'˜Controlling agenda threatens Scotland's culture'

Award-winning novelist Kirsty Gunn warns of the damaging effect of political influence in the arts

Kirsty Gunn says there has been an 'unofficial politicising' of literature by Creative Scotland, which is promoting an awards structure favouring Scottish-themed books ahead of art for its own sake. Picture: Geraint Lewis/REX/Shutterstock
Kirsty Gunn says there has been an 'unofficial politicising' of literature by Creative Scotland, which is promoting an awards structure favouring Scottish-themed books ahead of art for its own sake. Picture: Geraint Lewis/REX/Shutterstock

Where is Scottish literature now? Is it, as it’s always been, at home in a writer’s and reader’s mind? Or, as our current culture would have it, somewhere a little more regimented than that?

“A writer’s country is a place within his own brain” Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal. “A writer has no passport except her own imagination” I wrote myself, in The Conversation, an online discussion around independence and identity that took place at the time of the referendum. A writer, after all, is someone who, as James Kelman so memorably put it in his acceptance speech for the 1994 Booker prize, “has a responsibility to no one or anything other than the empty page in front of him.” Right?

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Well, that’s what I’ve always thought, but I’ve come to see that our creative atmosphere is changing. We have a ruling party called the Scottish National Party, after all, and they have a whole host of institutions and outposts and advisory bodies that are hell bent on defining exactly just what Scotland’s culture is and should be. Creative Scotland, supposedly independent of party remits, nevertheless, as is the case with all arts institutions, is affected by central policy and, decision upon decision, grant upon grant, has already created an awards structure that favours a certain sensibility and social aim.

In their recent Literature and Publishing Sector Review we read of “a strategy rooted in, and of, Scotland’s people and places” as a primary aim. An interesting idea, for sure, and a worthy one – but that it may come before notions of intellectual and artistic priority? Before philosophical enquiry and open debate and the sheer, apolitical idea of “art for arts’ sake”?

From the earlier document from which the Review extends, we have: “We want to support work which will make a real difference to the quality of cultural life in Scotland” and “projects should benefit artists and creative people, and/or arts, screen and creative organisations from Scotland by helping them to sustain themselves and their work, to help them thrive, and to bring benefit to the people in Scotland.”

That word “benefit” is key, as is the phrase, introducing the document, by Jenny Niven, head of literature at Creative Scotland, about “widening the reach and impact of all our work by connecting with more parts of society.” Because yes, of course, benefit is good, connecting is good ... But to make these first and foremost objectives for our writers? To enable only those working on a literary project that might “make literature in Scotland more central to the nation”?

Arts bodies and politicians have always had a certain amount of influence in writers’ lives, of course – the market itself and the desire of publishers to exploit market trends has the same effect – and, indeed, influence, or patronage as it was once called, has been around as long as literature has. But in Scotland we have always associated ourselves with a tradition that bucks those trends and encourages writers who want to go their own way, who ignore social and political pressures and, more than was ever the case in England, find their own kind of readership. “Outsider writing” as they may call it in other places has always been on the inside here.

What now, though? With all these rules about what does and doesn’t constitute “real difference”? What now, when, for the last half a dozen years at least, the number of writers applying for funding from the Creative Scotland bursaries panel (compared to applications from those other disciplines against which they must compete that, to use the jargon, “have wider impact”) has shrunk to just a scattering and those that are successful rarely awarded for literary projects alone? What future when we find that supporting the writing of a novel is only feasible if the writing of that novel can be shown somehow to have community benefit, some kind of knock-on advantage to others that can be instantly measured? When we find that the application process for funding in itself might be regarded as a sort of unofficial politicising of literature – rewarding only those for whom certain bureaucratically-styled admin-friendly terminology is second-speak?

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Literature, it seems to me, our national literature, has never been in such peril.

“Benefit”, “strategic”, wording such as “the literature and publishing sector ought also to be alert to the opportunity presented via the Scottish Government International Partnership Framework and Innovation and Investment hubs” and “championing the ways in which literature and publishing positively impact culture and society in the Scottish context...” If one listens to the cadence, attends to the selection of vocabulary in statements such as these, it is clear that Creative Scotland’s outline document overall is setting ground rules for a certain kind of thinking, one that naturalises, in its very language, a controlling sort of agenda for books and poems and stories.

