Writers’ Conference- day three

A national literature?

Chair: Ian Rankin

Speaker: Irvine Welsh

Ian Rankin opened the session, referring to the conference leaflet which focussed on the renaissance of Scottish literature and nationality and identity. He quoted the original 1962 debate in which nationalism and internationalism, Scottish identity and parochialism were the different poles.

Ian Welsh, born in Edinburgh and now resident in the United States, was the keynote speaker. Here is his speech in full:

I’ve always considered myself belonging to the school of writers who should be read but not heard, so I don’t know what set of circumstances leads me to be standing here today. I suppose the subject matter, a national literature, is a compelling one for me, given the current political situation in these islands with the forthcoming independence referendum, and the fact that I’m now in genuine exile in the US, rather than a half-arsed one in London or Dublin.

It only really hits you living outside the UK, how much the casual remark “I’m Scottish” or “I’m British” is, bizarrely, such a political statement. I speak as someone who has been described over the years in British Council, and other, literature as both. My friend Phillip Kerr and I find it amusing how I can be described as ‘Scottish’ while he’s referred to as ‘British’ in the same festival brochure, as we grew up about three miles from each other in Edinburgh, and both left that city in our teens, to go to London. This, like so many things, is down to perceived social class differences. I don’t want to get sidetracked by dwelling on class; at this stage let’s just acknowledge the fundamental veracity of its relevance to this debate, and leave it at that.

As this discussion originated in Edinburgh half a century ago, I’m going to focus mainly on the Scottish situation, as it’s a pretty unique one. For we live in a country that isn’t a nation, but has been lurching, almost apologetically at times, towards that status, picking up some of the trappings of such an entity en route. But, lest we forget, this is still a region of the UK.

The political and cultural landscape was unrecognisable 50 years ago, when Hugh MacDiarmid delivered his lecture on a ‘national literature’, provoking his famous spat with Alexander Trocchi. We’d come through the horrors of war and holocaust, and people who regarded themselves as progressive politically saw internationalism as unambiguously good and desirable. It was forward-looking and inclusive, respecting the culture and aspirations of all, and based on fraternal, even socialistic notions. Nationalism, even dressed up in ‘national liberation’ clothes, was seen as morally dubious and inherently divisive.

Now the dominant model of ‘internationalism’ is capitalist- and media-led globalization, levelling national and regional differences into a monolith of confused, debt-fuelled consumerism and bland, disposable culture. Today it’s difficult to imagine, even without underestimating the formidable power of Scottish contrariness, that kind of discord existing between such freethinking mavericks as Trocchi and MacDiarmid. I’m quite sure that both, whether their vantage was the Scottish borders or New York City, would look at the UK in a globalized world and acknowledge that there were bigger fish to fry.

As both a nation and a national culture, it’s important to remember that the UK ascended on the back of the first imperialist epoch of globalization, when world markets were dominated by militaristic nation states. Paradoxically, the current era of globalization has, in some ways, strained the relationship between a national-cultural identity and a nation state, which, certainly in Britain, is starting to disappear. Rearguard actions by the establishment to promote a mono-cultural British nationalism are usually unable to move beyond the traditional bedrock of that nationalism; what Stuart Hall calls “the idea of an assumed Englishness”, which has always negotiated against difference. This negotiation against difference is mirrored by the current mass production and dissemination of culture, whereby overt regional and national differences in this context, are in the first instance, perceived as troublesome barriers to mass sales.

We can spend all day debating what is national and regional literature to the point where it becomes meaningless. In an American context, look at Wikipedia, and you’ll find writers as diverse as Steven King, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler all described as ‘regional’. The criterion for being a ‘national’ writer often seems to be as trite as living close enough to Manhattan to be able to attend the occasional New Yorker cocktail party.

Global mass culture is now largely governed by an increasingly image-dominant, rather than linguistic-dominant, means of cultural production. Therefore, it’s more difficult for it to be limited by national boundaries. In such an environment, the main question for storytellers who see themselves as working outside the global cultural highway of London, New York and LA is, what kind of room for manoeuvre do we have, in a global literary marketplace, to express national or regional culture? Moreover, can writing still be undertaken – and indeed, writers be formed – within a ‘national’ culture?

