The Lonely Contrarian: why it’s so difficult to criticise the Scottish book industry

Ae grumpy lass

There is a culture of diplomacy at the heart of the Scottish book industry. It sounds quite nice, doesn’t it? In the abstract, it connotes an image of benign fair-mindedness, of tea-supping, left-leaning culturals just being really nice about saving a largely independent industry.

Read just a small number of reviews of Scottish books – indeed, read a few from this very blog – and you could be forgiven for thinking Scottish writing has ascended to a level of such advanced genius that it simply doesn’t warrant criticism. The problem is it’s a fallacy – in truth, there is a pervasive problem with the Scottish national press that has stagnated objective free-thinking and made it almost impossible to critique the products of the nation’s book industry.

Indeed, when the books produced in Scotland are summarily ignored by the national press, naturally it’s bloggers and the writers themselves who pick up the slack – and this is the inherent problem. Bloggers rely on small publishers to send books for review and are naturally wary of burning bridges in an industry that is so close-knit it’s an episode of Cheers. The undue pressure to provide neat, quotable endorsements is not one applied by publishers, but by ourselves. We want the industry to thrive. We want to represent Scottish books and Scottish writers and we certainly do not want to criticise a book or an author within that vortex of cultural pressure – it would be blogging (and cultural) suicide. What we get, then, is a small pool of sycophants circle jerking without dissimilitude to both those books that deserve recognition and those that most certainly do not.

In 2013, Peter Burnett noted that he’s “never been able to stop [himself] from counting how many of these [Scottish] publishers are honoured in our media — but it’s always been next to nil.” His analysis of coverage provided for books produced in Scotland makes for stark reading:

Issue of The Scotsman Books Covered Scottish Books Publisher Covered
4 May 2013 13 1 Freight
20 April 2013 13 1 New Voices Press
27 April 2013 15 1 Argyll Publishing
18 May 2013 15 2 HappenstanceCanongate
25 May 2013 13 1 Dundee University Press
1 June 2013 13 1 Polygon
8 June 2013 13 1 Canongate
15 June 2013 14 1 Humming Earth
22 June 2013 7 0
6 July 2013 24 3 Sandstone PressItchy Coo

Black and White

13 July 2013 9 1 Canongate
20 July 2013 9 1 Edinburgh University Press
27 July 2013 8 1 Birlinn
3 Aug 2013 9 2 Stewed RhubarbCanongate
TOTALS 175 17

Published in Bella Caledonia, 10 August 2013.

It’s therefore easy to see why the reviews publishers do manage to generate are skewed towards an overwhelmingly positive perspective: no-one wants to be the cruel oppositionist to the struggling underdog.

I am guilty of this myself. Too timid to point out that The Last Days of Disco tried just a bit too hard to be funny in places. Happy to name-drop the best contributions in Out There: An Anthology of Scottish LGBT Writing but wary of naming the weaker ones. When a bigger publisher sent me a book I thought was truly ghastly, I hid it in a cupboard and never reviewed it – better to ignore it than write a negative review, I told myself. I’m trying to break this mould. Criticism should not be feared – when constructive and fair, it is necessary. And it can only make the coverage of Scottish literature more representative.

Until the Scottish press affords its fair share of coverage to books from Scotland, it’s up to the bloggers to generate frank discussion and, perhaps, invigorate the Scottish book industry beyond the mealy-mouthed punditry we’re currently offered.

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5 thoughts on “The Lonely Contrarian: why it’s so difficult to criticise the Scottish book industry

  1. Frankly, ten per cent of all books reviewed is a result far greater than the Scottish publishing industry is worth. I say ‘industry’, but folk selling chattel from their loft on ebay must generate more money. It aspires to mediocrity, is unashamedly midlist in its outlook and seems terrified of any ambition to push itself out with the safe circle-jerking echo chamber of Scotland.

