As the Man Booker Prize longlist is announced Kevin Williamson asks a question that seems to have eluded the mainstream media: Is the most influential prize in literature tainted with an institutionalised anti-Scottish bias that borders on racism?
Kevin Williamson also throws down a challenge to Peter Stothard, chair of the Man Booker Prize judges, and editor of the Times Literary Supplement, to come to Scotland and publicly debate the stench of prejudice that could yet engulf this year’s award ceremony.
When the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced yesterday squeals of excitement could be heard all across England. The Man Booker is big business. The £50,000 prize money to the winning author is small potatoes compared to an exponential increase in sales, as well as serialisation, radio adaptations, TV appearances, etc. A semi-lucrative career writing for the Guardian’s Saturday literary supplement, as well as guest spots on BBC Radio 4, is more or less assured. Salman Rushdie aside, exposure to international publicity never did an author much harm.
A veritable windfall also awaits the publishers of the winning novel. Overseas right deals can be added to burgeoning sales. When an author signed to Canongate Books won in 2002 the struggling Edinburgh publishing house was catapulted out of debt and have rarely looked back since.
There are 12 titles long-listed for this year’s prize, 3 of them published by small indie publishers – Myrmidon Books, And Other Stories, and Salt Publishing – who could make good use of the publicity and resultant sales. These 12 titles will be whittled down to six later in the year for the showpiece ceremony. I haven’t read any of the shortlisted titles so can’t really comment on their merit or otherwise.
What struck me about the list was the dearth of Scottish writers in what has been a truly golden year for Scottish novels. Of the novels I’ve read in recent months I’d have thought that Ewan Morrison’s genre-shattering Tales From The Mall, Irvine Welsh’s majestic Skagboys, and Jenni Fagan’s scintillating debut The Panopticon (described by Scotsman on Sunday literary editor as the best debut novel of the last decade) are all easily good enough to grace any Man Booker shortlist. And then some. Irvine himself has suggested that Alan Warner’s new novel Dead Man’s Pedal should have been considered. Alan Bissett has compared Site Works by Robert Davidson as being “up there with Zola and Kelman”.
But it wasn’t to be. Naturally, the English media don’t event see the problem. The Guardian, part of the problem in itself, ran a headline today New Guard Edges Out Old In Wide-Ranging List. For them the notable omissions are writers who, eh, regularly write for them: “Judges pass over Amis, McEwan, Smith in favour of a new generation.” (Their Smith is Zadie not Ali).
The Man Booker prize has a huge institutionalised problem with Scottish authors which, as I intend to show, lurches between Anglocentric elitism, barely disguised contempt, class hatred, and borderline racism.
Since its inception in 1969 the Man Booker Prize (and its earlier Booker prize incarnation) has had little interest in Scottish literature. The consistency in these matters has been so systematic that this can’t be put down to the taste or otherwise of individual judges.
There have been 45 winners of the Booker/Man Booker prize in the last 43 years (there were joint winners in 1974 and 1992). Only one of these was a Scottish author and this, famously, was James Kelman in 1994 for How Late It Was, How Late.
Since 1969 only six Scottish authors have made the shortlist. Kelman plus Muriel Spark (3 times), Andrew O’Hagan, George Mackay Brown and William Boyd. Perhaps I should add Bernard McLaverty too. His novel Grace Notes which was shortlisted in 1981. McLaverty lives in Glasgow, his family have been brought up in Scotland, and novel was set in Glasgow. Under SFA rules he’s one of us.
Including James Kelman’s 1989 shortlisted novel A Disaffection, this means that there have been just 11 Scottish books shortlisted in the last 44 years. Out of a grand total of 249. After this year’s ceremony that will be 11 novels out of 255. And only one winner.
What should we make of this. Are Scottish authors simply not good enough? Has Scottish literature not been up to scratch these last 44 years? Or has someone shat haggis or thrown up whisky in the Man Booker Head Office?
Now it could be argued that Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981) or his Poor Things (1992), or Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (1989), or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) weren’t good enough for the Man Booker shortlist. Or perhaps they were just unlucky because they were up against so many good books in their respective years.
I’ve only read one of the books in the 1981 shortlist so can’t say whether Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is a better novel that Ann Schlee’s Rhine Journey, Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour or even Salman Rushdie’s highly-rated winning novel Midnight Children. But I will say this: Anyone who thinks that Ian McEwan’s thin tale of middle class couple-angst set in Venice (which I quite enjoyed) is a better novel than the mighty groundbreaking tome which changed the face of Scottish literature forever, is, to use the parlance, a bit of a numptie.
