A disaffection: James Kelman versus the world

James Kelman, credit Murdo MacLeod copy

James Maxwell

James Kelman possesses a spectacular talent for provocation and controversy.

When his novel How Late It Was, How Late was awarded the Booker Prize in 1994, one judge, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, erupted in fuming protest, describing the decision as “a disgrace”.

He was once branded an “illiterate savage” by the journalist Simon Jenkins, then of The Times and now of The Guardian, apparently for the liberality with which he peppers his dialogue with profanities.

And more recently, just this autumn in fact, he split respectable opinion clean down the middle when he claimed, at an International Book Festival event in Edinburgh, that serious contemporary fiction had been “derided and sneered at by the Scottish literary establishment” and that “[too] much praise is given to writers of genre fiction in Scotland”.

But for an author who has endured his fair share of cultural scuffles and weathered more than a few critical assaults, he displays, in person, none of the defensiveness

one might anticipate. Rather, Kelman is a studiously polite and attentive interviewee, who only occasionally reveals flashes of the irreverence that has so often landed him in trouble.

Over black coffee at the Left Bank on Gibson Street, I ask him about his latest indiscretion. With impressive nonchalance, he says, “I didn’t even realise it was a controversial statement until the day after or something,” before going on to explain: “But by the establishment I mean the political, literary and cultural establishment, that’s who I referred to. So that includes people who are responsible for funding of the arts, funding of projects close to the arts, funding of the kind of projects that in theatre we would associate with the National Theatre, various other organs of the media such as Scottish Screen, literary programmes on radio and on television, the sorts of writers and writing that are pushed to the foreground. That is what I am talking about”.

Initially, Kelman’s remarks were taken not as an attack on the powers that be — the publishers, agents and culture tsars who distribute the resources and set up the publicity circuits — but on his fellow novelists, J.K Rowling and Ian Rankin for instance, who have been accused of writing to a pre-designed stylistic blueprint and seem never to stray far from the rigid narrative templates of their chosen genre. But Kelman is unhappy with this interpretation.

“It is not the writers themselves. I mean one of the things I think would have been unforgivable for me to do would be to deride and sneer at other writers; that’s really not what I did at all. It doesn’t concern me at all what other writers write. Write whatever you like.

“Writing is too difficult to start condemning other writers. I spoke specifically about those who are in a position to support writers. It is about those who support genre fiction at the expense of literary fiction.”

Given that he spoke explicity of “writers of detective fiction or some upper middle-class young magician or some crap”, I can see why most journalists didn’t quite catch the wider implications — the concealed nuances — of his criticisms. He does, however, appear genuinely frustrated with an establishment which he views as having become increasingly obsessed with profit margins and increasingly disinterested in Scotland’s sizable reserves of real literary talent.

“The issue is about the lack of support given to the best of contemporary literature, and what we get instead of that is a concentration on genre fiction, simply because it confuses literary value with monetary value … If you take a writer like Agnes Owens, there’s absolutely no attention paid to her. She just came out last year with a tremendous collection of short stories, I mean absolutely tremendous … [but] there is no significance given to her.”

At any rate, Kelman simply doesn’t strike me as the type to publicly insult other authors unnecessarily. Despite his status (he is perhaps Scotland’s most celebrated living novelist) there is nothing remotely ostentatious about him.

Throughout the course of the interview, I detect no indication that he harbours any of the “great artist” conceits that plague so many of his contemporaries. Instead, he is a modest character, sitting hunched, hands clasped, on the huge couch, dressed plainly in a dark waterproof slicker and deep-blue denim shirt.

And to some extent, his comments could have been predicted. Kelman has for years written about his concern for the state of Scottish literary culture. It is crippled, he believes, by embarrassment; embarrassment generated by the imposition of an alien vernacular — the Queen’s English — that has taught Scots to think they speak in a warped, parochial translation of a superior communicative form.

I unconsciously illustrate his point when I use the word ‘dialect’ to describe the unfiltered Glaswegian idiom spoken by his fictional protagonists. “Do you think it is a dialect?” he says, then pauses a while to let me grope in the dark for an answer: I find none. “Why do you not just call it everyday speech? That kind of inferiorising the way we speak is part of how we think. We’re so used to being inferior that we talk about ourselves as being inferior …Why do we talk about how we use dialect instead of how we use language?”