    It publishes books almost exclusively by young-ish folk who were fortunate enough to have the four or five thousand quid going spare that’s required to complete an MLitt in ‘Creative’ Writing, where they attend lectures or seminars for up to two whole hours a week for nine months, and from which they find failure an impossibility. And who does the lecturing? A bunch of novelists – I use the term for want of something more condign – whose works have collectively earned less than a decent macaroon and tablet stallholder will accrue after a couple of days graft at the Barras.

    The stories of Scotland and the Scots are then relayed exclusively through this avowedly middle class prism, where the working class are portrayed as either helpless victims of their own base instincts or noble savages, upon whom great wisdom has been conferred despite the great disadvantages that come with being poor, or not having managed a 2:1 in an arts degree from a struggling department in a third-tier Russell Group university which is only interested in harvesting fees.

    Of course, all of this is fuelled by quangos and grants. Success now is no longer deemed to come with acquiring an audience, or publishing something that may be considered art, but in getting a few quid from a committee. The implication being that *this* is your moment, as a writer: the audience needed to sustain a career will never materialise. The cultural output of Scotland now rests in the hands of a dozen or so bureaucrats, most of whom are simply passing through and marking time until a better offer materialises from London. Just this year, we have seen prizes awarded to authors who write in Scots dialect. Except…they don’t. They write in the sort of Scots dialect appropriated by Daily Telegraph sketch writers when painting a Scottish cliche with the broadest-stroked brush they can find. Anyone who walks down the street and actually listens to how people speak would know this, but apparently none of that matters in the ScotLit firmament.

    As the pursuit of an audience is ignored, the ‘stars’ of Scottish writing are those who squeeze the system, whose facebook rants never go unshared, whose tweets never go unretweeted. This is where we are: stale, repetitive and exclusive. These are the dying days of Scottish writing as we know it. For all the praise the usual suspects spray around the ever-diminishing blogosphere or spoken word events, there remain nagging questions: who would read this in Tallahassee? Would this ever motivate someone to translate it into Japanese, French, or Portuguese? Is the contemporary middle-class prism through which Scottish writers choose to sell stories anything more than hawking stereotypes for a readership other than our own, just as the lurid and manufactured tales of Sawney Bean embellished prejudices held about us beyond our borders?

    As a Scot, i find too much of our cultural product inauthentic, in comparison to contemporary literature and drama elsewhere. Issues which affect the lives of living, breathing, hurting people are only rarely tackled in mainstream fiction – I refuse to bestow the term ‘literary’ upon much of the vapid landfill responsible for the destruction of so many innocent trees – to the degree Scotland is now represented best by genre fiction, namely crime. And the reason for that is because as literary Scotland has shrunk itself ever-smaller, become more cliquey and eschewing the public – writers and readers have gone elsewhere.

    William McIlvanney, arguably Scotland’s greatest living novelist, could not emerge now, and that is tragic. Iain Banks may well have found it difficult too. Think of the stories we have lost, and will never see, after a small, woefully under qualified group decided to turn the art of story telling into an academic ghetto. Critics must be just that: critical. They can’t be free book farmers, they can’t be the nice person writers invite to book launches. Their only role is to tell the truth, no matter how brutal it may be. Otherwise, how will mediocre writers improve? If someone spent two years writing a novel, and it sucks, they need to be told. And if they give up in the face of criticism, they’re no writer. WH Smith are hiring. Writers will come back, after another two years, with something more meaningful, something better. And that will be partly down to you, the critic. Otherwise, you’re a fluffer, and even if the writer suspects their book was terrible, they’ll have your kind review to fall back upon as they try the same trick again and again.

    Change will come. People will always need stories. But when that change arrives, it will not have been delivered by any of the current incumbents.

    1. Thank you for your eloquent and thought-provoking response – it gave me a lot to mull over.

      Some of your points I agree with. Your assertion that success is too often measured against grants and fellowships struck a nerve, for I agree. The profoundly fetishistic response to (stepping briefly outside the Scottish ‘prism’) A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing following its award was unsettling. As a Northern Irish friend pointed out, it was populated with the same tired stereotypes of much Irish Lit, it was only the jarring affectation of a nonlinear, sort-of-stream-of-conscious narrative that offered anything of note. And yet the critical response was almost sickeningly sycophantic.

