From the Scottish Review
What does it mean to be a 'Scottish' writer?Sophie Cooke
There seems to be a belief that the national identity of Scottish writers is not a simple description but a confining limitation. 'Scottish writing' finds itself in a peculiar limbo, as the political map changes. Writing the great American novel may be a worthy pursuit on the other side of the Atlantic, but on these shores some cringe at the notion of a Scottish novel, Great or otherwise.
We have to ask what these people are talking about when they talk about 'Scottish writing'. There's no easy answer: after all, Scottish writing largely came into being after the union with England, and has largely been written in English rather than Scots or Gaelic. I suspect that, because of this problem, they view 'Scottish writing' as a sort of flag-waving cultural activity that plays to outsiders' existing views of Scotland's literature: the Walter Scott legacy, or the 'Trainspotting' legacy. Another tartan export. Perhaps they are also nervous about the links between pure art and a very politically active nationalism.
This nervousness would be understandable if we lived in a country where nationalism dictates the artistic agenda, accepting nothing but a flattering portrait of the nation. But we don't. Like any other writers living in free countries, we are unlikely to use our work for tub-thumping eulogies: it's far more in our spirit to question and criticise our country than to wholeheartedly sing its praises. Writers have often been cast as the conscience of a country, and there is much truth in that. Nationalism – the love of your nation – does not have to mean being blind to its failings.
I wonder if the issue here isn't the way that nationalism and intellectualism have always sat so uncomfortably together. Nationalism, after all, often plays on emotion as much as reason. But this is precisely why national identity has always had such an interesting effect on art: because art, too, inhabits our hearts as much as our heads. In its building of an imagined community, nationalism, like writing, is an active cultural project that mixes fact and feeling. Its emotional appeal should not make us want to flush our national identity from our books. After all, I can't imagine any novelist wanting to write a book that leaves their readers emotionally cold.
In countries whose nationality is politically more assured than Scotland's, writers frequently draw on aspects of the national myth or address issues of national identity, without being seen as intellectually lacking. In the USA, trying to write the Great American Novel has long been seen as the most intellectually worthy cultural endeavour of all. Borges, meanwhile, could have been nothing other than Argentinian – fusing national traditions with his own unique intellect. In Spain, the Generations of 1898, 1914 and 1927 formed a strikingly brilliant period in Spanish literature: is it a coincidence that these writers intentionally turned away from broadly Western bourgeois motifs and focused instead on issues relating to Spain's national identity? Certainly they have never been critically castigated for it. Garcia Lorca is still, rightly, revered as one of the world's greatest poets.
Nationalism – with a small 'n' – need not involve a narrowing of view. As Spanish literature has shown, it can be the opposite: a route away from fashion towards broader existential questions. When we ask who we are as a nation, and when we try to explore the answer honestly in our writing, then we also say something unique about humanity. By contrast, the fashion for asking who we are as individuals runs the risk of solipsism; while asking who we are as writers is likely to land us on the post-modernist literary treadmill so beloved of theorists and so loathed by many readers. It is in groups that we become interesting. In groups, we find out how we behave in relation to each other. We discover the local expression of how well-equipped or otherwise human beings are to handle power.
I have called myself a 'Scottish writer' ever since I started my career over 10 years ago. I wasn't making a political statement. It was simply a description of my national identity and of my work. I would say that 'Scottish writing' undeniably exists as something very different to the creature some of our critics seem to fear. It is not a call to arms (or even, necessarily, independence) – it is often not politically motivated at all – nor is it a tourism export. It is simply here, on its own terms, with its own characteristics, and I can not see why we should pretend otherwise. It is not the same as English or American writing, nor will it ever be, however much some critics might wish otherwise.
I discussed my views of what makes Scottish writing 'Scottish' in an event with Louise Welsh at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. For lack of any other official theories, I think it's time I put these views in writing. I hope that others will join in and add their own views, or feel free to contradict mine or refine them. This is simply a starting point for a long-overdue discussion.
I believe the most important factor in 'Scottish writing' is the national story of our identity. All of us have grown up with the history of the Clearances; the exile of the bulk of our population from its homeland. It is undoubtedly a tragedy, and it is the public story which Scotland tells. The hidden story – the one we are less keen to talk about – is the fact that our exiled people did a fair amount of exiling of others. Having been cleared from their own country, the exiled Scots had few qualms about clearing indigenous peoples around the world from their lands in turn.
