mine.’ Or he might quit. ‘If it means to survive as a writer, to get published, I’ve got to become too heavily commercialised, I’ll just stop.’
* * *
Doug Johnstone was born in 1970 but looks a little younger. We met to talk in Edinburgh, in the Scottish Storytelling Centre café. He hails from Arbroath originally, the setting for his first novel, Tombstoning (2006). His parents were working class kids who studied hard and became teachers. Johnstone has a PhD in experimental nuclear physics from the University of Edinburgh. After graduating, he worked for Marconi’s Avionics as a systems engineer designing radar and missile weapons systems. “I didn’t have any when I began,” Johnstone answered when I asked whether he had had qualms when he worked on weapons systems. “I was part of a mathematical modelling group: we were asked to model new ideas on computers. It involved a lot of mathematical work. At the time we weren’t at war with anyone, which would have made a difference to me. You might say that doesn’t matter, you were still helping to design a missile guidance system. But what I was doing was air-to-air, so it would been used to kill someone else in a plane as opposed to air-to-ground, which is very different. So yeah, I had qualms, but that’s not why I left. I left because I ended up hating the job.”
Johnstone quit to enrol on a journalism course at Napier. He already wrote for fanzines; he also played music, which he still does. He has released four albums with his band Northern Alliance and another one with the Ossians, named after the fictional group who are the titular heroes of John-stone’s second novel. ‘There’s nothing more kid-like than touring. You don’t have to look after yourself.’
Like Bissett, Johnstone has dealt with the subject of infantilisation, although in his case, his diagnosis of the root of the problem isn’t popular culture; it’s men and their codes of behaviour. In his third and most recent novel, Smokeheads, four male friends in what advertisers might call middle youth visit Islay on a whisky-tasting expedition. The trip ends violently. The story is reminiscent of James Dickey’s Deliverance. A banker, Roddy, is a flashy anti-hero, and Johnstone links the aggressive male behaviour that endangers the quartet with the risk-taking that broke the banking sector.
‘If you go for a drink near the City of London, you’ll encounter an insane level of macho behaviour.’ If a refusal to grow up is bad for the soul as Bissett argues, Johnstone suggests through the character of Roddy how bad it is for Scotland internationally. ‘The one thing Scots were known for was their carefulness with money. We were known for running some of the most responsible banks in the world. I don’t think our country’s banking system will ever recover its reputation.’
He related childishness to another factor peculiar to Scotland. ‘The history of Scot-land over the past few centuries has been dominated or subsumed within English or British history, and at some point you have to grow up, strike out on your own. I’m not going to bang on about independence, but I am in favour of it. I don’t care about the economics of it, it’s do with the country’s mental health. We need to stop blaming England for everything that goes wrong.’
In The Ossians (2008), Johnstone’s fictional rock band play a series of gigs pegged to sites of historical interest in the Highlands. ‘I’ve always been interested in whether history is just a line we’ve been fed. That’s most obvious in The Ossians. You can see it in the name I chose for the band.’ His protagonist Connor says at one point, ‘It’s typical of Scot-land that our oldest history and literature might not even exist. It might be an 18th-century fabrication, like tartan for lowland families. Everywhere you look, Scotland is made up of stupid myths and romantic ideals, most of which are fake, or more likely a mixture of falsehoods and reality. Tartan and shortbread for tourists. Fucking Brigadoon.’ In Smokeheads, one of the cornerstones not only of Scotland’s economy but its identity too, the whisky industry, is largely owned by foreign conglomerates who take the profits out of the country without the natives seeing the benefit of it. Globalisation has only complicated Scottish identity further. ‘What the fuck does “authentic” even mean?’ Con-nor asks in anguish.
* * *
One preconception some might have of Scottish contemporary fiction is that it trades largely in gritty, urban settings and working class characters. But there is another tradition, of Scottish authors who are, and who draw upon for material, the middle class. One might mention Allan Massie, William Boyd, and Candia McWilliam here. Sophie Cooke too.
Cooke was born in 1976 and brought up in the Trossachs. She lived in a large house originally the holiday home of a Victorian financier from Glasgow. Both of Cooke’s novels are set in the area where she grew up. The memory of her childhood home, for example, formed the basis of the setting of her second novel, Under The Mountain (2008). ‘It’s the part of the country I feel the most emotional connection with.’
