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|
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.