Scotland still bemoans British perfidy while ignoring the absolutely pivotal role played by Scots in expanding and administering the British Empire. This potent clash of spoken loss and unspoken guilt may be the sign of full-blown cultural neurosis, but it is also a powerful creative engine. In its combination of loss and guilt, I would say that the emotional impetus behind 'Scottish writing' is again not a unique identifier – the same force informs much 'Jewish writing', given the tragedy of the Holocaust and the complex issue of the occupation of Palestine – it is, though, a deep underlying motor.
Human beings have always used creativity to solve problems: it is the evolutionary reason for our creative capacity. The bigger the problem, the more creative the response must be. If your national story involves reconciling two very conflicting versions of yourself – one in which you are the victim, and one in which you are the aggressor – then it is only natural for your storytelling to contort itself into extraordinary shapes. Scottish writing of the past few hundred years has consistently done this.
Critics have claimed that it was the 'dual nature' of Edinburgh that inspired the magnificently gothic schizophrenia of Robert Louis Stevenson's work. I personally wonder if it wasn't rather the result of these two conflicting national identities, crashing against each other inside a fertile skull. Edinburgh is indeed a city of contrasts – but so are innumerable other cities, and London certainly had greater disparities at the time.
The physical landscape is, I believe, another important factor in defining our writing. The Scottish countryside is a wild and dramatic world in which to grow up. I think that the massiveness of our landscape, and our extremes of daylight, ally us more closely with the literatures of Scandinavia, Canada and Russia. Our consciousness is perhaps more naturally tilted towards the epic than the domestic. I am not speaking necessarily of my own work here (which often uses domestic settings), but thinking more of our literature as a whole – novels like Neil Gunn's 'The Silver Darlings', with its Tolstoyan sweep; or Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 'A Scots Quair'.
Ours is a world in which humans are small and winters are hard – the brevity of our summers means we always know the good times can't last. This awareness can manifest itself in melancholy or recklessness, but at its best I think this aspect of our national character can also lend us an appreciation of what we have, an ability to cherish the moment – a sort of bittersweet nostalgia for the present. The coming winter is the salt that seasons our summer. I guess this could be seen as a physical/climatic riff on the historical theme of 'loss'.
In terms of literary influence, it's hard to talk about direct connections, not only because Scottish writers are unlikely to pay homage to earlier writers, but also because every Scottish writer has had a different reading list. There is no official canon. I am a fan of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Neil Gunn, Alasdair Gray, Muriel Spark, Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, AL Kennedy, Ali Smith and Robin Robertson – but I have never read any Walter Scott, nor yet (to my shame) James Kelman; and the novelists I love best include Russian, English, and North and South American as well as Scottish writers.
I grew up in a gamekeeper's cottage in Perthshire, shaped by the Scottish landscape and by my national identity, but in literary terms largely Russian – surrounded as I was by my mother's volumes of Dostoevsky and Chekhov (she was English but loved Russian writers). It was only in my 20s that I really discovered and explored 'Scottish writing' for myself. Other writers I know were similarly separate from the Scottish literary tradition, often because they grew up in houses where the only reading material was the Sunday Post and Reader's Digest.
There is, however, a distinct Scottish literary influence. It's just that we have to go back a lot further, to our folk tales: the stories that crept into all our childhoods. These are the stories that have probably helped shape our consciousness, and here I think the influence of our oral storytelling heritage comes to bear: Gaelic storytelling, and of course the Icelandic sagas like the Orkneyinga.
The sagas' mixture of 'true story' with surreal or impossible elements (ancient precursors to magical realism), and their lack of clear moral endings (unlike the closure offered by Continental European fairytales), are traceable in a great deal of Scottish writing. Likewise, our tales of selkies – seal-people – which we again share with Faroese, Icelandic and Irish folklore, very rarely have conventional happy endings. If we're going to mention 'Trainspotting', then why not go a little deeper and look at it from within this framework? Irvine Welsh might be primarily known for his urban grime, but the surreal elements of his work are just as interesting and certainly chime with these traditions. I think it is not hard to read 'Trainspotting' as a dirty saga, while Alan Warner, in a recent talk at Edinburgh University, interestingly placed Welsh's novel in the context of the antiheroes and lovable rogues of the Border Ballads.
