James Kelman caused a stir at the Edinburgh Book Festival recently with his comments about Scotland’s literary obsession with “upper middle-class young magicians” and “fucking detective fiction”. It’s always been a mystery to me why fully grown adults dedicate so much time and interest to the former. Harry Potter is not my goblet of tea. There’s nothing wrong with detective crime fiction per se and no reason why it and “literary fiction” should be incompatible – Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy being just one instance that springs to mind.
I’m not sure that Kelman is averse to crime fiction either. He might be, but what I suspect he is getting at is the fact that so much publicity is given to a handful of (Scottish or Scottish-based) writers while even “well-established” authors such as Alasdair Gray, A.L Kennedy and Kelman himself receive a fraction of the attention that genre writers do. Not to mention that many other worthwhile writers are not well known to the general reading public. Step forward Alan Warner, Don Paterson, Laura Hird, Kevin MacNeil, Ali Smith, etc.
How many of those have you read? If the answer is very few then you are not entirely to blame. In order for the public to be even reasonably exposed to them a little less attention would have to be paid to the usual suspects.
Of course, it could be argued that the publishing industry and the mainstream media are just giving the public what they want. In last week’s Sunday Herald the crime writer Denise Mina argued that readers of literary fiction will “plough on to the end of a turgid novel, assuming they are not in a position to say its rubbish…” and “they may read one or two a year, and then bang on about them at dinner parties”. I have to assume she is being at least semi-serious even though this sounds like the sort of dismissive snobbery that supporters of literary fiction are usually accused of. Not guilty on either account, m’Lady. I read a lot more than two novels a year, giving up before halfway if the book becomes boring, and when it comes to dinner parties, well, I’d imagine Mina has a lot more experience of what goes on at such events.
Kelman’s comments are of course not a criticism of the quality of Scottish writing itself. I’m just about to depart again after more than a month in Scotland. I’m happy to say that any doubts about the writing that is out there have been removed. I heard some good stuff in Edinburgh this August from the likes of Darran Anderson, Jenni Fagan, Kevin and Christie Williamson (unrelated to my knowledge), while the state of writing in the north is in a very healthy state indeed if the recent Dead Good Poets Society readings in Aberdeen and the recent edition of Northwords Now are anything to go by.
Quality writing is definitely out there if you are prepared to take a bit of a gamble and think outside the box.