The question is rhetorical. Kelman takes it as read that Scotland is a colonised country, ruled by an Anglo-centric cultural elite that has attempted to systematically purge the indigenous population of all its distinguishing features.

He tells me that Scots are subject to an “infrastructure” that impresses the value of “British culture [over that of] Scottish culture” and that this applies “across the board; politically, philosophically, as well as [in literature] and the visual arts”.

Is it fair to say then that the use of everyday Scottish speech in his novels constitutes a conscious response to this Anglo-imperial project, that it represents a kind of literary nationalism?

“Well you know if you think about that — and you’re right in a way to put it like that — but you see, the way you put that question, it actually reveals how absurd it is …Why would you expect a country’s literature not to some how be of that country? Well, you’re used to a Scottish literature that is not Scottish, that’s what lurks behind your question. You’re used to a Scottish literature that is not Scottish, so when you do find it you kind of remark on it.”

Kelman had said earlier that “what is important in the Scottish literary tradition is its use of language, it’s a kind of anti-imperial form from Burns right the way through”, so I assumed the question would be uncontentious. But clearly he resents the implication that he has deliberately built a political element into his work.

Kelman stresses that he does not write in the service of an ideology; he aims only to reflect the reality of his experience. He explains that if he did not use the verbal mannerisms and expressions specific to the environment he grew up in, he would be writing different novels, about different people, at a different time and place.

“I was not able to write the stories I wanted to write using the Queen’s English. You can’t really do that, you know. I mean you couldn’t even do a verbatim account of you and I talking if you were forced to use the Queen’s English. You can’t do it. So, it’s not the case of deliberately choosing something: either you write your stories or you don’t.”

Kelman is emphatic; the issue really seems to animate him. “I mean, how could I write stories about the characters that I have created in the Queen’s English? How can that be done? It means I couldn’t write stories about these characters. I’d have to write stories about some other characters. And usually that’s what happens in Scottish literature, anyway.”

I suspect that for Kelman, the form prose takes is inseparable from it’s content. A novel cannot be split into two distinct constituent parts — style and subject — with each operating separately from the other. Perhaps this is why ordinary Scottish speech, with its guttural inflections and blunt, ironic phrasing, is a definitive component of Kelman’s writing, not merely an incidental feature of his dialogue. So why then has he chosen to write about these characters? Why did he elect to focus on the least glamorous aspects of Glasgow life; on some of the darkest stories of a peripheral British city?

“Well,” Kelman begins, then he halts and laughs a little. “What else would I do? What else would I do?” he says again, still smiling. “It’s an odd thing that people don’t ask Ian McEwan, for example, or Martin Amis why they don’t write stories about a working-class culture in Maryhill. Why do people say to me ‘why don’t you write stories about Morningside?’ Obviously, if I came from Morningside, I would write stories about Morningside. Why is it people feel obliged to be critical of the subject matter I work in?”

As Kelman strains this last sentence for effect, the root of his objection becomes clear. My questions contain the undisclosed supposition that there are certain ways of writing novels, and certain subjects about which novels are written, that are more legitimate than others.

I admit that I would never even consider asking Ian McEwan why his characters address one another in crisp, grammatically flawless English or attempt to interrogate Martin Amis as to why so many of his anti-heroes are ultra-literate Oxford alumni. To do so would be to implicitly challenge the validity of turning certain experiences, certain stories, into art; to infer that there are other, more worthy, things to write about.

James Kelman has been presented with this challenge for more than thirty years — for the full span of his career as a writer of serious prose fiction: “I was being asked these questions when I was twenty-six and my first book came out. I was asked ‘why are you writing these kinds of stories?’ Honestly.”

There’s a note of amused exasperation in his voice. “I was asked ‘why write stories about pubs, betting shops and unemployment exchanges?’ and all I could answer was ‘because I drink in pubs, I go to bookies and I’m on the brew. What am I supposed to write about? Am I supposed to be writing about playing fucking polo or something?’ Do you know what I mean? Why is it people expect a writer like myself not to work from their own experience, and yet assume the right of all these other authors to work from their own experience?” There’s that rare flash of irreverence. Kelman sounds like he’s having fun now; he looks like he is in his element: being provocative, being controversial.


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