Stuart Kelly has
been shouted down
by 'pitiful' accusations
Having attended the Edinburgh International Book Festival event on new Scottish writing during which Sophie Cooke had first outlined her ideas about what defined Scottish fiction, I was naturally interested in reading the 'expanded' version published in Scottish Review.
Sadly, in putting pen to paper (if only metaphorically) she seemed to have lost the most important element of her original thesis; that if any literature could be called 'Scottish' this was down not to factors unique to Scottish writers but to a 'unique' combination of far-from-unique factors.
Cooke is a good writer, but there was plenty in this particular article that was frankly preposterous, not least her inability to see a generation of writers following in the wake of Kelman – perhaps this, indeed, was down to her not having read any of his work, and so being ill-prepared to see his obvious successors in the likes of Alan Bissett and Allan Wilson?
Her theory that successive generations of authors rejected the previous generation also failed to highlight obvious direct links, such as between Alasdair Gray's 'Lanark' and Iain Banks' 'The Bridge'. Which reminds me; in her list of current Scottish writers Cooke displays an obvious ignorance of the numerous Scottish authors currently leading the SF and fantasy genres in the UK: Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Richard Morgan, Charles Stross, Gary Gibson, Michael Cobley, Alan Campbell, Denise J Miller...to name just a few. But then, for many people in Scotland, SF never means Scottish fiction.
Kelly was responding to a pretty serious attack on his integrity as the literary editor of a national newspaper, so it is somewhat naive of Catherine Czerkawska (10 November) to expect a wholly objective response; Czerkawska's 'reply', however, simply compounds that same error by ignoring most of the 'excellent points' Kelly made about Cooke's article, instead trying to shout him down with accusations of literary violence, serial derision and open misogyny. She also arrogantly assumes that her own experience of access to Scottish ballads and Burns must be universal – it might have been for her, in which case she was lucky, but when I was attending school in Edinburgh during the late 1960s/early-t0-mid 1970s, it was far from the case.
Tessa Ransford (10 November) points out that 'anyone living and working in Scotland is affected by climate, landscape and language unless they live in a box'; but that doesn't, in itself, excuse Sophie's emphasis on climatic influence – you could argue, possibly with more justification, of the attitudes that come from 'us' being an island race never more than a couple of hours travelling time from the sea. Though, given so much changes in terms of Scotland's landscape, climate and culture if you travel just 40-50 miles, I sometimes wonder if trying to define something as 'Scottish' isn't a fool's errand anyway.
I certainly agree with Ransford in one respect; you do have to wonder why Cooke wrote the article in the first place. At times, I was fairly sure of the answer; it was an act of self-justification, verging on the 'Scottish Cringe', that I really didn't expect of her.
But then, I didn't expect to read Ransford's blatant inverted snobbery towards anyone who went to Oxford either. There's just one word for that: pitiful.
Paul F Cockburn
Paul F Cockburn is an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist, blogger
and reviewer who specialises in arts and culture, disability issues, and military resettlement
The anti-intellectualism displayed in the twin rebuttals to Stuart Kelly is truly depressing. In addition to a laughable charge of misogyny, he is taxed with 'cleverness' and attending Oxford – by people accusing him of personal animus.
It's true that Kelly drives a coach and horse through Sophie Cooke's essay, but the holes in her argument were Volkswagen-sized to begin with. Set aside its high spirits, and recall the substance of Kelly's critique. Cooke's article claims:
'While many English writers pay homage to the novels of earlier English writers (the current vogue being for EM Forster), it's hard to spot the same ancestor worship at work in Scotland. I have looked very hard, but can find no contemporary Scottish novelists "reinterpreting" the work of, say, Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson. Nor do we have a generation of Irvine Welsh/James Kelman imitators.'
The assumption that a living national tradition can only be manifested in 'ancestor worship' has been contested by Scottish writers and critics for close to a century, and not solely because this involves thoughtlessly importing a (fudged) model of organic 'tradition' from English literary history which simply does not fit the Scottish case. (Cooke's essay refers to the 'Generations' model of Spanish literary development; why does she assume that Scotland's literary tradition can only be authenticated by reference to England's?). This argument is not ingenious or new to anyone acquainted with Scottish literary debate since MacDiarmid. (See the introduction to Cairns Craig's 'The Modern Scottish Novel' for a lucid overview.)
Even if we set this objection aside, it is not difficult to fill in the gaps in Cooke's survey. At the risk of beating anyone round the head: the historical novels of James Robertson are very clearly responding to the legacy of Scott, something James Hogg and John Galt were doing from the very start (in fact, since before Scott emerged from behind the 'Author of Waverley'). Incidentally, Robertson's novel 'Joseph Knight' (and much recent non-fiction) counters Cooke's claim that 'Scotland still bemoans British perfidy while ignoring the absolutely pivotal role played by Scots in expanding and administering the British Empire'.
Kevin MacNeil's latest novel is only the first reworking of Stevenson that leaps to mind (see also Ron Butlin's libretto of 'Markheim' and Suhayl Saadi's 'found manuscript' of a Stevenson tale in issue 5 of the Journal of Stevenson Studies). 'We' have at least two generations of writers strongly influenced by Kelman; Irvine Welsh belongs to the first of them, as does Alan Warner. A second would include Alan Bissett. No imitators of Welsh himself – seriously? See Kirsten Innes' excellent survey of the post-'Trainspotting' novel, 'Mark Renton's Bairns', in the 'Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature' edited by Berthold Schoene.
If Cooke 'looked very hard' for such lineage, how could she miss all of this? It is much to her credit that she admits 'I have never read any Walter Scott, nor yet (to my shame) James Kelman'; but how, then, did she hope to detect their influence?
Ignorance is forgivable, especially when honestly owned. But there can be no 'debate' without a common working knowledge of what's being discussed. I hope the founder of a library will agree that stockpiling 'background material' is not an end in itself – people have to read the stuff in order for a literary tradition to survive and evolve. No amount of tramping the national turf or taking the national air will suffice.
Sophie Cooke's article describes itself as 'a starting point for a long-overdue discussion' of Scottish literary identity. I'm afraid she is arriving late to the party. But please, sincerely, make yourself welcome: dozens of books and hundreds of articles have been written on this subject in the past few decades, not all of them 'academic' (and, god knows, precious few of them clever). Why not read a few of them, and respond?
Scott Hames is a lecturer in the department of English studies at the
University of Stirling
To read Sophie Cooke's original article, click here
To read Stuart Kelly's reply, click here