The fallout from James Kelman’s appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival continued in The Sunday Herald. I’m not sure what’s happened to this paper and its weekly sister The Herald in the last year. At the moment they remind me of the kids in the playground pushing unwilling participants into the middle of a circle and chanting ‘fight, fight, fight’. Jasper Hamill’s article (see below) talks of ‘brutal put downs’ and ‘blistering attacks’ and goes on to describe how ‘Literary Scotland’ has been ‘torn apart’ by Kelman’s comments. Really? I know newspapers are having to create controversy as they increasingly lose out to other medium when it comes to breaking the news, but their current editorial stance, at least in terms of covering art and culture, is desperate. Much as I love the idea of fights breaking out behind Charlotte Square between gangs of ‘genre’ and ‘radical’ writers, circling each other like The Sharks and The Jets, this is just an attempt to reaffirm those old, and surely now redundant, categories of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.
I may be wrong about this, but I don’t believe that Kelman is making these points for personal gain. He speaks on behalf of writers who do not fit any ‘genre’, and therefore are not easily packaged. His profile has never been higher, and part of that profile is ‘the angry man of Scottish letters’, something he will be fully aware of, and uses to try and effect change. Although his critical acclaim may not transfer to Rankinesque sales, nobody could argue that he lacks status. His argument was consistent with his wider concerns about suppression of language and the working classes by the education system and a capitalist society. The 2003 collection of essays and talks “and the judges said…” properly deals with his views and is well worth looking at, even if you don’t agree, although the novels are the real place to understand his political and artistic stance. Denise Mina’s opinion piece (also below), written to answer Kelman’s accusations, concludes that such arguments only push readers towards genre fiction. She may be right, but must see that such a state of affairs is not desirable. Genre fiction by definition only admits certain styles and voices. If other fiction is pushed aside then Scotland’s literature is diminished. The real shame about the sensational coverage of this debate, the personal attacks and divisive language, is that they obscure a very important conversation that could be taking place about the best way to introduce and promote literature to make it more inclusive rather than exclusive.