In praise of: Agnes Owens

One of the reasons for writing this blog is to shout about people who I feel are overlooked or under appreciated, and in the hope that others, in turn, will give me similar names and works that may have passed me by. I have just finished The Complete Short Stories of Agnes Owens. Having read some of her work previously I knew I was in for a treat, but having this collection in one place is indispensable. Agnes’s position in Scottish literature has often been reduced to a footnote to the work of James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. Best known for sharing an early billing with the two in the 1985 collection of short stories Lean Tales she bows to neither in the quality of the writing. Her first short story, Arabella, was written in 1978 at a time when female Scottish writers were rarely seen or read, and this collection shows the consistency of her work through the eighties and nineties and includes her most recent stories from 2008. A voice as interesting and individual as Agnes’s should be better known than she is, and her lowly status in Scottish cultural life would have helped provide Kelman with a far more persuasive argument when he speaks of Scotland ignoring it’s ‘radical traditions’ (see Kelman v’s Jakey ). An award winning, critically acclaimed, writer who complains about a lack of recognition may receive little sympathy, even if the crux of his argument is legitimate. A working class woman, one who started to write later in life than most, and did so raising a family outside of the literary circles that tend to be based in the major cities, has a real claim to be under represented in a nation’s cultural conversation. Scottish women’s writing is arguably in a healthier state than at any previous time, and Agnes Owens’ influence should not be ignored.

None of which would overly matter if the writing was not of real quality. A master of the short story, a form which is too often overlooked, Owens’ collection is full of memorable characters, dark humour and captures the mild surrealism that is to be found in the everyday. If Agnes Owens didn’t exist then no one would think of inventing her, and that fact in itself makes her worth reading.

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