Not that political agendas are anything new – and not that they’ve ever prevented the outpouring of great literature from our finest writers. Scottish literature has always been fabulously right slap-bang in the middle of our society – with its glorious mash-up of the high and the low, the ornate and plain, of Scots and Gaelic and English all tongue-tied up together in a delicious messy synthesis of a language. All this published activity, though, while it may have been hugely popular, much of it, in its time, and springing directly from the experience of its writers or the places where they live – according to Creative Scotland guidelines even – was never governed by an agenda of “Scottishness”.

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Literary writing starts not with the idea of “best” but with an act of imagination. To do things the other way around – forming of a piece of work, that “output” of “creative industry” as the jargon has it with its sinister capitalist-oriented persuasion has it, according to a certain set of cultural requirements – is to turn writers into versions of politicians. Many writers do see themselves that way, of course, and have from the beginning. “Fletcher of Saltoun said something about ballads and laws, and ballads being more important for shaping society and social attitudes,” says playwright and scholar Professor Ian Brown of Queen Margaret University, now at Kingston University. “Writers are surely versions of politicians as they seek to express and explore how folk feel and experience their polities.”

For sure, Brown’s remark might well attend the number of poets and writers today round Scotland who all seem keen indeed to talk politics, having fully gone down the nationalist route, proudly voting “Yes” and clamouring for a new cultural order that in some kind of way that might allow for – what? A different kind of experience for those engaged with the fashioning of literature? As though the quality of an artist’s experience may be positively guaranteed to have certain outcomes and results providing a certain political climate prevails? One that is free of the shadows of the South and the prevalence of “Englishness” in the world of letters?

Yet, of all those writers – how many are not published by London publishers, or want to be? How many don’t want a readership that’s within the British and international English-speaking canon as well as the Scottish one? The metropolis has always exerted a powerful attraction for writers. Edinburgh took Robert Burns and James Hogg away from their rural contexts and drew them deep into the world of New Town drawing rooms just as New York and London attract Scottish writers now away from their places of work to play on a larger stage.

For sure, Scottish Literature makes a fine showing – all over Britain and all over the world. Its range and rich matter has populated global publishing houses and colonised prize lists and review pages for the last thirty years or more – with the so-called recent Scottish renaissance so fully absorbed into the international literary mainstream that the very description barely draws mention. So why then is Scotland still “a maimed culture” according to one writer, quoted in a Kathleen Jamie poem entitled “Aye!” that was published in the Guardian around the time of the referendum? Why is there “a hidden war that rages inside our minds”, as Alan Warner wrote in the same paper, referring to the Scottish writer’s relationship to what he views as a mainstream Tory agenda emanating from the South? Why are we looking at “the fragility of Scottish culture” as argued by author of Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland, Gerry Hassan, in the Scottish Review? By the sound of it, you’d think Scotland’s writers need all the help they can get.

I fail to understand why so many of my contemporaries who are novelists and literary critics hold the view that somehow literature north of the Border isn’t fully recognised within the historical canon. Neither do I believe that political independence might create and provide certain artistic freedoms, or that the power and might of “English Literature” has cowered us all into feeling second best. After all, that adjective “English” pertains only to a shared language that is expressed throughout Britain and around the world – and only the most one-sided political extremist would not concede that Scottish novels have always been an exciting and integral part of that shared culture.

If anything, London has enabled a localised Scottish literary culture to gain worldwide recognition, in the same way that Scottish culture has in turn allowed a certain kind of metropolitan writer to flourish – since the Highlander Neil Gunn went to Bloomsbury’s Faber & Faber for his international bestseller, The Silver Darlings, and John Murray from Edinburgh published Lord Byron from Aberdeen in Mayfair and later the Scottish publisher John Calder gave Britain the nouveau roman and Samuel Beckett. While there may persist, amongst Scottish novelists, the notion of writing in an “up here”, an “out here”, rather than an “in there”, still, there’s been more Scottishness in the history of London publishing than many Scottish writers might like to admit. Can it really, really be the case that Scottish literature does not sit within the mainstream? And even if it features, demographically, in lower sales figures than those achieved in the overpopulated South, can it really be said Scotland’s literary culture is any more disabled by its relationship to London than other regions of the British Isles?

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Indeed, if we’re talking about marginalisation, I would argue that this pertains more to the literature coming out of, for example, England’s South West or North East. For sure we’ve heard more from Glasgow than we have from Hull in recent years and if anyone’s talking about a “maimed culture” I would say it should be writers from the forgotten parts of the British Isles who might want to shout loudest now.

