James Kelman, the only Scottish writer to have won the Man Booker Prize or to have been twice nominated for the International Man Booker Prize, has revealed that all he made from his writing last year was £15,000.
In an angry speech scattered with expletives, he accepted a £5,000 cheque for winning the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year for his eighth novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky. Kelman said it would be “really useful”.
“As a writer, last year I think I earned about £15,000. And that after being a writer for about 40 years,” he said.
Although he pointed out that Scotland’s literary culture was “as strong now as it had ever been”, he went on to deplore Scots’ collective ignorance of it.
Referring to a remark Sorley MacLean had once made about the love Gaelic artists and people had for their language, Kelman said that just wasn’t the case with Scottish culture.
“Our culture is as rich as any culture and it’s shocking to me that our children, and the likes of myself at the age of 66, have to struggle to f****** express it.”
When a member of the audience asked him to moderate his language, he shot back: “Moderate yourself!”
Earlier, Kelman pointed out many Scots did not know even the basic facts about their culture and history. His own family, for example, had all emigrated from Scotland – “that’s the most Scottish thing about me” – but knowledge of such things was not widespread.
He also suggested Scots lacked confidence in their own culture, citing the willingness of organisations such as Creative Scotland and the Edinburgh International Book Festival to work with an “imperialist” organisation such as the British Council.
Other countries at least did appreciate the value of Scottish writing, he said, pointing out the irony that, only yesterday, the Glasgow poet Tom Leonard had been in Italy to receive an award, before striding off the platform, cheque in hand.
This was the second time in four years that Kelman has won the Saltire’s top literary award. In 2008, he did so with his novel Kieron Smith, Boy, which the judges said “caught and ventriloquised the essence of a boy from Glasgow”.
Mo Said She Was Quirky does something rather similar for Helen, a 27-year-old single mother working as a croupier in a London casino. The novel tracks 24 hours in her life, during which she catches a glimpse of a down-and-out who may or may not be her estranged brother, worries about her six-year-old daughter, thinks back to her coldly dismissive mother and aggressive father in Glasgow and reflects on her relationship with Mo, a flirtatious Pakistani restaurant waiter with whom she lives in a tiny London flat.
Some critics – in Scotland as well as London – have criticised the banality of Helen’s interior monologue and argued that Kelman’s attempt to make this true to life drain the novel of all vitality.
The Saltire judges strongly disagreed. “Through the rich pattern of Kelman’s prose,” they noted, “we come to recognise the extraordinary range of thought, memory, observation, empathy, questioning, hope and fear that make up the inner world of every human life.
“Mo Said She Was Quirky is a true work of art, full of surface simplicity and deep beauty and informed by a profound compassion for all things human, imperfect yet unique.”