… there’s a few points I want to make about the Kelman row. If you haven’t been following the story, it has been well summarised by the Sunday Herald:
IT STARTED with a brutal put-down from James Kelman, one of Scotland’s greatest writers, directed towards the likes of JK Rowling and Ian Rankin. Now it has turned into one of the country’s biggest literary spats with some of Scotland’s best-known writers lining up on both sides – some taking pot shots at Kelman, others backing the outspoken novelist.
Kelman, a Booker Prize winner, made his blistering attack at the Edinburgh Book Festival by deriding Scotland’s obsession with ‘upper middle-class young magicians’ and ‘f****** detective fiction’. He went on to target the whole of the Scottish literary establishment.
Singling out this country’s failure to embrace its ‘radical traditions’ and its insistence on doling out praise to ‘mediocre’ writers, he bemoaned a commercialised literary scene in thrall to Harry Potter and Rebus.
‘If the Nobel Prize came from Scotland they would give it to a writer of f****** detective fiction, or else some kind of child writer, or something that was not even new when Enid Blyton was writing The Faraway Tree, because she was writing about some upper middle-class young magician or some f****** crap,’ he said.
Contemporary literature, he said, was ‘derided and sneered at by the Scottish literary establishment’ who were ‘Anglocentric’ and bent on ignoring the edgier talent that is right under their noses – citing poet Tom Leonard as an example of one such cruelly marginalised Scot.
Now, Kelman isn’t actually that good a writer. He made an enormous contribution to Scottish letters – his Booker victory in 1994 forced a reexamination of the nature of literary fiction and arguably made it possible for a new generation of Scottish writers to get into print.
His stuff is, however (in my opinion) not that great.
Reading Kelman, I’m reminded of something D J Taylor said about another writer: ‘He can transcribe but he can’t create.’ His flagship novel, How late it was, how late, is little more than a phonetic monologue with some half-understood colonial theory thrown in. He doesn’t have the style and imagination of Irvine Welsh or Alan Warner or Janice Galloway. Kelman is an important writer but not a talented one.
I don’t want to get into the debate of literary versus genre, which has been covered extensively on this site and others, but there are many, many practitioners of mediocre literary fiction, much of it as formulaic as the wizard school or detective procedural. The Glasgow crime writer Christopher Brookmyre possesses far more invention and insight than does Kelman. One Carl Hiaasen is worth a billion Julie Myersons.
My old tutor Michael Schmidt has waded into the row and I can’t help thinking he has a point:
Schmidt said: ‘[Kelman]’s whole approach does sound exceedingly Stalinist. It so disparages the common reader. People who like Rankin and the Harry Potter books genuinely read them for pleasure.
‘We all hate the commercialisation of literature, but Ian Rankin writes very competently and the Harry Potter books are very entertaining. I don’t know if we should feel they are in any way degrading to the high culture we find ourselves participating in and advocating.’
Schmidt also claimed Kelman cannot get excited about new writers, instead constantly name-checking friends in his close circle, made up exclusively of working-class Glaswegians.
Schmidt added: ‘When you get a really major figure like Alistair Gray, you don’t see him fulminating like this. Instead, you find him a very generous spirit excited by new writing. He does not surround himself with rancour.
‘There is a parochialism that says Scotland first, and there is an internal parochialism that says Glasgow first, and then Glasgow working-class first. Each time you get into a smaller parochialism, the more authoritarian the feel of the language is.’
And what’s all this from John Byrne and Alan Bissett – that ‘the commercial success of certain titles and writers is distorting the view from outside Scotland of what Scottish writing is’? Come on! I wasn’t even sure where J K Rowling came from before this little brouhaha kicked off. The lesson of history is that obscure writers sometimes flourish centuries after their death while commercial sensations can be forgotten before the first spadeful of earth has hit their coffins. People don’t necessarily remember what’s populist: we remember, well, what’s memorable.