Cooke’s formative literary influences were not Scottish, but Russian: Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn. At the University of Edinburgh, she took a degree in anthropology. ‘It trains you to study human nature,’ she said. She began to write ‘quite young’ and was published in her early twenties. Until recently, Cooke lived in Berlin. She enjoys living once more in Edin-burgh, where the interview took place.
‘I come from a fairly middle class background,’ she said, ‘although it’s a bit more complicated than that. My parents have a craft background, so they never had money.
When I was a kid, within the space of a few years we went from living in a huge, sprawling house with a tower to living in a caravan.
I went to state schools.’ On how she came to choose her subject matter, she said, ‘Part of it was writing about what you know and not pretending to be something you’re not. Not that either of my novels is autobiographical.’
In previous generations of writers, there lingered a prejudice that there was something inauthentic about being middle class. In The Glass House (2004), one character comments, ‘I’m part of the lost tribe, you know.
We’re not allowed to be Scottish because we’re rich and happy.’
‘In England I don’t think I would be asked about this,’ she said, meaning the subject of class, ‘which is quite telling. In English fiction, the expectation is that the protagonist is middle class, and what’s comment-worthy is a working class hero.’ Several of the authors interviewed for this piece expressed doubts about what class they belonged to.
They may be educated but they’re not making the money you might associate with being middle class. “A lot of writers are more skint than they let on,” Cooke said. “Most years I earn little more than £8000. Many of us know what it’s like to scrape by, though, yes, we’re lucky because we’re doing something we love.”
Cooke taught Arvon creative writing courses in the past to pay the bills. I asked if she managed to live on the sum she mentioned. ‘Yeah, I do,’ Cooke answered, ‘and I’m also content with that choice and my lifestyle, which is not to say I wouldn’t be gutted if I didn’t get an advance for my next book, but money isn’t my reason for writing, and if anyone goes into it for that reason, they must be deluded.’
If not for money, then why write? “It’s about being able to make a world in which everything makes sense. That can be appealing because the real world makes no sense. I like to explore ideas symbolically and through characters. And there is the pleasure of the language, which is a sensual pleasure.”
One area where Cooke parts company with her peers is style. Where many of them write prose that is seamless, transparent, and has a conversational note, Cooke has a painterly touch: ‘She looked at the red poppies that bloomed in a hot scatter against the puffs of pale blue catmint, and the brilliant creamy lilies with their long throats and kissed-out lips, the stately suck-and-spit of their faultless trumpets’ (Under The Mountain).
‘I wrote poetry before I wrote novels. It’s had an influence on how I write prose because I pay attention, too much attention, to rhythm and half-rhyme. As I write, I read aloud, which is important to the process. Get it right on the page and the writing has a different resonance in the reader’s head.’
The sensuality of the language finds a counterpart in the characters’ sex lives.
Cooke said, ‘I’m fascinated by sex, in terms of what it says about the characters and their relationships. The way people behave together when they’re naked is different from how they behave when they have their clothes on.’
In Under The Mountain, one husband discovers not only that he is aroused by cross-dressing, his wife is too. Transvestitism is more often the subject of comedy or horror. Cooke, however, is generous, viewing it as part of a loving relationship, a station on the spectrum of human sexuality. ‘There is a tendency to view male sexuality in our culture either as laughable or something to be afraid of,’ she said. ‘Neither are particularly healthy responses.’
* * *
Zoe Strachan lives in the west end of Glasgow. She invited me to interview her in her flat. Peeling, vintage Penguin paperbacks filled book shelves. It was a bibliophile’s home.
Strachan was born in 1975 and grew up in Kilmarnock. Her dad was employed in a factory, and she had a working class upbringing. ‘My friends and I consider ourselves working class, but we’ve got degrees and here we are living in a west end flat and going to jobs in universities.’ She studied Archaeology and Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, but on graduating, she found herself working in a number of low-paid jobs, the worst of which was a call centre job that rationed toilet breaks.