The Scottish experience says a resounding ‘yes’ to this. Prominent novels that have come out this year, from Alan Warner, James Kelman, Jenni Fagan and, less obviously but still emphatically, Ewan Morrison, John Niven and Dougie Johnstone, clearly could not have been written by non-Scots. Even genre fiction writers, often derided as writing into marketing holes, must convey a sense of place, and perhaps even of national character or archetypes.

Yet, Scottish fiction has an uneasy relationship in the ‘British’ literary paradigm, dominated by this imperialistic idea of an assumed Englishness, which, as Hall reminds us, exists to negotiate against difference. Only one Scottish novel has won the highly imperialist-orientated Man Booker Prize, routinely chosen by a largely upper middle-class English panel, and alternating around 50-50 between largely upper-middle-class English writers and citizens of the former colonies, presumably to stamp legitimacy on this ‘global accolade’. Kevin Williamson of Rebel Ink, and Scottish Writer of the Year Alan Bissett, both recently attacked the anti-Scottish discriminatory nature of the prize, producing hard, sobering statistics in support of their arguments. That they haven’t been deemed worthy of a reply can only be due to either the arrogance of hierarchical power, this negotiation against difference, or in this case, more likely, that the Booker apologists simply have no arguments to refute these observations. Hegemony not only breeds arrogance; it also promotes intellectual enfeeblement. The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of six-form sociology. The academics who are custodians of the prize however, can only offer bland and complacent corporate PR speak in defence of an award based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured.

The key point is that competing groups, ranging from national politicians to nongovernmental organisations to indigenous activists, have come to see culture as a valuable resource to be invested in, contested, and used for varied sociopolitical and economic ends. This idea has largely been expressed on the left – both traditional and modern – in terms of the Gramscian notion of cultural struggle for hegemony. Now, everything from the Jubilee to the Olympics, to all of us sitting here, illustrates that cultural agency, at every level, is negotiated within globalized contexts; dominated by the active management and administration not only of culture, but the circumstances within which it develops. In most cases, this is seen as a legitimate, even essential mode of urban development. So these rituals and everyday aesthetic practices are mobilized to promote tourism and the heritage business, in countries where mass culture-reliant industries often comprise significant portions of the GNP.

Writers such as George Yúdice assert that a new international division of cultural labour has emerged, combining local difference with transnational administration and investment. Yúdice contends this doesn’t mean that today’s increasingly transnational culture – exemplified by the entertainment industries and the so-called global civil society of nongovernmental organisations – is necessarily homogenized. In other words, no matter how strong economic and cultural hegemony is, there is always room for maverick opposition. The biggest shock about the2012 London Olympic opening ceremony was that after 30-odd years of neo-liberal governments, such a genuinely anti-imperialist, multi-and-popular cultural event could actually take place in contemporary Britain.

So national and regional differences still function, and shape the meaning of cultural and political phenomena, from pop songs to antiracist activism. Yúdice considers a range of sites where identity politics and cultural agency are negotiated in the face of powerful transnational forces. For example he analyses appropriations of American funk music, and a citizen action initiative in Rio de Janeiro, to show how global notions such as cultural difference are deployed within specific social fields. He provides a political and cultural economy of a vast and increasingly influential art event — the insite triennial festival, which extends from San Diego to Tijuana. He posits on the uses of culture in an unstable world where censorship and terrorist acts can interrupt the usual channels of capitalist and artistic flows.

With that point in mind, I’m only digressing slightly when I focus on a piece of work, Tales From The Mall, by Glasgow-based writer Ewan Morrison, which was published this year by Scotland’s innovative Cargo Press. In the simplistic nature of market classification, this book is hard to tritely define (and therefore stock). Not only does it not fit the genre-dominated fiction boxes into which everything must increasingly be shoehorned, (again, retail-, not publishing- or artist-led), but it’s not a fictional novel, short story collection, multi-media experience, or a treatise on modern architecture, consumer capitalism, authority structures and the negation of democracy, yet it’s all of these things.

Tales From The Mall, therefore, has gained little exposure, other than a fantastic word-of-mouth through the cognoscenti. This publication posits an exciting future for storytelling, from the so-called margins. It’s an innovative book that is set largely in Scotland, but which has a global reach, as this small country interfaces with a globalised consumerist culture to produce truly zeitgeist writing.

