Is this a golden era for Scottish literature?

  • The List
  • 1 February 2012
The state of Scottish writing

L-R: Alan Bissett, Helen Fitzgerald and Allan Wilson

Alan Bissett, Helen Fitzgerald and Allan Wilson survey the current literary lansdscape

With Glasgow's Margins Book and Music Festival bringing together a range of talented Scottish writers, we asked three of them, is Scottish writing in an especially healthy state right now? And if so, why?

Alan Bissett
The contention is that Scottish literature – due to a combination of factors, including centralised buying by book chains and a backlash against post-Trainspotting fiction – has undergone a difficult time of late, but that the tide is turning. The grassroots Scottish literary scene is dynamic and vibrant, and has transfomed in response to social media and changes in the publishing climate. My personal view is that 'Tartan Noir', while written by some highly skilled writers and clearly appreciated by audiences, has become such a saleable brand that it has eclipsed the more radical and experimental tradition which last flourised in Scotland in the 1990s

Allan Wilson
It's known that these things happen in cycles. There will always be people with views that are in opposition to the status quo so there will always be writing that questions it. And yes, the idea of a 'saleable brand' is a problem. When we're working in an artistic industry which often assesses its value in terms of financial success and literary prizes some people are always going to have an issue with writing that challenges the system that has provided many with a certain status or level of financial security. Trainspotting shouldn't have been a success. But it succeeded for the reasons marginalised writing will always succeed: It fought its way up through the cracks. And it was cool as fuck. It feels like there's something similar happening just now. Dissenting voices are everywhere and in literature as in life they're starting to get through. It's from the bottom up and at some point writers, readers, journalists, whoever, will hear them.

Helen Fitzgerald
What is a dissenting voice? In the past I was labelled a writer of 'Tartan Noir' (with a smear of vegemite). Does that mean I started a book thinking: 'I’m going to be unoriginal and unquestioning in order to sell to my numbskull readers'? Of course not. I’ve always started with the aim of writing something authentic and mind-blowing (though it doesn’t always go to plan …) 'Tartan Noir' can be both radical and challenging. The branding doesn’t change the product, though it may help sales.

Why do people buy books? For stimulation and entertainment. People liked Trainspotting. If someone writes an experimental book that folk enjoy, then presumably they’ll spread the word – and this is so much easier now thanks to social media.

There’s nothing stopping good writing of any kind making it through the cracks. But to be successful, it must appeal to readers.

Allan Wilson
I think there has been something stopping good writing (and to me that means writing which is honest, fearless and entertaining too) becoming commercially successful. It’s the reason why Kafka was pretty much unpublished in his lifetime. It’s the reason why, amongst all the winners of the Booker Prize, the sales of Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late are so low in comparison to the vast majority of the others – have a look, it’s sad reading.

I think the debate between ‘literary fiction’ and ‘crime fiction’ has been done a million times before. Does anyone still care? What’s important is that there is good writing being published in Scotland at the moment and that’s refreshing. I pick up books like Duncan McLean’s Bucket of Tongues or Laura Hird’s Nail and I get excited. I read Agnes Owens, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and I feel happy that I share a similar background to these people. There’s writing about just now that makes me feel excited and, to me, that’s what’s important. I don’t care if the writer is from Scotland or not. It just so happens that at the moment there is important work from here being written and sometimes published. We'd be stupid not to embrace that.

Alan Bissett
I agree with you both, to a certain extent: good novels are good novels regardless of orgin or genre. Of course crime writers – or certainly the talents which we have in this country – start out from a position of integrity. But it is much more difficult for Scottish literary fiction (and for the purposes of this discussion lets make a distinction not of quality but of form) to navigate its way through the marketplace. Sure people liked Trainspotting, and that’s why it was successful, but in the retail climate of the early 90s it was possible for an idiosyncratic work like that to be supported locally. Trainspotting spread because of the enthusiasm of Edinburgh booksellers. Welsh himself has admitted it could never have happened for him now. The problem has been that, in the last twelve years, with the demise of Ottakers and Borders, Waterstones became the only game in town. Their stock was controlled from the South of England, regardless of regional tastes. The only Scottish writers they were interested in promoting were crime writers, because of the brand. This is not the fault of crime writers themselves (or readers, for that matter), but of the marketplace. Novelists who were taking creative risks – Ewan Morrison, Suhayl Saadi, Sophie Cooke, Kevin MacNeill – were just not made visible in bookshops in the same way. This is why the performance literature scene, events like Words Per Minute and Discombobulate, took off. It was the only way we could reach audiences! It is encouraging, however, that Waterstones have now changed strategy to give local stores more autonomy (like, duh). This has happened just as a new wave, exemplified by Mr Wilson here, are poised to rise up. One last thing: history has just given us a gift. We are the generation who might see this nation finally become independent. It’s an extraordinary time to be a Scottish writer.

