Robert Morace

Contemporary Scottish Fiction’s Varied and Evolving Audience

Contemporary Scottish Fiction’s Varied and Evolving Audience

Although she does not address the subject directly in The Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova suggests new ways of thinking about the relations between authors, texts and movements on the one hand and audiences on the other. Utilizing a Bourdieu-inspired sociological approach, Casanova focuses on the struggle for literary recognition, especially on the part of “small literatures” whose writers often find that the international can liberate as well as dominate. In the four decades of the Irish Revival, Casanova sees “a compact history of the revolt against literary order” which The Republic of Letters traces over just as many centuries. However, the seemingly similar Scottish Revival of the past twenty-five years greatly complicates Casanova’s overarching (and to some extent overweening) paradigm, not only in terms of the Scottish connection to nationalism and postcolonialism but also in terms of the Scottish Revival’s coinciding with the period of economic globalization which Casanova’s study stops short of. As a result, we must approach contemporary Scottish fiction’s varied and evolving audience much more cautiously than Casanova’s model allows.

Contemporary Scottish fiction’s relation to its audience (including Casanova’s international literary marketplace) comprises three distinct, albeit overlapping phases. The first begins with Alisdair Gray’s seminal Lanark, proceeds through Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory and Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing and ends with the publication of other two first books, A. L. Kennedy’s Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1991) and Jeff Torrington’s Swing Hammer Swing (1992). Like Kelman’s early fiction, this is work by, about and for Scots, mostly published by small Scottish houses such as Canongate and Polygon.

The second phase begins with the publication of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), a work whose later international bestseller/cult novel status obscures its humble origins as a book by someone who did not think of himself as a writer, writing for people who did not read, and more specifically for people like the main characters in the novel, young no-hopers from the Leith section of northern Edinburgh. Trainspotting’s immediacy, like its narrowly defined ideal reader (and Welsh’s contempt for the Oxbridge novel and the bourgeois reader), reflects the novel’s connection to the Edinburgh-based publishing ventures (Duncan McLean’s Clocktower Press and Kevin Williamson’s Rebel Inc) which sought to make new work available quickly and locally and to provide for younger Edinburgh writers a version of the supportive literary community enjoyed by Gray, Kelman, Leonard, Morgan and others in Glasgow in previous decades. Welsh’s intensely local novel became the vehicle for Secker & Warburg’s Scottish editor, Robin Roberts, to exert his “missionary zeal” in bringing contemporary Scottish fiction to the larger “British” (and later international) audience. Here, the release of the film version of Trainspotting in 1996 played a significant role in shaping the enlarging and evolving audience’s relationship not only to Welsh’s novel but to Scottish fiction in general.   Following the success of the 1997 referendum on devolution, contemporary Scottish fiction and its relation to its audience underwent yet another change. Where before devolution the Scottish novel had been fueled by and had helped fuel anti-Thatcher resentment and had helped keep alive a sense of Scottish identity and nationalism in the absence of any formal Scottish political structure, after devolution the Scottish novel became a more recognizable part of the global literary economy. It also became formally and stylistically more conservative (and for non-Scottish readers less demanding), socio-politically less relevant, and economically more integral to the Scottish culture industries. As a result, its former much praised authenticity has been supplanted by the more readily exportable, internationally recognized and legitimated and widely consumed fiction of Denise Mina, Alexander McCall Smith and the later Irvine Welsh, against which the work of writers content to write locally and to seek legitimacy and audience locally, Zoe Strachan and Suhayl Saadi, for example, suggest the continuing possibility of addressing the needs of a “local” audience within Scotland and (well) outside Casanova’s international “bourse of literary values” and James F. English’s “global economy of cultural prestige.”

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.

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