But the supposed crisis of national culture and writing in our globalised world is, like most of our current ills, fundamentally a crisis of democracy. Faced by the seemingly impregnable forces of multi-national capital, imperialist structures and their slavish spokespersons, overloaded by impotent debate, people must have forums and space for dissent and positive resistance. I emphasize the ‘positive’ only because we must never forget that local ethnicities/nationalities can become as dangerous as ‘nation-state’ ones when they simply fear modernism to the extent that they retreat into national and defensive identities.

As I know through my own experience, the market will always convert art and culture into mass entertainment. When my first novel sold 10,000 copies, I was a local hero. When it sold 100,000, people grew more dubious. At a million copies I was a sell-out, whoring out my culture for the entertainment of outsiders. Now … I can’t even think about it. The point is, that many people locally felt an ownership of the book, and a pride in it. What was an affirmation, an attestation to a place, a way of life, a language, a class, a culture and an attitude, became seen as something else. Obviously, the book was the same; I hadn’t changed a word of it. Let me make it clear that I’m not complaining about making money – any writer that does is either a liar or crazy – just stressing that the marketplace can force the writer into a set of relationships and perspectives they might not have recalled signing up for.

So from an aspiring author’s point of view, if you’re from the so-called margins, do you play the current publishing game – eg shoehorn yourself into writing genre fiction, and ‘work within the system’, as the successful Scandinavian writers have done in crime fiction, effectively globally rebranding (at least in the eyes of outsiders) an entire genre – or do you exercise the freedom of the author and simply do what the fuck you feel like? I think I know what both Trocchi and MacDiarmid would do, but I’m suggesting that there is legitimacy, and not necessarily a dichotomy, in doing both. But wherever a writer, or their writing, is placed on the spectrum, what interests me, personally, is work which in some way, speaks the truth to power. To my mind this is still is the greatest freedom a writer can have. The celebrated, marvellous, Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy was reported to have said, “it’s alright speaking the truth to power, but just don’t expect it to listen”. While I understand what she means, I don’t think we speak the truth to power for power’s ear, but for the ear and the imagination of future generations, who would seek to live in a world free from the malign and self-serving influence of those who wield it.

So the call to arms is a twofold one: firstly, let’s have a look around, it’s a big world, and if bits of it move you, don’t be afraid to write about it. Second, be bold, and proud of who are and where you come from. Express your culture, your concerns and those of your community and the voices within it, however movable a feast that is. Because if you don’t, the chances are that it might not be around in the future. So do what Trocchi and MacDiarmid would do: don’t get obsessed with histories and legacies or markets and ‘rules’, just hit those keys and see what happens.


Rankin: People all around the world felt the story resonated for them.

Welsh: People recognise the characters, global archetypes with which people identify. He thought he and a few pals would enjoy it. He had no grandiose schemes for it. The way the publishing industry has changed a London-based publisher might not publish Trainspotting. The market is much more defined. I’ve carved out a niche. It’s mine. I have this semi brand writer. If I was a young writer now I would be surprised if it was taken up by a big publishing house. Writers doing YA fiction, it’s a marketing muscle.

Rankin asked about the notion of a bland levelling. Literature can be a counter balance to that. It is good at showing different cultures and sub cultures.

Welsh: You have seen the growth of regional bookstores again, much more focussed on difference.

Rankin then- maybe reluctantly- opened up to the floor.

Owen Sheers said that in Wales the national tradition is split between the two languages. He doesn’t want to be bound in by his countries, but to be expanded by his country. Lots of us are not living in our countries of birth. His main question: in a post devolution UK, what about English literature?

There is a conversation: what is English writing?

Liam Hurley thought there was an absence of the C word, colonialism. We suffer from cultural amnesia. We have been colonisers and colonised. We have a very interesting duality. How useful is that term?

Elisabeth Marshall said Welsh was anti establishment. Structures and societies are crumbling and there is a move to reestablishing communities. Will that be reflected in writing?

Welsh thought writers are excited by change.There are a lot of fictions which are inherently conservative.

Angus McNichol observed about Irvine Welsh, young people said Trainspotting was ‘about us.’ Angus writes in Gaelic but references Neruda. We are members of British society. How do we spread our literatures? There is a cosmopolitisation that marginalises us.

Theresa Breslin said her access was a library. She found books where she did not find herself, children with cooks and guardians. As a librarian she didn’t find her children represented. There has been a huge change. We are seeing a dissolution of librarians. The librarians have instigated demand.

