EDINBURGH is bidding to be designated by UNESCO as the first World City of Literature.
Yet book lovers in Edinburgh are lamenting the imminent closure of Bauermeister, the last remaining substantial independent bookseller in the city. This follows upon the tragic demise of James Thin - an institution venerated for generations and whose loss has been lamented by many. Other retail outlets have appeared, but none so far has adequately replaced that venerated institution. Indeed, they are failing to cater adequately not just for the city’s readers but also its publishers and writers.
Edinburgh, after all, is the capital city of Scotland, not just a regional city of northern England. Our literary tradition is distinct from that of our neighbours south of the Border, and so are our current literary tastes. There are authors located here who need to be promoted. We are currently blessed with many talents, such as the aforesaid Rowling, Rankin and McCall Smith, who compete on a global stage. Yet there are numerous other writers who are far less well known and who are struggling to be read on a Scottish, let alone global, stage.
Their works are part of our distinctive Scottish identity, and contemporary literature is as much part of our cultural soul as our literary classics. Promotion of them and support for them is essential. Having their works published or even displayed can be difficult, as independent Scottish book publishers, never mind book sellers, disappear.
Centralised UK purchasing procedures fail to take national or regional diversity into account. Waterstone’s, Borders and Blackwell’s have purchasing procedures based in Brentford, London and Oxford respectively. Books are bought for a UK market, not a Scottish one. Scottish material is often treated as being of local interest only and akin to regional material in England.
There is a failure to provide for a separate Scottish categorisation. New Scottish works of fiction are simply lumped in under an all-Scottish banner, whether it is history, cookery or kailyard. This doesn’t happen in Dublin, and would be outlawed were it to happen in Paris. It shouldn’t, therefore, happen in Edinburgh. Scottish fiction is as distinct and unique as Scottish history and should be treated as such.
The result is neglect in both stocking and promotion of new works in the main outlets in this globalised environment. Outlets become homogenised and have the individuality of a literary Starbucks or McDonald’s. A three-for-two culture promotes global sales at the expense of literary identity.
You cannot make people read a Laura Hird or Anne Donovan novel as opposed to one by John Grisham or Catherine Cookson. You can, though, both encourage their talent and make the fruits of their labour available.
Yet there is a commercial as well as cultural reason to recognise Scotland’s literary distinctiveness. Ottakars has been a notable exception to the globalised trend and has had a structure reflecting the distinctive Scottish market. As a result, it has seen an increase in market share. WH Smith has recently recognised a similar market and reacted to public pressure to change its book purchasing and promotion policy.
If we are to maintain our literary tradition, and ensure that it is a living and vibrant culture as well as a historical tradition, we need to ensure that our aspiring as well as our established literary talents can be both published and read. This has a commercial benefit; more than that, it is a cultural necessity.
Kenny MacAskill is an SNP MSP for Lothians.