      That being said, I also disagree with several of your points. ScotLit is not ‘terrified of any ambition to push itself out with the safe circle-jerk echo chamber of Scotland’. The inability to ‘breach’ international and wider markets is a product of a problem I discuss in the blog – the struggle to gain coverage and promotion in the national press. Scottish publishers are very poorly represented, and it’s not for lack of trying. Trust me – I worked as the Press Co-Ordinator for an independent publisher for two years. I spent the majority of my week attempting to reach journalists/promote our books/authors to no avail. The wasted paper that went towards unanswered press releases still stings.

      I also think your assertion that William McIlvanney ‘could not emerge now’ to be baseless. Why not? Where is your proof that his readers (or readers of that ilk) have simply disappeared? You are criticising the establishment, but what you seem to suggest is that it’s the Scottish readership that is failing.

      Last is your assertion that modern ScotLit is directed through a distinctly middle-class prism – which you critique – and yet you also claim the national literature is debased by the confluence of genre fiction, which betrays a certain degree of middlebrow contempt on your part. As above, there seems to be some confusion as to whether you think it’s a middle-class quango ruining the national literature or a tasteless readership.

      I do agree that change is needed, and I direct that criticism towards myself as well. I have been the sycophantic critic. I have been the academic you deem to be under qualified. What I’m trying to do now is be a good reader, which is perhaps what we both seek.

  2. Thank you for the response.

    Firstly, I respect your endeavours to gain recognition for Scottish books, regardless of the wasted paper. A quick question: at what point did you realise it was futile? To explain, The Scotsman, for example, used to have a daily readership, not so long ago, of 100,000. Now it’s below 25,000, and becoming ever more shrill as it seeks to play to a somewhat more extreme audience of diehards. The same can be said of any Scottish newspaper. If that was your employer’s primary way of marketing books, and in turn, to the tiny subsection of individuals who make a point of reading the book section, it’s not altogether surprising the books went unappreciated, is it? That’s not a criticism of you, incidentally. Merely an attempt to point out that marketing Scottish books remains rooted in the 1980s and before.

    To expand: Scotland, as a country, used to vote for whichever party the ‘papers recommended, but as circulation declined, the internet took hold and lo, here we are. An electorate that is more energised and engaged than ever before, and intent on bypassing archaic models of engagement. At which point will Scottish publishing decide to follow that example and begin to think laterally? Rhetorical, I know, but in an industry that’s up against it, and needing to bring in those from outwith the pen inhabited by voracious readers, it needs to up its game.

    Of course, this would be made easier by printing better books. Crime sells well, which brings me to my next point. I have re-read what I posted earlier, and never, at any juncture suggested this:

    “…yet you also claim the national literature is debased by the confluence of genre fiction, which betrays a certain degree of middlebrow contempt on your part.”

    No. No, I didn’t. At all. You have misrepresented my words. I’m sure that wasn’t deliberate. I don’t want to reiterate what I have already written, but if I must, here goes: I said that the issues encountered by living, breathing, hurting people in Scotland are now best portrayed by genre writers, mostly crime novelists. I said that literary fiction has continually let down its natural readers by eschewing writers who engage with these issues in favour of MLitt grads intent on weighing down bookshelves with yet another tome of dead end existentialism. I have the highest regard for crime fiction – I have, in fact, won crime fiction prizes myself – so your suggestion is off beam. There was no “middle-brow contempt”. That is your phrase. You own it. Not me.

    You also said this:

    “As above, there seems to be some confusion as to whether you think it’s a middle-class quango ruining the national literature or a tasteless readership.”

    First of all. I’m not confused. That’s not even a thing that happens. With regards to ‘a middle-class quango’ – there’s more than one, of that I’m sure you’re aware. The ‘middle-class’ jibe was aimed at writers who can find thousands of pounds to do a course which is largely taught by not-that-great writers. The idea that this is then taken as a stamp of quality is, I find, somewhat laughable. It doesn’t prove you can write. It doesn’t prove you can’t. The only thing it proves is that you have five thousand pounds.