What we might think about more, when we think of the characteristics of Scottish literature, is not whether this accent or that stands up hard enough to its generic Southern counterpart but, rather, what it might be about our fiction that makes it so unlike that of other places; that we might celebrate all that we have achieved rather than rehearse old grievances about all the things we have missed out on. Wouldn’t looking at what we’ve made of our history generate a more productive and creative line of enquiry than fabricating this theory or that around an imagined and ideal literary future to read about in a Creative Scotland manifesto?

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We might note the success of Calvinism in this country, for example – for the stamping out of so much of who we were before it is as much at the heart of how we write and speak as our relationship to a powerful neighbour. Indeed, it seems to me, that the loss of a national language that went back to that time brought about a great cultural uncertainty that, in its own way, has made a particular kind of contribution to our literary lives. Part of that contribution, Professors Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson of Aberdeen and Oxford respectively, remind us, still largely unacknowledged, is the great wealth of work created in Latin – “up to 80 per cent of the literature of that time, a fact that we in Scotland still neglect in our reading and understanding of our literary history,” they say. For sure, a literature that is unexpressed, even now, for the most part, in our reflections upon ourselves as a literary nation, might be the cause for further deliberation in the culture departments of the Scottish Parliament as they go about busily reviving other histories, for here is a silenced literature indeed. Would that some of the funding that goes into creating words that were never Gaelic – like “Haymarket Station” or the “Welcome” and “Petrol” signs at Tesco – be employed rather in the widescale translations of some of these texts of which most of us are still largely unaware.

Another development, as the gloomy fanaticism of the Reformation cut Scottish letters off from its roots in the great 15th and 16th century poetic tradition, was the replacement of the lyric with a new kind of writing, one that had to learn to speak differently, inventing itself as it went along and bearing little relation to its counterpart south of the Border – the Scottish novel. What if we were to see this the new breed of prose, represented by work like James Hogg’s The Confessions of a Justified Sinner through to Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – stories of uncertainty, ambiguity, of a split self and the beginnings of the psychological novel – as embodying to great creative effect the distinctive, reactive, forward-thinking character of our literature? One that in being catholic in taste and protestant in sensibility is so vividly representative in a rich patois of English and Scots and dialect of a wide description of the voices and lives of people all over the country that the phrase avant garde need not even apply?

This is the kind of literature we make in this country, have always made, now celebrated by the rest of the world in what we call “world literature” – written in one language about a culture that used to express itself in another. Naturally. Imaginatively. This is not writing that seeks to “benefit” in order to fulfil a remit required by “the Scottish people” – though it may end up doing those things.

Politicians intent on reviving Gaelic or other so-called “pure” forms of language at the cost of regenerating our great literary tradition of experimentation, of cross-breeding, of the ongoing re-fertilising and grafting of different kinds of speech, might take note. Our great books were never written according to a rule book.

And so, as all the talk of independence goes on – of Scottish this and Scottish that – and as “up here” versus “down there” riddles its way through our sensibility spoiling us not with a gift of ethical, intellectual debate but only for a fight, we might, all of us who love books, who love our culture, consider how nationhood can never be nearly as interesting as society is, or as individuals are, or as stories can be.

We need to be alert now to the tap-tap-tap of the bureaucrats’ computer keys telling us what to write and how. Independence is a state of mind, not a set of political terms and conditions.

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Kirsty Gunn’s essay is from Notes Towards a National Literature, part of the Saltire Pamphlet series


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Authors respond to Kirsty Gunn’s arguments

Alan Bissett

Kirsty’s an amazing writer, and there’s a typical intellectual verve about her essay.

That said, I’m not seeing the same thing she is when I look at Scottish culture.

Of course, many writers embrace the idea of Scottish independence.

There’s nothing wrong with that or even with them expressing that politic in their work.

But many other Scottish writers went public with reasons for not wanting independence, to much national exposure. That 
voice can still be very much heard.

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My experience is that Scottish writers have usually always accorded each other a good deal of respect as fellow artists, of whatever politic. I think the idea of some sort of “crisis” in our national literature is a slightly artificial one.

Like Scotland itself, our literature is a broad political church and we’re having an exciting, ongoing conversation with each other. Kirsty’s essay is proof of that for me.