Strachan was in the first batch of writers turned out by the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde’s famous creative writing course alongside Louise Welsh, Laura Mar-nie, and Rachel Seiffert. Her first novel, Negative Space (2002), won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Prize. The year after she graduated with her MLitt in Creative Writing, Strachan returned to read to the next intake of students. She shared the stage with James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Tom Leonard, who had agreed to tutor students on the course for a period. In the audience, feeling inspired by the event, was new student Rodge Glass. Currently, Strachan is a tutor on the University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing MLitt.
Her next book, Spin Cycle was published in 2004. Both her novels focus on women with jobs that can’t pay well, life-modelling in Negative Space, the launderette in Spin Cycle. ‘I’m interested in what goes on in people’s mind, and if I had made my characters a city high-flier or surgeon, the job would have become the novel and would have required the sort of research that would have taken away from what the novel was really trying to do,” she said. “In both books, my characters are isolated from family and friends, the sort of things that give people’s lives security and structure. It liberates them but it makes life more dangerous.’
The consequence of this freedom is played out most dramatically in the story of Myrna, one of the women who work in Spin Cycle’s launderette. Myrna ‘believed in absolute sexual freedom’, but her belief leads her not towards happiness, but a life-endangering situation when she decides to supplement the wage she earns at the launderette with work as an escort. ‘Myra sat in the kitchen, flicking through a magazine, looking at page after shiny page of things she couldn’t have…. She wasn’t stupid, she knew money wouldn’t necessarily make her happy. But she wasn’t sure she entirely liked who she was these days, and a swift injection of cash would help.’
‘Our culture is sexualised to a ridiculous degree. Everything you can do has been com-modified,’ Strachan said of Myrna’s decision.
‘It has to be done in a certain way, looking a certain way, with accessories! Yet is it personal and private and should be totally free.’
Strachan has an unjudging attitude to sex. ‘I’m interested in strong feelings, uncontrollable feelings. In Negative Space, it was grief. In Spin Cycle, sex. Sexual urges are amongst the most pleasant and uncontrollable of our urges, always strong material for fiction.’ In Spin Cycle, Siobhan, Myrna’s workmate, steals a customer’s underwear and masturbates while wearing it. The only expression of sexuality that incurs Strachan’s disapproval is aggressive male behaviour.
For her third novel, Ever Fallen In Love?, Strachan’s protagonist is male. He’s a computer game designer, a creator of virtual worlds, much like a writer is. ‘I’m a feminist. I’m really interested in how women function in society. With this new book, it was odd not being able to write about women’s bodies, not being able to inhabit the characters in that way, because it’s such a big thing in Negative Space and Spin Cycle, that way women have of viewing themselves.’
Her tale of destructive unrequited love will appear later this year on Sandstone Press. Picador, who put out her previous novels, isn’t doing the third. She received a good advance on those first two books, which didn’t earn back the money.
‘One thing that drives me crazy is when people say my work is dark,” she said. “Alan Warner asked me when we were teaching, Is your new novel going to be as dark? I don’t think of my work as dark. When I read a crime thriller, I think, this is dark: it’s about autopsies and murders, people being hacked up, sexually abused. None of that happens in my books. People are sometimes unhappy and sometimes they have sex. And it’s set in Glasgow.’
The view out the window is a square of milky-grey.
* * *
I met Rodge Glass in Glasgow, a café once more, at the Tron theatre. He was marking work. Glass was born in Cheshire in 1978, to ‘middle-middle class’ Jewish parents; his mother was a secretary, his father a teacher at the University of Manchester. Glass attended various places of learning, including an Orthodox Jewish primary and a Catholic secondary. After school, he spent time in Israel where, he said, he learned he isn’t a Zionist. The more he studied the Torah, the more he realised he wasn’t interested.
Returning to Britain, he enrolled in Strathclyde’s creative writing course. He has lived in Scotland, more or less, since that time. Despite his birth and upbringing in England, he’s routinely called a Scottish writer. Isn’t it odd being described as Scottish, particularly when one might detect in his work a hint of scepticism about national identity? ‘Understand your nation and reject it’ runs one line in Hope For Newborns (2008).
‘No one’s ever made an issue of my not being Scottish. I have been very much welcomed and I consider Scotland home. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in my life. And the longer I’ve stayed in Scotland, the more it has appeared in my work. The obvious one is the book about Alasdair Gray, which is about me, in that the entries from the diary I kept while writing the biography are included within it. That’s my Scottish book even if I never do another one again.’