    Are quangos ruining anything? Maybe. In a larger country, or at least one containing a more vibrant and imaginative publishing sector, the sort of well-intentioned but ultimately unremarkable bureaucrats who work in such places wouldn’t matter in the slightest, but we don’t have that, so they have a degree of power over what Scottish publishers print. Which is, on the whole, not great. It has been ghettoised. The quality of the work often carries the veneer of coursework. There exists a similarity in prose and theme from one new novelist or short story writer to the next. It’s boring. And that charge can be backed up by the shrunken readership. Jenny Fagan apart, there hasn’t been an explosion in Scottish literature since Rebel Inc, and even that legacy suggests it’s been mythologised by those too young to have been there.

    Which brings me to “tasteless readership”. Again, your phrase. Not mine. It’s yours to own, including the sentiment behind it. I want nothing to do with it. I have never, would never and will never query the taste of readers. Simply because Scotland is presently ill-served by indigenous literary fiction, doesn’t mean readers are starved of books. They’re reading Ferrante or Franzen; Bolano or Diaz; classics or contemporary books from elsewhere. Readers are better served and better read than ever, which, when coupled with Scottish publishing’s archaic marketing, means it’s only going to get harder to entice them. That’s why I mentioned McIlvanney. His readers haven’t disappeared at all. But he did. In fact, in the decade until 2013, every single one of his books fell out of print. Now think of the many, many terrible books that found a home in that time.

    Now, I’ve spent 1700 words on this, and that’s enough unpaid work for one day, but I’ll leave you with this:

    Being a critic is part of improving things. If you don’t criticise, you’re essentially decor.

    1. And I really do appreciate all 1,700. I don’t want to engage in a long argument – especially since I don’t think we wildly disagree with one other, but rather that my approach is more critical of a national press shackled to the cultural hegemony of London, whereas yours is on the failings of the Scottish publishing industry itself. Which is absolutely fair enough.

      I’m very much aware of dwindling newspaper figures and therefore agree that expecting promotion to rest squarely on the shoulders of a print book review is somewhat naive. That being said, you’re talking about potentially 25,000 Scotsman readers now cognisant of a text/writer they might not otherwise have known about. For a very small independent publisher, those 25,000 potential readers are vital. Indeed, when you’re putting out print runs of just 1,000 books at a time, that’s a fairly significant readership to engage. It’s also about 24,927 more people than will ever read this blog, but hey-ho.

      It’s by no means an imaginative marketing approach, no. But I struggle to see what similar indie publishers are doing in England, Australia, Spain or elsewhere that’s apparently so innovative by comparison (and I don’t expect you to answer that).

      Anyway, I’ve enjoyed this immensely – thank you for engaging with me. I’m going to mosey off now because my ten-hour shift has incapacitated my brain for further dialogue. I’m pretty much at “fire bad, tree pretty”.

  3. Hi Louise,
    I’ve only just discovered your blog and find it very interesting. I don’t want to reactivate the discussion between you and Oskar (I don’t have the time to respond to his lengthy comments!) except to say that I am one of the MLitt graduates that Oskar mentions but that doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with him about the merit of such courses. I was very lucky to have the money to indulge myself by doing the course but I’m from a working class background and I want to explore how I could use my experiences to give a voice to folk often under represented in fiction. I also want to champion the use of Scots despite being rejected by an independent publisher of women’s writing with the reason being that, “The Scottish dialect in your novel flows effortlessly and was appreciated and understood by the Scottish members of the team. But readers unfamiliar with Scottish dialect found the novel too demanding and challenging. We suggest that you submit your novel to a publisher more focused on publishing Scottish novels” who are ironically based in Scotland!
    Thankfully, I have found a publisher and my debut is due out in Oct. I’d be pleased for you to review it as a “good reader”.

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