It’s not just these four game-changing books that have been excluded. The Man Booker judges have sniffily omitted every novel by Ian Crichton Smith, Robin Jenkins, Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh, AL Kennedy, James Robertson, Ron Butlin, Andrew Grieg, Iain Banks, Jeff Torrington, Alan Massie, Alan Warner, Jackie Kay, Christopher Brookmyre. All of these authors are acclaimed and established literary heavyweights, many have won big literary prizes, their books translated and read internationally. They’re only the tip of the iceberg.
The four Scottish titles referred to above earlier aren’t just wonderful novels, they are big books; immersed in ideas, experimental, challenging, using language in imaginative ways. They are also bona fide modern classics of world literature. These books, and their authors, have helped change Scotland’s culture, its political landscape even, and played a significant part in changing the way Scots think about themselves. But none were deemed good enough to make the Man Booker shortlist.
It could be argued that the Man Booker Prize isn’t important which is fair enough. Literary prizes like the Man Booker have evolved into publishers’ marketing tools. But the way this particular prize has burrowed into the public consciousness has created a significance to it that perhaps the prize doesn’t deserve.
Let’s go back to the Eureka moment when James Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994. Kelman’s win was a defining, emotionally charged night for me, and for many other Scottish writers I’ve spoken to. I mind punching the air going mental when I heard the announcement that Jim had won. It was like your underdog football team had beaten the league champions in a cup final. Kelman’s seminal speech was the nearest thing Scottish literature had to an MLK moment.
If the organisers thought it would be played out thus… “Ah, well done working class Scottish chappy. Here’s a nice big cheque for you to spend on beer and fags. Thanks for turning up.” … they were sadly mistaken. They were about to be hit on the head by an intellectual baseball bat.
Back in 1994 as a young gunslinger, relatively new to Scotland’s literary scene, James Kelman was more than a great writer. He was a hero to me, a dogged intelligent articulate class warrior at the forefront of a determined growing movement to establish the cultural and political legitimacy of Scotland’s many spoken languages. Back then spoken and written Scots were marginalised in educational establishments. A bloke was charged with Contempt of Court for answering “Aye” rather than “Yes”. This was in the early 1990s. In the elitist world of so-called British literature distinct Scottish voices were almost invisible. Think not? The reaction to Kelman’s victory from the clusterfuck of a literary establishment around the pubic triangle of Oxford-London-Cambridge said it all. Let me quote directly from a New York Times story that followed the Booker Prize announcement:
One of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, declared that the book was unreadably bad and said that the awarding of the prize, Britain’s most important, was a “disgrace.” Simon Jenkins, a conservative columnist for The Times of London, called the award “literary vandalism.” Several other critics sniped that the book should have been disqualified because of its heavy use of profanity.
Meanwhile, the British literary establishment huddled together defensively as Mr. Kelman appeared in a business suit at the black-tie Booker affair and, in his heavy Scottish accent, made a rousing case for the culture and language of “indigenous” people outside of London.
James Kelman’s terrifying novel of a man beaten and blinded by police officers – which should have had the established London critics drawing favourable comparisons between it and the very best of Kafka and Beckett – ended up with dimwits actually counting the number of times the words “fuck” and “cunt” were featured in it. Even now this reaction still beggars belief. One critic even called this intelligent thoughtful writer “a savage”. Sharpened knives, anglo-chauvinsim, and naked class prejudices were out in the open.
The previous year Irvine Welsh’s masterpiece Trainspotting was selected for inclusion in the Booker Prize short list. Except it wasn’t. As Welsh himself has stated it was pulled because two of the judges threatened to resign if Trainspotting was included. The elitism, prejudice and barely concealed racism at work here is palpable, offensive, and has its origins in a class who think literature should be all about them.
In his 1994 acceptance speech Kelman said the un-sayable: “A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether.” The effect was like a nuclear bomb detonating.
The Anglocentric literary establishment – thoroughly middle class as always – were horrified of being accused of racism! “But .. we always include Irish, Indians, African writers in our shortlists? How dare we be accused of racism?”
In a caustic but perceptive Tweet yesterday Irvine Welsh commented on the Man Booker judges: “Maybe they only take FORMER colonies seriously. India, Ireland, Australia, & Canada have decent record. A lesson for us all?”