Glass had already met Alasdair Gray while bartending before Gray became his tutor; through teaching, he took on Glass as his assistant. The connection led to Glass’ biography, Alasdair Gray – The Secretary’s Tale (2008). For it, Glass interviewed nearly every major writer of his mentor’s generation. Research on the biography taught him the difference between the situation faced by Scottish writers in the 1970s and those in the early 21st century. His conclusion was that, despite the obstacles writers today face, they remain in a better position than their predecessors.
Which isn’t to say they don’t have problems. There is the matter of making enough to pay the rent. ‘Let me tell you how I earn a living. I work part-time at Strathclyde [where he lectures in Creative Writing] . I’m an online editor for a literary consultancy in London; people send me novels and I send back a 10 or 15 page report. I mentor people online too. I take part in live events. I accept commissions; I’ve had a half dozen for short stories over the past year. But I still find it hard to make enough to live on. And I consider myself one of the luckiest of my contemporaries.”
Glass also worried that writers are being picked up and then dropped before they have a chance to mature, before they can build a readership. ‘When novelists get good, about books three and four, they can’t get published now. That’s the real issue. Because you’re only new once.’
He outlined a problem future, all too plausible. ‘If we’re not careful in Scotland we’re going to have a lot of vaguely promising first-time writers and an ageing old guard with no one in the middle.’ Any writer who has had a career that has lasted, Glass pointed out, has ‘failed, failed repeatedly’.
Glass warned readers, critics, and publishers not to expect too much too young. After two novels, No Fireworks (2005) and Hope For Newborns, as well as the Somerset Maugham Award-winning Gray biography and a graphic novel, Dougie’s War (2010), the most he said on his own behalf was that he is ‘a young vaguely promising quite good writer who will hopefully get better’, adding ‘I’m hugely ambitious. I’m just not anywhere near fulfilling what I want to do.’
Glass has submitted his new novel, Bring Me The Head Of Ryan Giggs, to his publisher Bloomsbury. It’s about the worst player in the history of Manchester United, the story fractured and told in the form of emails, newspaper articles, and blogs. ‘It’s more experimental,’ he said, ‘and I’m interested to see how my publisher will take it.’
* * *
Indeed it will be interesting to see how the larger publishers react to more experimental material by the young writers on their books. You hope it won’t make them more cautious, while fearing the recession can only make life tougher for anyone set on writing anything other than commercial fiction. This recession is not one that is simply measured in economic terms; there has also been a shrivelling in the public space available to writers, particularly ones who err outside the mainstream.
Even if you are picked up by one of the London publishing houses, there is no guarantee you will continue to be published after that first or second novel, particularly if your titles are deemed to not be making enough profit. Instant results count in publishing as they increasingly appear to elsewhere.
‘The received wisdom is that writers appear out of nowhere and are either great artists or not. The same philosophy leads to the sackings of football managers,” Glass said. Without rancour, he added, ‘Writers think long-term while publishers think short-term.”
How do you sell books, though, if you can’t get them stocked in the shops? Alan Bissett complained high-street book chains do their bulk-ordering from their bases in the south of England. He suspected the stock controllers think new Scottish fiction parochial and don’t order it, certainly not for English branches.
A short while after I talked to John-stone he gave another interview to the Irish magazine Hot Press. He was asked whether he thought class still played a part in how the metropolitan publishers chose who to support.
‘I think it does. It’s really quite a shock for someone like me, or any Scottish writer. When you first go down to London and talk to people, the publishing industry in Lon-don is quite a small world, and these people come from a very different background. They loved Irvine Welsh and they loved Alan Warner, specifically one editor loved them because they sold. I don’t think their hearts were in it. Their hearts have been in Martin Amis and the like. And I don’t think that has changed…
‘I’m reluctant to say there is still a kind of class thing – in Scotland someone like Jim Kelman is always banging that drum about the class divide…. It’s very hard for young Scottish writers to get published. I certainly see that with other writers I know who are good enough.’
The obvious rejoinder to Johnstone’s fear is that he managed to get published, first by Penguin then Faber, neither of who are companies run out of a cottage in Inverness. But even if you don’t go for Johnstone’s diagnosis, there are other matters that are worrying.
