This literary row is
connected to low
When I saw the first sparks of the latest literary row flashing before my eyes in the Scottish Review, a part of me sighed and said, 'Oh dear, here we go again'. I wasn't going to get involved, but as Scott Hames of Stirling University has referred to me and my books I may as well put in my penny's worth. It is inevitable in a country like ours that I know personally several of those who have already put in theirs, so I hope the following will be read in the spirit in which it is written, ie not as a personal attack on anyone.
I wonder if this row would have developed into anything at all if Sophie Cooke had not mentioned Stuart Kelly's name, almost as an aside, in the first paragraph of her article, and suggested – without providing any evidence – that he and other 'contemporary literary critics' were keen to 'de-nationalise Scottish writing'. That was enough, however, to spur Stuart Kelly to, as Dr Hames puts it in yesterday's SR, 'drive a coach and horse' through the arguments in Ms Cooke's essay. Catherine Czerkawska and Tessa Ransford then came to Ms Cooke's defence, the former accusing Stuart Kelly of misogyny [an accusation subsequently withdrawn].
I am conscious that if I offer any support for Mr Kelly it may well look as if this is an argument between men and women, which it certainly should not be. Sadly it doesn't take long for this kind of row to move well away from the original topic under discussion, the 'Scottishness' of Scottish writers and their writing, and it would be good to return to that topic even if it is, as Dr Hames says, one that has often been explored before.
Ms Cooke has some interesting things to say about it, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't. I could say the same of Stuart Kelly's response – indeed every one of the contributors to the debate so far has said something I find myself nodding in agreement with. Does this make me some specimen of lily-livered poltroon stuck on a pointy fence with no opinions on the subject? No, but it does make me wonder why we keep needing to go over this old ground.
Most writers, though, would do well to heed Hugh MacDiarmid's slogan
from the 1920s, 'Not Traditions – Precedents'. Following or breaking a literary tradition or recognising a literary precedent does require that
you have actually read the work that has gone before.
It is as if each generation of Scottish writers has to revisit the identity question on their own terms. Could this be because as a nation we still don't educate our children well enough in our own literature, so that writers who consider themselves 'Scottish writers' (I include myself) have to find out for themselves, often after their formal education is over, who their predecessors were? That is a terrible indictment of the general low esteem in which our literary and linguistic culture is still held, despite a growing confidence among practitioners that they don't have to defer to anyone else's definition of what literature is, they just have to get on and write. Most writers, though, would do well to heed Hugh MacDiarmid's slogan from the 1920s, 'Not Traditions – Precedents'. Following or breaking a literary tradition or recognising a literary precedent does require that you have actually read the work that has gone before.
My own view is that, however much some may deplore or dislike some of Stuart Kelly's barbed, possibly ill-judged, comments, it is far preferable for Scotland to have literary critics with his depth of knowledge and acuity of opinion prepared to sound off than it would be if we had nobody to challenge arguments that don't hold water.
I am not for a second suggesting that Mr Kelly is a figure of MacDiarmid-like proportions, since his comments read like soft-soaping flattery compared with the kind of critical attacks MacDiarmid launched over a period of some 50 years – but how badly Scotland and Scottish literature needed MacDiarmid's vituperation in the 20th century. Without MacDiarmid's war on complacency, parochialism and unexamined received opinion, we wouldn't be where we are today – which should be some way beyond having to have these arguments yet again.
One paragraph in Ms Cooke's second piece leapt out at me. It reads as follows: 'What is most desirable is probably a shared national identity which is secure enough to contain inner difference without fear or conflict, yet which never subsumes us. In fact, the more secure the group feels, the less it needs our conformity. In countries as well as in individuals, the bullying of citizens who dare to differ from the accepted rhetoric is usually an expression of insecurity'. Now that makes a lot of sense – and seems to me to reflect very well the fact that as we have become more culturally self-confident so Scottish literature has become more diverse, more multi-voiced and more tolerant of difference. Does that make it less Scottish? I don't think so.
James Robertson is one of the greatest Scottish novelists of the modern era. His work includes 'And the Land Lay Still', a masterly panorama of post-war Scottish life
More tomorrow from the home of Scottish flyting