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Alan Bissett is an author, playwright and performer.

Denise Mina

I think Kirsty is absolutely right.

Political discourse has taken over the arts in Scotland. Artistic discourse should be inquisitorial and expansive. Political discourse is adversarial, absolutist, narrow and forensic.

It is about right and wrong, in and out groups.

We have allowed the arts to be co-opted by politics. There is an agenda of promoting a bullshit “Scottishness” which excludes most of the people who happen to live here.

More people here speak Urdu than Scots, but I can’t see Creative Scotland putting out a call for “writers or poets in Urdu” to seek funding.

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It’s a narrow, loaded, prescriptive version of “Scottishness”, but maybe that’s caused by attempting any kind of definition of something so nebulous.

Denise Mina is a crime writer and playwright.

Sara Sheridan

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I think Scottish cultural identity is genuinely changing. That’s something the referendum has opened up within the creative industries.

At no stage has anyone said to me: “Why don’t you write more about Scotland?”

What Kirsty is saying just does not chime with me.

God help anyone trying to tell writers what to write.

I don’t feel any pressure about that.

As a writer, I sometimes set stories in Scotland and sometimes have Scottish characters. I’m developing a new series that will be set in Scotland. But I’m not noticing that there is more or less support for that than for my other work.

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Smaller publishers tend to be more flexible and more creative than bigger ones. They are not as corporate.

There is an interesting thing happening in Scotland, that is also happening UK-wide.

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Since writers have been paid less by bigger publishers in recent years, smaller publishers are getting a shot at bigger names that they would not have got otherwise.

Sara Sheridan is an author.

Ewan Morrison

The idea that “Scottishness” or “promoting Scottishness” should be a criteria for any kind of arts funding is abhorrent.

I don’t think that any of our greatest writers, from Scott to Spark to Welsh, ever for a minute sat down and thought “how does this book I’m writing ‘promote Scottishness’?”

When you go down that track you end up with this anti-creative bureaucratic project of trying to create “positive outcomes” in society through “positive images”.

We can’t have government or government-funded agencies telling us what to write – if we did we’d end up writing works of fiction that had been edited and co-authored by the SNP, and novels with happy nationalist endings tagged on.

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Scottish writers live in Scotland, we write books, that’s the only criteria that should apply.

I don’t want to write my 
next novel with Nicola Sturgeon standing behind me, primed to hit the delete button.

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Creative Scotland has to keep on proving that it’s an arms-length institution that is politically neutral, as do the other quangos and cultural institutions that exist in Scotland.

Otherwise they sacrifice their commitment to culture and become mere pawns in the long march of nationalism.

Ewan Morrison is an author and screenwriter.

Adrian Searle

I agree that literature gets a raw deal compared to other art forms.

However Creative Scotland is desperate to support the creation of great work. I’ve never been aware of any 
kind of meddling in artistic vision.

The exhortation that work should “bring benefit to the people of Scotland” isn’t some plot but a stipulation that, in tough times, creative people funded with public money have a responsibility to ensure an audience greater than one.

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I think the frustration expressed about marginalisation relates to the difficulty of overtly Scottish voices reaching a wider readership and the dominance in UK publishing of a white, middle-class, southern sensibility at the expense of distinctiveness.

Much of this is because literary fiction is read by the white middle-class, who mostly live in the south.

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Adrian Searle is the publisher at Freight Books.

Hugh Andrew

The issue of funding is, of course, one side of the coin, but the issue of readership is another.

There is, I would suggest, little evidence that Scottish reading habits have changed as a result of recent political events.

We must not confuse the noise certain writers make with their sales statistics. Indeed there is usually an inverse relationship.

I would find it difficult to discern an agenda in Creative Scotland simply because that might imply some element of strategic thought as distinct from Orwellian Truthspeak mediated through endless strategy papers and news releases.

If, after all, one doesn’t know where one is going or why one is going there, then one tends to get nudged by those who shout loudest.

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The danger in this is that funding is increasingly dislocated from any sensible allocation, ie where it acts as a “force multiplier” to enable success, and becomes merely a crutch for failure which justifies itself by another agenda.

It is difficult to discern any particular change over my 25 years in publishing between the Scottish Arts Council and Creative Scotland. The prime function of bureaucracy is to serve its own and the exercise of patronage is a powerful tool.

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Hugh Andrew is managing director at publishers Birlinn Ltd.