Helen Fitzgerald
I can’t believe my luck that I’m a writer in Scotland at the moment. At last, the forty year old virgin might move out of home. And of course he’ll be more confident, take more risks, and write with more passion once he does. I can feel the buzz in the number of events taking place every week in Glasgow – on my Facebook page at the moment there are at least five things I want to go to – from Stage to Page to Words per Minute to something called Margins.

It’s a grand time – not only for our confidence, but for the way we’re heard. So much experimental writing is coming out on blogs and with digital publishers. And the immediacy of online communities inspires, motivates and supports.

So I’m done with negativity and arguments about what’s literary and what’s Scottish. I refuse to feel anything other than excited.

Who are going to be the hot writers this year?

Allan Wilson
I read great stuff every week. People not necessarily well known, maybe not even wanting to be well known, but their voices are inspiring and show that writing is worthwhile whether its published or not. I'm thinking Alan Mcmunnigall, Joe Murphy, Gillian Mayes, James Connarty, Stuart Blackwood, Brian Hamill, Kirstin Innes. Of course, it's not just the new that's exciting. This year sees books from James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and Rodge Glass. Excited? I'm away for for a dance.

Alan Bissett
William Letford is a remarkable poet: amazing performer, huge heart, very engaging, and he's writing about working-class life, which we need more of. I really loved Neil Butler's recent debut too, The Roost, about teenage goings-on in Shetland, with all its darkness and energy. He's still in his twenties and I think he'll go on to do great things.

Helen Fitzgerald
I've been waiting for more from Lisa O'Donnell since she won the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000. At last, her debut novel is coming: The Death of Bees (March 2012). I was lucky enough to read the manuscript – it's the most original and incredible piece of writing I've come across in years.

Margins Festival, Fri 24–Sun 26 Feb

A Night in the Gutter

Spoken word and performance from contributors to Gutter magazine, known for its energetic style and no-holds-barred approach to content.

Alasdair Gray's Fleck

After a sell-yer-granny-for-a-ticket debut at Edinburgh International Book Festival last year, Alasdair Gray's modern adaptation of Faust gets another outing courtesy of Margins Book and Music Festival, with an equally starry cast including Alan Bissett, Allan Wilson, Zoe Strachan, Louise Welsh, Chiew Siah-Tei, Rodge…

William McIllvanney and Allan Wilson: Scottish Writing, Then and Now

McIllvanney, author of Laidlaw, The Big Man and Weekend, discusses with tipped newcomer Wilson what it means to be a writer in Scotland today, and what the future holds for their writing.

Helen Fitzgerald and Doug Johnstone

Two Scottish writers discuss their work.

Elsewhere on the web


1. Paul F Cockburn1 Feb 2012, 3:00pm Report

I don't like talk of Golden Ages, because invariably there will be a decline to Silver. Far better, surely to focus on the present and its potential. Scotland certainly has a vibrant, ground-up publishing and spoken-word scene at the moment, and both are feeding each other to new heights of excellence. Publishers like Cargo are like the nimble little mammals scampering around the feet of the plodding dinosaurs, and we all know how that worked out!

Yes, the "debate" (aka never-ending slanging match) between Scottish literary fiction and "tartan noire" has been done a hundred times; what I find annoying, though, is the seeming lack of awareness (or unspoken dismissal) of how successful Scotland is in other genres as well. Iain Banks notwithstanding, many of the most innovate SF and fantasy writers currently published in the UK are based in Scotland, as are many of the most important figures in British and US comics during the last 30 years. I mean, who'd have thought a West coast kid like Grant Morrison would end up recreating Superman for the 21st century? But that doesn't seem to show up on some people's view of Scottish Fiction.

