Alexander McCall Smith: ‘Scottish fiction too grim’

Author of The Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: Dan Phillips
Author of The Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: Dan Phillips
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Novelist Alexander McCall Smith has spoken out against the dark depiction of Scotland by his fellow Scottish writers.

McCall Smith is best known for his light hearted No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, as well as the 44 Scotland Street series. Both are a far cry from the dark Tartan Noir genre that has become so popular for Scottish authors.

McCall Smith told The Scots Magazine: “Sometimes we present ourselves in a less than complimentary light, which is a pity. The portrayal of Scotland disappoints me. There is urban dysfunction and violence in Scotland, and aggression, but that’s not the whole picture.”

Tartan Noir is the phrase coined to describe Scottish crime fiction by famous authors such as Ian Rankin, William McIlvanney and Val McDermid. The genre focuses on the grim side of Scottish life, an almost polar opposite to Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street series, which is popular with readers for its community spirited take on Scottish life.

“They feel this proper community and they may feel they are lacking it in their real lives,” he said. “It is slightly artificial but it appeals to people. Scotland Street for example is widely read in India and they like the fact that it has got a strong sense of the local and local rootedness; people yearn for it in their lives.”

McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency tells the story of Precious Ramotswe, a cheerful woman who founds Gabarone, Botswana’s first ladies’ detective agency. The series has sold over 20 million copies worldwide.

“I see myself as a Scottish writer, although I write about other places,” he said. “I would certainly disagree very strongly with the notion that Scottish writers just write about Scotland - that is nonsense, really. Scottish writers can write about wherever they like, people don’t say the same thing about English writers; they don’t say it about Graham Greene - he was an English writer who wrote about all sorts of different places.

“So all the deliberate curtailing of the intellectual for Scottish writers and artists is in my view not a good idea at all.”

McCall Smith has in the past expressed his dislike for Irvine Welsh’s “Scottish miserabilism”, and has himself been accused of using too sunny an outlook in his own work.

“I get accused of being unduly optimistic and concentrating only on positive things, which I find a very strange accusation, because it is as if the role of the writer is to represent dysfunction and discord.

“Certainly that must be presented, but that is not the sole thing, this assumption that you have got to be grim to be a writer seems to be very strange.”


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