The next feature on my list is also part of the reason why 'Scottish writing' has sometimes seemed invisible to outsiders. In its eclectic mash-up of disparate influences – the refusal of each generation to follow in the footsteps of past masters – Scottish writing is characteristically thrawn and inventive, but also very difficult to view as a coherent evolutionary whole. While many English writers pay homage to the novels of earlier English writers (the current vogue being for EM Forster), it's hard to spot the same ancestor worship at work in Scotland. I have looked very hard, but can find no contemporary Scottish novelists 'reinterpreting' the work of, say, Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson. Nor do we have a generation of Irvine Welsh / James Kelman imitators. Rather than continuing the work of a previous Scottish generation, contemporary Scottish writers are much more interested in grabbing together the entities that fire our individual emotions and imaginations, throwing these together, and hoping something magical will come out of the explosion.
'Scottish writing' is not really a school as such: it's more like a Large Hadron Collider. We might not have found the literary 'God particle' yet, but we have a great time trying. And we regularly combine our texts with music, photography, animation, and film: cross-media collaboration with other artists is very normal, as is working across several fields by ourselves. Many Scottish novelists also have bands, or paint, or make films: think of 'Rodge Glass' and 'Burnt Island', or Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap crossing over from the other direction. In short, 'Scottish writing' is by nature highly experimental, and tends to draw on art forms beyond literature.
I wish I could say this is because we are all so naturally creative, but in fact it is largely down to simple economics. Rent is lower in Scotland than in London, therefore Scottish writers can afford to take greater commercial risks. Put it this way: if your rent is £600 per month, you're going to be far more likely to rehash a proven success story rather than strike out into untried territories, than if your rent is £300 per month. In Scotland, I am economically able to make twice as many mistakes as I would if I lived in London. Ergo, I can experiment twice as much. Experimentation – the risk of failure – is the lifeblood of any creative process.
Low rents are not unique to Scotland, and the same experimentation occurs anywhere where rents are low. It's not a coincidence that, within London, the most experimental writing comes from the cheapest boroughs. Meanwhile in Berlin, where a room can be had for £150 per month, the artistic risk-taking doubles again and makes Scottish writing seem tame by comparison. So it would be a mistake to sit back and pat ourselves on the back for being more innovative. We're just lucky to have affordable housing, and to live in a country that is also so vibrant in its visual arts and music scenes.
On a related note, research into Granta's list of 20 Best Young British Novelists shows that successful Scottish writers are more likely to have been educated at a comprehensive school and a non-Oxbridge university, while successful English writers are overwhelmingly more likely to have been educated at private school and at Oxbridge. Again, at first glance, it seems we could congratulate ourselves for having a more socially inclusive literature – one that can access and express the experience of most of the population. But in fact, the same is true of the Welsh and Irish writers on the list.
So rather than thinking Scottish writing is a unique beacon of social equality, we can only ask, 'Why are so few English writers representative of the population of that country?' – while accepting the fact that our own writers, like those of Wales and Ireland, are in a position to tell different kinds of stories from those that England's literary world will provide.
I see nothing in Scottish writing that could make me less than happy to call myself a 'Scottish writer'. Like all fair labels, it does not define me but always describes me. I hope we can start talking about our national literature in terms of culture as well as politics – whatever road the country chooses to take. National identity is a huge resource for any writer. To dismiss it would make our literary world a blander place. Good literature has always tried to express the universal in the particular, so let's not forget our particularity, let's not lose that. A world of globalised writing is no more enticing than a world of globalised retail.
I'm going to end by listing some of the new generation coming up behind me. These are the writers who make me confident that 'Scottish writing' will continue to be in good hands, even as it travels in unpredictable directions. I am excluding those of us who are already published by mainstream presses, as we are well on the way to becoming boringly established now: this is a list of the new kids on the block:
Christie Williamson, Kirsty Logan, Allan Radcliffe, Kirstin Innes, Kirsty Neary, Aiko Harman, Andrew Raymond Drennan, Allan Wilson, Stephen Barrett, Eve Thomson, William Letford, George Anderson, Simon Sylvester, Julia Boll, Anneliese Mackintosh, Eugene Dunbar.
Sophie Cooke is a Scottish novelist, short story writer, and poet. She is the author of the novels 'The Glass House' and 'Under The Mountain', and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award
Posted by MMac