Incidentally, surely one reason Kafka wasn't published much during his lifetime was that he didn't actually submit that much of his work for publication? Certainly, we only have his novels because a friend disobeyed the instructions to destroy the unfinished work after his death -- you can't exactly blame that on either blinkered publishers or readers shying away from more "challenging" work!

2. blackdogtales2 Feb 2012, 12:09pm Report

This is a very interesting debate, and I agree that there is a lot going on in Scotland that is exciting, especially in grassroots publishing and e-media. However, it is supposed to be a debate, and the flames need to be stoked, especially with regard to Scottish writing and the independence issue. I agree wholeheartedly with an earlier comment about wider genres and contributions made to other art forms by Scots and in Scotland.

Were the odds really stacked against Trainspotting? Did it depend so much on local bookshop promotion? It was certain to resonate with the evolving grunge generation, published a couple of years after an unknown band called Nirvana played a gig in Edinburgh’s Southern Bar. The heroin and HIV scare of the late 80s and early 90s was well-known. The wave of Scottish nationalism was still running quite high in pursuit of at least a constitutional settlement. It had the memorable endorsement of Rebel Inc., which followed a tradition of locally-produced Scottish radical journals, and the wider Scots cultural and countercultural impact in many areas of the arts is well-known. Above all, it is excellent writing which spares no punches and does not fall into the pitfalls of what may be (perhaps patronisingly) termed as “working-class writing”. The characters are nihilistic and brutal, and the environment is as dysfunctional as the drugs culture, especially when seen through Renton’s withdrawal prism - he ultimately escapes from two worlds, including the stifling environment of binge-drinking and mawkish Scottishness and not just the drugs milieu, choosing to go overseas to Amsterdam. Rightfully longlisted for the Booker Prize, it’s just a shame that Welsh wrote the lacklustre (if funny) Porno as a sequel.

Does Trainspotting cast a long shadow over Scottish literature? Has it become a safe and token form of rebellion, now lacking the danger of its time? Are there now other demons and torments for our protagonists to tackle on their journey to self-realisation, and other inner and outer conflicts to be resolved? What has devolution done to us, what does Salmond’s smiling moonface mean to us, what did Iraq do to us? We can attempt to answer the last question – the play Black Watch broke new ground in theatre. And what about that last high watermark of British Neo-Imperialism: the Blair/Bush G8 summit in Gleneagles? Trainspotting highlighted many issues of society and culture, but was of its time, so what of the current time?

Do we still define ourselves in terms of our relationship with our larger neighbour? What is independence anyway? We point to the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 and the Union of 1707, in a glow of patriotism, forgetting that the 1320 declaration was addressed to the Pope, nearly two centuries before the birth of Luther or Calvin, well before the Peace of Westphalia (look it up) and that the Union of 1707 followed the Union of 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I. Can we ignore the fact that we enslaved miners and their families for life in 1606? For all the parcel of rogues, and the buying and selling, would we have benefited from the Bill of Rights (England 1689), the Act of Settlement (1701) or the establishment of the National Debt? What would the Scottish legacy on the world be like without the impact Scots explorers, administrators, generals and admirals made on the world at the vanguard of the British Empire – for good and for ill? And what about the social reforms of the late Victorian era? Sometimes we hearken back to a golden era of full employment in a workers’ paradise, when the reality for many was slum-living, toil, ignorance, drunkenness and abuse. Or to an idealised view of the Gaelic Highlands, when in reality most people want to get out of anywhere like that at the age of 17.

The past is a different world, not a prism through which to view the future, and it can shackle us in chains of bigotry, resentment and backwardness. It can prevent us from supping of our own unique culture without a bitter wince, one eye over our shoulder at our larger neighbour, and it can also force the sweetened brew of Sir Walter Scottishness down our throats. Is this how we will define the debate?

So, what is independence? What does it mean? Will there be a novel called “Independence”? We need one, urgently, to inflame the debate and give us the gift of looking at ourselves in that particular way that Burns might say, that same critical eye which Irvine Welsh turned upon his characters and our society.


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