Scotland might be about to
enter the world. Will our
writers want to see it?
I was, I confess, more than a little bemused by Sophie Cooke's essay 'What does it mean to be a 'Scottish' writer?' (28 October). I was bemused at first by her curious reference to my supposed keenness to 'de-nationalise Scottish writing' (novelists, for centuries, have complained about being misread by critics; so it seems only fair for a critic to be piqued at being misread by a novelist).
I intend to set out my agenda as a literary critic – even as a Scottish critic and writer in Scotland – and do that by looking in specific detail at some of Ms Cooke's claims, as they have a direct bearing on my thinking about the inter-relationship between national identity and literary production.
I am not engaged in a programme of denationalising literature: rather, I have deep problems with some of the naive constructions of nationhood, and equally gauche equations drawn between these ideas of nationhood and the literature of that nation. In short, I have a profound suspicion of essentialism; and essentialism always trips into exceptionalism. We're not just essentially different, we're exceptionally better.
These fears, I fear, are not shared by Ms Cooke. Throughout her essay she invokes essentialist tropes. 'All of us', she writes, 'have grown up with the history of the Clearances'. Really? The second generation immigrant whose parents came from Pakistan as well as the lass from Lochinver? The third generation Scot of Polish descent as well as the Tory grandee of Peebles? Me? My English wife? Ms Cooke then asserts that the psyche created by the Clearances (and subsequent efforts of Scots for imperialism) in fact is not unique, and a parallel might be found in Jewish writing.
The Clearances were a vicious moment in the history of Scotland. The Shoah was a stain on civilisation. To attempt to co-opt one to the other is a shameful piece of intellectual legerdemain; akin to saying to an amputee that you yourself once suffered a hangnail; and I hope Ms Cooke thinks long and hard before making such a tasteless comparison again.
But it's not just this fictitious binding myth of the Clearances, which Ms Cooke herself so quickly undermines: 'we' are also typified by an epic, rather than domestic, response to the physical landscape, and the extremes of night and day, which (again, how quickly an essentialist argument frays) aligns us with Scandinavia, Russia and Canada. It would be an interesting intellectual experiment to determine exactly where this culture-shifting change occurs: the 57th northern parallel? The 55th?
Our magic realism does not stem from some genetic connection to poems
few writers have read, but to the magic realist contemporary novels
which they have.
Oh, how we pity the poor Greeks, with their mountains dappled by evening sunlight, and evident inability to compose an Iliad. How we scorn the Italians, and their lack of an Aeneid because of their sun and Alps. It is the same kind of argument as August Schlegel used in his articles claiming an intrinsic difference between Latin and Teutonic races, or, indeed, that Richard Burton used to explain the differing attitudes to anal sex. Geography is a factor, since we all have a nurture as well as a nature, but that it is a determining factor seems less probable than astrology. There are many Scottish writers whose work I love who do not conform to this romantic, windspent, Bronte-ish myth: Veronica Forrest-Thomson; Tobias Smollett; J M Barrie (but most of all for 'Dear Brutus', not 'Peter Pan'); William Souter; A L Kennedy.
Moving on, Ms Cooke suggests that, as with the Clearances, we all have an almost Jungian connection to the ballads, Gaelic folksongs and sagas such as the Orkneyinga. The trilinguality of the subconscious is truly remarkable. I would argue that the reason there is so much interplay between elements of the fantastical and elements of realism is that this has been happening across the English speaking world. It is no coincidence that Alasdair Gray's 'Lanark' and Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children' came out in the same year. Our magic realism does not stem from some genetic connection to poems few writers have read, but to the magic realist contemporary novels which they have.
Then comes the trump card, which at least amused me rather than bemused me. Scottish writers, writes Ms Cooke, display a 'refusal of each generation to follow in the footsteps of past masters'. Leaving aside that all writers, whether by a Bloomian anxiety of influence or a Barth-esque election of ancestors, create their canons (and most Scottish writers I know have canons that include both Scottish and world literature), what is really funny is that Ms Cooke grandly says that she cannot find a 'generation' of imitators of James Kelman. Given she admitted, a few paragraphs previously, she had never read any of Kelman, this seems a vatic inspiration beyond the powers of a mere critic.
We have to rely on reading books to see if their influence is palpable or oblique or non-existent, not just touch them or hear about them. There is a Scottish tradition because there is a Scottish history of novels; and Scottish writing is strongest when it opens itself to the broadest possible set of influences, not restricts itself to writing how Scots are supposed to write. If there has been one singular failure in Scottish literary policy over the years, it is that academics and pseudo-academics have colonised the judging process of bursaries and prizes: people with a preconceived idea of what our literature should be, not a willingness to see what it could be.
There are a great many other points of contention I would take with Ms Cooke's essay . Her idea that nationalism and intellectualism here 'have always sat so uncomfortably together' shows she has clearly never read any MacDiarmid. Stating that 'Scottish writing largely came into being after the Union' is factually wrong (the court of James IV, the writing of James I, the wonderful Complaynt) and contradicts her idea that it started far, far before and was passed on by some vague cultural osmosis.
The idea that low rents equals literary experimentation is almost beneath comment. I can think of scores of writers in high-rent cities around the world who not only produce more experimental work than we are currently seeing from most published writers based in Scotland, but who do so with the drive, determination and danger that failure is not an option. Saying that paying less rent allows you the right to fail – 'Dare To Fail' as Peter Cook's satire on a football manager had it – with a bureaucracy that funds such failure is demeaning. Should a plumber, in Scotland, be allowed to fail more frequently, and get a state bail-out for thinking a bit more about plumbing?
I have no doubts that Scotland is a creative nation; but if its creativity peers through a lens of essentialism, focusing on a myth of Scottish exceptionalism, then it will be trashing centuries of genuine, progressive culture.
But I would rather end on a positive note.
In one of his fables, the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges wrote 'Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels. If there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work'. The point of the anecdote is that the everyday, the quotidian, is normally overlooked: a novel set in Edinburgh need not point out that haggis is on sale in Jenner's and in Tesco. Only the outsider perceives it as exotic. Literary culture recently has dissected the omnipresence of haggis to an astonishing degree.
There was a subtle shift, in the early 2000s, when the most cited critical theorist mentioned in academic essays on Scottish literature stopped being Mikhail Bahktin and became Homi Bhabha. This was Scotland's 'post-colonial' turn – when academics and critics aligned their thought to the idea of Scotland as colonised coloniser rather than the fulcrum of difference. Through various creative writing courses and interpersonal networks, the idea became commonplace. Poor Scotland, forced into genius by oppression. To which the only response, from anyone who cared only about literary culture, would be 'Thank goodness for the coalition: let's have some more of that creativity-inducing poverty'.
I have no doubts that Scotland is a creative nation; but if its creativity peers through a lens of essentialism, focusing on a myth of Scottish exceptionalism, then it will be trashing centuries of genuine, progressive culture. Ms Cooke began her essay by saying that Scottish nationalism has never been stronger but critics such as I were responding with sleekit, timorous gestures. I would argue that Scottish nationalism has never been stronger because it has ditched the erroneous, self-defeating and self-inflating arguments that people like Ms Cooke cling to with such fervour. Scotland might be about to enter the world. Hopefully its newest writers will want to see what the world has to offer.
Stuart Kelly was raised in the Scottish Borders and studied English at Balliol College, Oxford. He is a critic and writer with Scotsman Publications