In the 18 years since Kelman made that speech no Scottish author has won the Man Booker Prize. Only one, Ali Smith, has even been shortlisted. In 18 years! Scots are effectively persona non gratis in Man Booker circles. After Kelman’s incendiary speech the Man Booker judges are taking their revenge.
It can’t have escaped anyone these last 18 years that Scotland as a country has self-examined big style: its own psychoses, its schizophrenia, its internal colonisation of minds, its own hopes and aspirations. The outcome has been many things not least a cultural renaissance, an enrichment of our literature, plus a potential endgame/beginning in Autumn 2014.
In my opinion the antagonism towards and estrangement from Scottish literature from our academic friends in the far south has grown worse rather than eased off since 1994.
Two recent BBC TV series tend to bear this out. Writer Sebastian Faulks wrote and presented a BBC2 series Faulkes on Fiction which focussed on the “British novel and its characters.” It paid lip service to Scottish writers as it ranged across the last 300 years in 4 hour long episodes. The episode dealing with Gothic literature in the 19th Century astonishingly managed to omit Robert Louis Stevenson! Sometimes you gotta laugh at them.
Faulks’ 4 part BBC series could be put down to the idiosyncratic tastes/subconscious prejudices of an individual who can’t see further than his own London snout. That he happens to have been a Booker judge in 1988 – when no Scots were shortlisted – is hardly coincidental. There is a pool of chummy writers and thinkers from around the Thames Estuary who seem to divvy up most of the media work, speechifying and literary judging between them. It is almost inconceivable that the BBC national network would commission a series on British literature and choose, for instance, Robert Crawford to present it. Yet he has the credentials to suggest he’d be ideal for such a job.
In 2010 the BBC produced a major series of programs in association with the Open University called British Novelists: In Their Own Words. It was flagged up as “The story of the 20th century British novel told by the writers themselves.” The first part of this 3 part series featured “the giants of the first half of the 20th Century” who “captured the spirit of the age; war, fascism and frivolities.”
The first episode featured no less than twenty writers. HG Wells, EM Forster, Virginia Wolff, PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Jean Rhyss were all present and correct. I was struck by two things. Firstly, every last one of the 20 writers spoke as if they had bools in their mooths. This doesn’t affect my enjoyment of any of their work but it seems strange that ALL of the writers chosen were well-spoken English chaps and chapesses.
Secondly; there were no Scottish writers included. A literary history of this period which omits real giants like Neil Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon has little intellectual credibility. (Barbara Cartland was included at great length). Gunn and Grassic Gibbon captured life in that inter-war period with an unrivalled power, precision and social detail. They described the lives of poor communities in Scotland at times of great upheaval. This was valuable historical work as well as fine literature.
Part 2 of the series – 1945-1968 – looked at some excellent working class English writers, some even from the north, but again featured no Scottish novelists out of the 17 authors discussed. Truly amazing. Part 3 then took the British novel up to 1990 and featured just one Scottish novel: Jim Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines.
While this could (and nae doubt will) be dismissed as mere chip-on-the-shoulder whinging there is also the counter point that the BBC are supposed to be a national publicly funded TV network and not just a cultural service for Greater London. There is also the dubious knowledge that the Open University are currently using this series on the “British novel of the 20th Century” featuring only ONE Scottish novel. Quite mind-boggling in its jaundiced parochial outlook.
Recently I wrote an article for Bella Caledonia headlined “Is an anti-Scottish bias gathering cultural momentum among the English middle classes?” There, I compared the recent experiences of comedy actor Greg Hemphill; children’s author, Barry Hutchinson; and playwright George Gunn. Going by the Comments underneath it seems to have struck a chord.
The Man Booker 2012 longlist and its long inglorious history suggests there is a deep rooted problem of elitism/anti-Scottish racism which needs challenged head-on. This sort of nonsense wouldn’t be tolerated if it was directed against any other group or nationality.
To this end I’m challenging, daring even, Chair of the Man Booker judges, Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, to come to Scotland and debate these accusations with me, head-to-head. If he’s afraid of coming out of his comfort zone to Scotland then I’ll happily travel to a TV studio of his choice elsewhere in dear ole Blighty. Blatant institutionalised anti-Scottish bias that taints the UK’s biggest literary prize can’t be allowed to fester any longer.
Over to you, Peter.