Monique from Canada, a reader, asked about the duality of literature. A French Canadian uses language differently. She thinks of a national literature as a portion of the country. At once national but also human. They speak to the human experience.

Cindy Cooke from Scotland said, yes, we are affected by nationality. It would be strange if we were not influenced. She is a Scottish writer though not racially Scottish, she has lived here all her life. Anglophobia and sectarianism not an issue in England.

Kapka Kassabova amazed to hear cosmpolitanism as a dirty word. You are equating transnationalism and cosmopolitanism with Starbucks. There is another aspect, the opening of gates. She is a product of Soviet imperialism growing up in the Soviet bloc. Look at the variety of allegiances as opposed to single allegiances.

China Mieville said there was a failure to recognise the difference between soft and hard localisms. It depends on context. The state has great recuperative powers. Of course Trainspotting is used to sell brand Bonnie Scotland. Is the opposite of localism universalism? Why is the aim to see our own lives reflected? Why not see something new that we have not seen before. A huge drive for Zimbabwean literature. A Zimbabwean writer said in response to that drive “f*** you.”

I argued for a local, rebellious Englishness. People make assumptions. I don’t have the Englishness of the Anglo Irish ascendancy of Osborne. My Englishness is refracted through Liverpool which has an anti-Tory majority. Through the experiences at the margins of England I try to get to universal values that can be recognised across the globe.

Alan Bissett writes as a Scot, proud of Scottishness. The Macdiarmid- Trocchi debate left a legacy. Trocchi can argue about internationalism, but we exist within a national context. It is possible to reflect Scottish nationalism and be aware of issues internationally. Scottish writing is local. There is nothing wrong with writing from a local perspective. Protectionism is sometimes necessary.

Xi Chuan is a Chinese writer writing mainly in English. In England far less foreign literature is translated than in France, Germany or China.

Ewan Morrison referred to universalism, the ethos of the Sixties. What use has this proposition put to? Who has made most use of this proposition? We as writers with indigenous backgrounds have to fight the homogenising effects of globalisation. We need protection. We have to attack the source of homogenisation, global protectionism.

Matthias Polyticki was outed as a western Germany after reunification. His publisher says don’t use dialect. Use more full stops. He loves Bavarian dialect. He wants to be just a Bavarian author.

Melvin Burgess said England as a nation does represent corporatism and imperialism. How can you be English without representing the Empire? A new immigrant can wrap themselves in the flag. “If I did it I would be BNP.” It is not good enough to say I am not English. It is still a business to work out how to be English in the modern age. There is one solution, to deal with your communities. I try to work locally. It is an abiding problem to find a way to be English. We haven’t solved it.

Ben Okri. In the sixties there was a great conference in Nigeria. This debate continues to rage. A poet said there is no such thing as African writing, there is good writing or bad writing. At the same conference Soyinka attacked the concept of negritude. The tiger does not talk of its tigritude. They write about what shocks, amuses them. You thrust your hand into the human spirit. What you pull out is your subject. He was perplexed by the subject. As soon as you say the subject is Scottish, you have limited Scottishness for all time. A nation is constantly unfolding and the artist is part of that process. There is a danger of over-defining a national literature, producing a series of cliches. Welsh said he wanted to write something about the human spirit. Nations come along and say what it says about national literature. Many books are left out of the discussion. Let’s keep the spirit open and keep it wide.

John Ryder from the audience talked about the capacity of the reader to capture what a national literature is about. He was introduced to Trainspotting as an archetype of Scotland. We can be defined as a national literature but what if nobody reads it?

James Robertson, Scotland, picked up on Ben Okri. He did a talk with Liz Lochead. She can go for weeks without thinking of herself as Scottish, but that is what she is. Many of us think Scotland should be independent, but are not nationalists. MacDiarmid’s slogan in the 20s was not traditions but precedents. He wanted to recover traditions to do new things. Scottish literature today is multi-voiced, multi-ethnic, with different sexualities. A thoroughly good thing.

Chika Unigwe, Nigerian and Belgian, found the idea of a national literature absurd. She can’t fathom it. We are out of the same culture as Nigerians. Some of he things overlap. She can read Okri and see it as part of English literature. It is absurd and undefinable.

Bernardo Atxaga said national literature is linked with value. If you need to get a value you can say you have a treasure: a poem, a novel. In Scotland you have the real story of a national literature. It could be said this is a problem for Scotland, the Basque region. You need to get a place in the map of the world.

