Kirsty Gunn: Plaids and porridge have been replaced by drugs and depression

What's happening to Scottish literature? I find myself asking this more and more. I see and read a huge amount of contemporary fiction and poetry and memoir and essay '“ it's my job. Writing books. Writing about books. Teaching books. Words are my thing.
Authors like Alasdair Gray didnt write the way they did to bolster a strong national identity. Picture: John DevlinAuthors like Alasdair Gray didnt write the way they did to bolster a strong national identity. Picture: John Devlin
Authors like Alasdair Gray didnt write the way they did to bolster a strong national identity. Picture: John Devlin

And yes, I do find myself asking: What’s up? What’s been going on? Where are the really amazing novels that are like no other novels? The really innovative collections of poetry that address subjects that don’t seem to have been addressed in conventional collections of poetry before? Where are the stand-out-from-the-crowd memoirs and works of non-fiction? Where has the thrill gone – that feeling that we used to have, for a while there, that what was happening in Scottish publishing was like nothing else?

Before I go on I should clarify. For none of this is to say there aren’t some great pieces of writing out there that I’m excited about. Canongate have just sent me Richard Holloway’s forthcoming book about death, for example, and it’s utterly extraordinary – contemplative, argumentative, beautifully written, and of course, rivetingly erudite.

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And this summer I read a terrific memoir published by Birlinn last year called Poacher’s Pilgrimage by Alastair McIntosh and I’ve never come across anything quite like it – more orature than literature, as though the author is right beside me talking and thinking about his book, making it up as he goes along, walking down the roads of his childhood in Lewis. Yes. There are great books out there coming from Scottish publishers. But more and more these are appearing as isolated moments of wonderfulness in a swathe of the ordinary. Too much of it lacking in particularity and risk. Too much following the same kinds of lines.

All those down-trodden young people in the inner cities or on islands trying to figure out their lives in heavily drawn national contexts; all those rural landscapes etched out in minuscule detail to show the harshness of making a living… They are starting to read as though a form of genre fiction.

Of course I am drawing with broad strokes here, but you get the idea. It’s like new kind of kailyard literature has come to prevail – only the plaids and porridge have been replaced by drugs and depression. Because in addition, and for me perhaps of an even more pressing concern, all these books seem to have been created in exactly the same kind of style – with a similar progression of hopeless to hopeful and with similar kinds of sentences and structure and… voices. Weirdly, no matter where they are set, all these stories and poems and memoirs sound a bit, well, the same.

I’m worried about it. I started worrying around the time of the independence referendum – when so many writers only wanted to talk politics. I always worry when the imagination gets hijacked by politicians’ speeches, and worry even more the way the media wants to highlight this – as though the great work of the intellectual classes to consider and debate in the round matters of economic and social import might just be reduced as to whether they vote Yes or No. I worried then that our literature would be affected by what I thought of as its “politicisation”, with remits from government-funded bodies such as Creative Scotland requiring work in the arts to have national “benefit”.

And I see it, too, the same kind of direction-setting in those funding streams that affect research that generates other kinds of less mainstream literature. All those institutions with the cash power to enable projects all bound by the Scottish Government’s chillingly-named list of “National Outcomes” – one of which states how funding applications must take cognisance of governmental aims to “take pride in a strong… national identity”. Think about that for just a minute and feel very afraid.

For sure there’s no doubt that the voice, for the most part, who is telling our stories now sounds like it comes from the highly-populated central belt – all those votes – even if the characters have been transported to a remote island in the West or North. There’s been a kind of monophony about Scottish literary publishing for some time in that way.

The terrific Orkney writer Duncan McLean, whose sensational Bucket of Tongues was slapped down centre deck in the great storm of literary awakening that broke in Scotland in the 1980s and changed British literature for good, has written about this in a fabulous little collection of stories he’s put together himself and is getting out into the world by his own steam. Speak for Yourself brings together unknown writers from Orkney and New Zealand who are all writing in a kind of English that sounds and rings with its own “rhythms and cadences” as he puts it, authentically New Zealand and Orcadian sounding, and he quotes Robert Crawford’s call for writers to “dig in” – to entrench themselves in place and community with “psychological concentration”.

It makes me think how, though there’ve been a lot of claims made, recently, for stories of Highland and Island identities, just putting an Orcadian word in, every now and then, on the page, doesn’t create an Orcadian voice any more than flicking a bit of Shetland or Hebridean or a phrase or two from any other part of Scotland into the chapters might.

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By contrast, Speak For Yourself really does read in accents and tones we’ve not heard before. Literature must come from the ground up, just as new ground was broken all these years ago when writers like James Kelman and Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens were rising up to talk about Scottish lives that hadn’t been noticed before. They weren’t writing that way because they’d been told it was good for a strong “national identity” to do so. They were doing it because they were great writers, with their own tone and timbre that’s authentic and rare and true.

So the kind of guerilla activity Duncan is involved in gives me hope, along with the great movement in our pubs and bars towards spoken literature in slam-sessions and collaborative spoken word events. People like Holly McNeish, and her highly-crafted literary rants about breast-feeding. William Letford and his building site poems delivered with the voice and gravitas of tragedy. But the mainstream, out in the review pages, in the prize lists and in the high street bookshops…? What’s happened, I am still asking? Where has our literary renaissance gone? Have we turned the lights out, one by one, as the nationalist project has brightened?