Monday, August 31, 2009

James Kelman Being Snotty About Genre Fiction

James Kelman, one of my favourite writers, and one of the greatest living British writers, is a chippy fellow. And sometimes with reason, given the reception to his work at the Booker Prize ceremonies of 1989 (when he was nominated for A Disaffection) and 1994 (when he won for How Late It Was, How Late). His 1994 win horrified some of the snootier elements of the London literati, with one of the judges Julia Neuberger famously threatening to resign, claiming it was 'crap'. Kelman's work and themes are resolutely Glaswegian working-class and they resonate with the smokey, beery smells and grimy detail of pool halls, betting shops, pub backrooms, two-up-two-downs and football terraces. And more often than not his work has been dismissed by a metropolitan literary élite more on the lowly subject matter than on his own considerable merits. But Jimmy can let his anger cloud his judgment at times too: as Theo Tait remarked last year, 'he makes modern Glasgow sound as if it's under occupation. In his essays, he makes English literature sound as if was written entirely by
John Buchan and Jilly Cooper.'

Kelman upset the literary apple cart in Scotland last week by taking on some of his country's bestselling authors at the Edinburgh international book festival saying that if the country were in charge of awarding the Nobel prize instead of Sweden, it would go to "a writer of fucking detective fiction" or a book about "some upper middle-class young magician". Now one doesn't need to be possessed of a terribly literary bent to figure out who he's got in the crosshairs there, and that is largely Kelman's point. Kelman claims 'contemporary literature has been derided and sneered by the Scottish literary establishment' which he also accuses of Anglocentrism. I'm not terribly bothered that this wee spat, which really is little more than an old-fashioned Weegie v Auld Reekie snipe, attacks Ian Rankin, a crime writer who has enjoyed an enormous commercial success (though it took a long time to come) and whose work I admire greatly (I have no opinion, negative or otherwise, on J.K. Rowling and her wee speccie sorcerer). Rankin is no pretentious writer and he can hardly be blamed for the Rebus tours that draw tourists to Edinburgh these days. A blog piece by Alan Bissett at the Guardian places Kelman's outburst in the context of a 'gentrification' of Scottish literature while a lively point-counterpoint at the Glasgow Sunday Herald ponders the 'bastardisation' of a literary tradition; it's a measure of the curious creativity of the Scottish working-class that art and literature could be bemoaned as being co-opted by the bourgeoisie, in much the same way as football or dog racing. It's also bizarre and amusing to see genre writers, who for decades strove for respectability among the largely bourgeois literary élite, now being repudiated as trash by writers from grubbier backgrounds.

All this reminds me I haven't read much by Kelman in the past few years and a copy of Translated Accounts sitting on my shelf is crying out to be read. I'll get on to that promptly. And there are one or two by Rankin there too.

The whole affair also, naturally, reminds me a bit of this old beauty:

James Kelman launches broadside against Scotland's literary culture | Books |