Khamila Shamsie is happy to call herself a Pakistani writer. One of the astonishing things is we haven’t heard the phrase bearing witness. She thinks of writers who respond to what is happening in a nation. Growing up under censorship, you understand what a national literature is. I grew up in a client state of America. When I read American fiction I don’t see American imperialism. There is a problem within the literature if it isn’t telling those stories.

Janne Teller said that according to the brochure she was a Danish writer. I feel these national labels are limiting. The problem for the literature comes when it is national before it is literature. Her publisher says she writes as a very un-Danish author. She doesn’t represent anyone but myself. I refuse to be on a panel of Scandinavian writers. I am just a human being.

Jenny Fagan, Scottish, human being, member of the world thought it was easy to write off a national literature. When I find what it is like to be human in a book like Trainspotting she thinks it is wrong to write off a national literature is silly.

Denise Mina has multiple identities. From an Irish background her family didn’t feel welcome here. Exclusion is problematic. A nation state is a fictional character. It is never static. We should never define what it means to be a Scottish writer. The rest of us are shackled compared to transnational companies.

A member of the audience said human nature is the same. Why should literature be national? It should be international.

Rankin said why don’t we call it just literature?

A speaker from the Caribbean said there is a clue in the language what your identity is. She found the way into British society by reading. From a Catholic background, she found a way to understand the society. You understand about a country by reading the writing. It gives you a clue to understanding what is going on, the hearts and minds of the people.

Carlos Gamerro wanted to address the assumption as if the global market was opposed to regionalism. It demands cliched regional writing. An Argentine novel has to have tango or the disappeared. Beware of nationalism turning into cliches that accommodate to a global market. He quoted Borges. Shakespeare would have been amazed if he had been limited to English themes.

Welsh said it was a battle of different truths. It is frustrating which is why we are having the same debate as in 1962.

Another reader from Brazil said where she came from literature was more about the language they speak. That is their national literature and more important than the country they are in.

Another speaker said we suffer because the language is called English, not British. It is a disaster that we don’t have a British literature. Many writers from all over the world who write in English. We should celebrate the Union and Britishness even though he is half Scottish-half Welsh.

Yanne Teller said you want the best literature so you don’t ask where it is from. We are very global artists or we would limit ourselves. Those of us who write in a language not reflecting our local culture, it is very influential of how you write. National literature is not static.

Alan Bissett said no, it is not static. National literature is a destination. Ben was right to be suspicious. Scottish literature is a discussion of what it is to be Scottish. We can’t leave it up to politicians. We want the voice of the people from below. It isn’t anything to be afraid of at all.

Jose Rodrigues dos Santos said that Portugal does not have the same problem. He addressed the problem of language. My country is my language. He is Mozambican, Brazilian, Portuguese. This identity makes literature.

Online responses were just as impassioned. People wanted to hear a lot more focussed debate. The audience wanted more female writers and less boundaries. Access to libraries was vital.

Khamila Shamsie summarised, asking us to listen to the heavy rain pounding on the roof of the tent.

“If we were in an English novel it would be depressing. If it was a Pakistani novel: hahhh”. In 1962 the debate pitted nationalism vs internationalism. The dominant mode of nationalism is internationalism. How do writers address the resistance of international publishing to difference? We heard that the cosmopolitan marginalises us. There was a feeling that the global marketplace seeks to marginalise us. There was a defence of cosmopolitanism that doesn’t negate the critique of the international marketplace. We heard a rousing defence that there is no such thing as African writing. There is good writing and bad writing. Some people would adopt the term universal and some would oppose it. Nobody is writing without a context but there was difference about what that context is. She pointed out that none of the fifty writers have a fixed idea of the nationality or composition of their audience. Perhaps certain audiences matter more to our hearts. She likes the international marketplace because it allows translations, it allows her in this room. Publishing in Britain is largely works in English. You can come from a place with more than one language, where language is deeply divisive. The Urdu writers are not here. The global marketplace is not global. It is partial. There was an argument that a national literature can be a contestation of that state. You can also be co-opted within. States has great recuperative power and can show it allows dissent. We go to fiction and find different things there. Khamila and Ali Smith can read the same book, but read it differently and the same. There can be a pressure to exclude material because you are seeing as playing to the global gallery. Last word to Irvine Welsh: I haven’t disagreed with anything.


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