There is amongst some quarters a suspicion the public has lost patience with fiction. The hunger now, to borrow a line from David Shields, is for reality. Non-fiction. The novel, as one critic summarised the criticism of it, ‘tends to be too hidebound by plot, too traditional and old-fashioned to reflect the speed of 21st-century culture.’ Leisure pursuits that facilitate our accelerated era, such as new media and video games, are winning out against books.
‘I’m worried about the novel,’ said Bis-sett. ‘There’s evidence that it’s dying. People just aren’t reading. Even people who were readers aren’t reading. It’s not just competition from TV. Now we’ve got Facebook to contend with. Facebook is not necessarily the enemy. It can be used to organise protest. But it’s leading people to read less. And that mental space reading creates over eight or a dozen hours, which is something like telepathy, that’ll disappear out of the culture. And when we lose the novel, we start to lose an important part of consciousness itself.’
Glass was sanguine about the fate of the novel. ‘You can’t say fiction can’t satisfy what has to be said about the world today.” He went on, “There is much to complain about, but also much to be grateful for. I stayed in Glasgow because there was such a vibrant writers’ community here to encourage me. The grants that supported the writing of my first two novels, I don’t think today they’d be given out. But money is over-rated. I mean, in terms of how money influences creativity, it’s overrated. You can be part of a vibrant creative community that doesn’t have a bean. We’ll probably lose writers who have thought it was an easy way to get by. We might lose a few average writers, we might even lose one or two good ones, but it will galvanise the others.’
He points to upstart Scottish publisher Cargo. ‘They prove that a lot can be done on little money. You can still produce books. Times are tough, the outlook is gloomy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t produce interesting work; perhaps more interesting work.’
John Banville would agree with Glass on that last point. In a recent interview, he spoke, almost with relish, of the way in which the recession was an opportunity, how the economic fall-out would provide writers with strong material for their books.
In which light, the interviewees might consider themselves lucky. In theory, their talent should mature just at the moment they’ve been presented with a vista worth writing about.
“What’s going on in the UK currently is rich material for a writer,” said Cooke. “You’d be stupid to not write about it.” In Under The Mountain, a violent attack on a dog grows into an allegory of terrorism, of the way in which people react to acts of violence. ‘It’s about how people rush to construct a narrative around a violent event rather than digging out the more complex truth.’ The more the times become confusing, the more the public thirst for certainty, and that, Cooke argues, makes them vulnerable to exploitation by politicians or the media. Case in point: 9/11, how it was used to justify the Iraq war.
Bissett realised last year that the world had changed, and his writing would have to follow suit. ‘As soon as that Conservative government got in, the role of the Scottish writer transformed overnight. The generation before ours, they had that resistance to Thatcherism. And what did we have? Blair. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t anything to resist there. Blair was still the enemy. But we were disorientated. Nobody knew what class they were. Nobody knew what it meant to be on the left or how to resist. All these things had failed, leaving a centrist politics punting a friendlier version of capitalism. Now that veil had been torn away. The bastards are back in charge.’
I asked Bissett who he voted for in the 2010 General Election. He supported the Liberal Democrats. ‘While there was a chance of getting a left-leaning government into Westminster, I had to take it. But I won’t be voting for them again.’ He would have preferred to vote for a party ‘as far left as possible’. After the decline and fall of the Scottish Socialist Party, he felt politically homeless. He’s not alone. ‘It’s difficult to be left-wing,’ said Glass. He too voted for the Liberal Democrats in the hope it might signal a national appetite for a change in the manner in which politics are conducted. He also vowed never to vote for them again.
‘I voted for Labour and I didn’t want to,’ Strachan said. ‘It was tactical voting, we didn’t want the area to go Lib Dem. But I was disillusioned by Labour and I wish there was a socialist alternative with integrity and ambition.’ Doug Johnstone said, ‘It’s weird using a phrase like left-wing. Feels like it doesn’t mean anything anymore.’ He voted SNP, but characterised himself as a floating voter who has given his backing at one time or another to all the parties, ‘except the Conservatives.’
