This week, I read an article in the Herald which quoted Scottish publisher Adrian Searle (of Freight) as saying that “Scottish fiction can be really boring”. Like many others my first reaction was to be a wee bit miffed at the headline. The quote apparently attacks the fiction that I, and many other excellent Scottish authors, passionately support.
A few seconds into my wee huff I tutted loudly and decided that I owed it to my craft to actually think about what was being said. Perhaps he didn’t mean boring in the yawn, this is unreadable sense, but boring in the perception of what Scottish fiction fundamentally is. Has Scottish fiction been oppressed and stereotyped by those who hold the power of the purse to the extent that we’ve become a bleak and most unwelcome genre? Of course not I hear writers and readers, from both within Scotland and further afield, cry in outrage and bewilderment. However, I do think that there is an element of reality in what’s being said.
Ask yourself, either as a writer or a reader, what you expect from Scottish fiction. For me, I believe that when we write stories that are entrenched in our culture, our heritage, our people and our surroundings then we must honestly reflect everything that this huge responsibility brings with it. Our fiction must be authentic, but the debate, I suspect, is around where that authenticity stems from. It doesn’t need to be instantly recognisable outside of who we are for it to be brilliant. Indeed, its authenticity shouldn’t need to be relevant to anyone other than ourselves. To an outsider it must feel real, but new too. A story that’s never been written before.
That said, Scottish fiction born of 1980s heritage might be dark, class based, reeking of black humour and politically spawned from a post-Thatcherite society that for a time shaped the very fabric of our existence. Is this ‘boring’ fiction that isn’t relevant outside of its own courtyard? Perhaps it is if its voice is telling the same story, unfolding the traditional male perspective that has been crafted, albeit with some aplomb, but so frequently in the past. If the story is raw, beautiful, new, then it can travel wherever it needs to, if it is supported and carried by publishers who relish the narrative that dare define itself as new Scottish fiction.
In his actual editorial, Adrian Searle adds more.
“As someone who reads large amounts of Scottish fiction as part of my job, I’ve come to believe that, as a literary culture, we’ve become infantilised. We set the bar of quality lower for our own literature than that from elsewhere.
“This is important because literature is the mirror by which we view ourselves. Because of its narrative complexity I’ve always thought fiction the superior art form. It can have the greatest influence on society. Regardless of our politics, if we have a distorted view of ourselves we make poor decisions, as individuals and as a nation.”
The last line stares at me the longest. I can’t disagree with it, but I do hope that our view is a true reflection and that this is magnified magnificently in Scottish writing. We are of our time, and of our place, and how we view ourselves is often collectively beautiful, even in its bleakness. It can perhaps be argued that this very bleakness was the fire that enabled Scotland’s passion to rise so majestically during the referendum campaign, and indeed in the later UK election. Our complexity is our soul and we can choose to capture its rawness in character and narrative and celebrate it in our voices, albeit ensuring we are mastering our craft and not merely mirroring its identifiable past.
Later in the article Searle says “we’re told by the large conglomerates in London what to read. The books that are marketed and achieve column inches tend to conform to an outsider’s view of who we are. This skews what we think a “Scottish” novel should be and readers don’t appreciate what a wealth of talent we have on our doorstep.”
I agree, our Scottish voices are often lost under a booming voice pushing us towards literature that wins prizes or fan worship. An accent shouldn’t stand in the way of that and publishers such as Freight and its Scottish peers have a duty to shout about us louder. We’re here and we’re bloody brilliant. There’s nothing complex or boring about that.