Looking at the Stars: In Praise of Gutter Magazine…

You probably already know that Gutter literary magazine is currently the benchmark for collections of new literature and reviews, but I feel I have to point everyone in the direction of the current edition. The quality of the writing between those green covers is reassuringly, and at times breathtakingly, high. For those of you who don’t know, Gutter is a collection of fiction, poetry and reviews, and you are guaranteed a well balanced, engaging and entertaining read.

Gutter/05 features great short stories from, amongst others, Eleanor Thom, Kirsty Logan, Anneliese Mackintosh, Anna Stewart, Craig Lamont, Natasha Soobramanien and Allan Wilson, and there are excerpts from yet to be published novels including Rodge Glass’s Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs, Tracey Emmerson’s The Trees Aren’t Sad So Why Am I? and Toni Davidson’s Beat Versus Benoit (which sent me back to his terrific debut novel Scar Culture). Add in poetry from Ryan Van Winkle, Dilys Rose, Jim Carruth, Brian Johnstone, Rizwan Ahktar and Andrew C. Ferguson as well as ‘GAP’, one of Ewan Morrison’s short stories from his soon to be published short story collection Tales From the Mall (see Talking Malls: An Interview with Ewan Morrison), a translation of Lidija Simkute by Kevin MacNeil, and reviews of Alan Bissett’s Pack Men, Andrew Raymond Drennan’s The Immaculate Heart, Zoe Strachan’s Ever Fallen In Love and Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail, and you have a publication that those of us who love reading should find indispensable. It reflects a healthy national literature with a real breadth of voices and cultures represented, something that has not always been the case. 

You can find more about Gutter by going to guttermag including how to subscribe. If you want to get your hands on Gutter/05 today you can find copies in the Sauchiehall St Waterstones and hopefully many more discerning venues.

While I’m promoting new Scottish writing and where to find it, August also saw the launch of the 29th edition of New Writing Scotland: The Flight of the Turtle. Co-edited by Carl MacDougall and Alan Bissett this thorough collection brings together different generations of practitioners of poetry and prose in various genres. Names such as Valerie Gillies, David Manderson, Allan Radcliffe, Tracey S. Rosenberg (whose current novel The Girl in the Bunker comes highly recommended), Marshall Walker, Danni Glover, Dianne Hendry and Alex Gray. You’ll also find some of the writers who appear in Gutter, but the fact there is very little crossover also speaks well for contemporary Scottish writing.

You can learn more about New Writing Scotland, and the other publications that you can purchase from the ASLS, by going to New Writing Scotland/ASLS . You’ll find they cater for most tastes, including back issues of NWS.

These collections show once more that Scottish writing, or writing with a Scottish context if you prefer, is constantly changing and evolving, which is what any healthy culture should be doing. Trying to define what makes a writer or a work Scottish or not surely has become as difficult as wrestling an octopus in a bath of lard, and just as pointless. To learn more about ourselves and our culture it is always important to engage with what is on offer around us; and what is on offer will not have fixed meaning. It will always effect different people in different ways.

There is a painting above the Val D’oro Cafe in Glasgow, two minutes from my door. It depicts Jesus crucified on the cross, at Glasgow Cross, and has a cast which features local residents. Every time I pass it I smile and think, perhaps a little less each time, about what it depicts. There is a local pride in the painting, one that apparently crosses religious divisions if a recent vox pop on Radio Four’s Lives in a Landscape, aired last year, is to be believed. But when people come across it by accident, whether from Scotland or overseas, they will make their own assumptions and have their own responses to it.

This is how it should be with all art forms. They should inform those who recognise the signs and symbolism used, but it should also have an international interest that has significance beyond the local. Scottish literature has been accused of being insular and preoccupied with the local and national. This is disingenuous as most writers deal with what they have experienced, but those experiences, at least in the best writing, will have universal appeal. Having just discussed Tom Leonard’s ‘The 6 O’Clock News’ with some students from the USA I can tell you that they engaged with the poem completely, not only understanding Leonard’s language, but the central arguments he makes. If you’re not aware of the poem then here’s a link to Tom Leonard reading it:

Tom Leonard ‘The 6 O’Clock News’

The American students cared not a jot if this was ‘proper’ language or not. They also brought their own experiences concerning dialect and language, and the assumptions that accompany them, to the discussion. Some people are so concerned about what is and is not Scots, or if the language used is ‘valid’, that we forget to take each piece of work on individual merit. They are so concerned over questions of inclusion and belonging that they forget to engage with the work itself, and this is when whole areas of writing; for instance detective fiction, science-fiction, Gaelic writing, urban realism, etc, can be written off without proper engagement with the respective stories or poems. Writing is a conversation between writer and reader, one where, if the writer is successful, both will come away knowing more about the other and themselves. Where those writers and readers come from, and who or what is being written about, is secondary to the success of that conversation.

In case you missed it, here is a link to The Guardian Book Podcast where there was an interesting debate about Scottish literature:

The Guardian Scottish Books Podcast

The most insightful aspect of the discussion asks the question; ‘Are writers attempting to fulfil expectations of what a Scottish literature should be?’. The argument behind such a question is that this will produce, and perhaps already has, a reductive and narrow national literature. The question asks us to consider what is required by publishers, funding bodies, critics, and. more importantly, the wider readership and if writers have to fulfil these requirements to survive. What journals such as Gutter and New Writing Scotland prove is that there are plenty of individuals prepared to break out of such apparent cultural and commercial constraints. Despite what some people seem to suggest, contemporary Scottish writing, from the well kent to the never before published, has a strong pulse. 

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