Cooke didn’t vote; she’d only recently returned from Germany and she wasn’t on the electoral register. Her politics also swing to the left. ‘We need to get cleverer about how we protest. In my late teens and early twenties I went to a lot of demos. Now I’m not convinced they achieve what they aim to.’ The massive anti-Iraq marches in Glasgow and in London in 2003, and the way in which the government ignored them, broke the protest model. A better route to take in the future, she thought, are the sit-ins, organised by Twitter and Facebook, in chain-stores whose owners are thought to be avoiding paying their fair share of tax. ‘Having a direct financial impact on shops is much better than waving placards at politicians who ignore you. Money is the only language those people understand.’
Bissett also looked forward to a rise in direct action: ‘People might not agree with [student protestors] breaking windows, but they understand why they do it.’ In the future he wants his fiction to reflect the times. ‘People are waking up to our deformed democracy. Increasingly I feel – and you can’t teach this on a course – that writing is about defiance. I can’t imagine writing anything now that doesn’t have a politic.’
* * *
You couldn’t call these writers a group. They’ve read together, here and abroad, they admire each other’s work, but they’ve shied away from full-on collaboration. They are a generation, but when asked whether these writers see themselves as such, the response is ambivalent.
‘I’m tempted to resist the tag,’ Glass said. He didn’t want an admission to follow him around for the rest of his career. Nevertheless he did acknowledge something like a connection, although he was sure the others would deny it. ‘I feel part of a very different generation of writers, one with no theme. Kelman and Gray won the battle over whether it was legitimate to use Scots language. Books like Trainspotting and Buddha Da benefited from that. It’s no longer an issue for readers. But it does mean there is no linguistic unifying factor for younger writers to fight over.’ If Bissett is right about high street book chain stores’ bulk-buying, that battle isn’t over, after all, at least it isn’t outside Scotland.
‘It would be difficult to point to us,’ Glass continued, ‘and find something in common, some thread that you could say forms the basis of a school of contemporary Scottish writers.’
‘I think,’ Cooke said of her work and her peers’, ‘you can see a common concern with justice, freedom and respect. I’ve often wondered whether that’s because when we were growing up there was such a disparity between Thatcher in London and the political climate in Scotland, a time when even a child could see the injustice at a national level. You could not grow up in my generation and not be aware of a democratic deficit.’
* * *
One question that occurs is, to what extent are the concerns of today’s young writers distinctly Scottish? Popular culture, infantilism, a new sexual frankness, consumerism and dissatisfaction with mainstream politics are not unique to Scotland, and it may be, in an era of globalisation, that the young writers find they have more in common with their peers round the world than with their literary ancestors in Scotland. Hints can be found in their fiction. ‘The shoes I wore were made by slave children. The food I ate was made by crooks. Everything I invested in was built on lies. Even my bankers were murderers,’ someone thinks in Hope for Newborns. In The Ossians, a character discovers he can’t outrun globalisation, even in the more obscure parts of the Highlands: ‘Connor saw the same crap they’d encountered everywhere else. McDonalds, KFC and Burger King: chain pubs and newly opened vodka bars.’ These writers’ imaginations will inevitably broaden as they continue to write and they may look outside these shores to set their fiction. Already, Cooke has based her next novel in Serbia.
One hopes they – and we, the readers – get the chance to discover what they’re capable of. During times such as these there are legitimate worries about the fate of this generation of writers – and for the generations to follow. When writers are silenced – whether by political oppression or market forces – a country eventually, inevitably, loses its ability to think aloud. One recalls a passage from Lanark: ‘If a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.’
Each generation revises what went before, in the way Trainspotting changed how we read The Busconductor Hines, which changed how we read Docherty. It’s a conversation that defines the country and mustn’t be allowed to fall quiet.
Bissett has a sense of this. ‘Irvine Welsh made writing seem possible to me. He was a guy who lived twenty miles away from where I grew up and he was writing about people I recognised. I thought, if he can do it, I can too.’ He hoped he filled a similar role today.
‘Me, Zoe, Rodge, Sophie, and Doug – even if we’re never heard of again, there will be a new generation after us who need to see writers in front of them so they can say, Well, if they can do it, I can do it. The very fact we exist as writers will make someone else want to do it. It’s a continuum.’