Thursday, August 27, 2009

Kelman blasts mediocrity of boy wizards and crime bestsellers
PHIL MILLER, Arts Correspondent in The Herald
August 27 2009

James Kelman, the Scottish Booker Prize-winning author, has launched a furious attack on the way literary fiction is regarded in his homeland - criticising the praise lavished on "mediocre" detective writers and apparently even JK Rowling.
Kelman, appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, said that if the Nobel prize for literature was awarded from Scotland, instead of Sweden, it would be given to "a writer of f****** detective fiction" or work about "some upper middle-class young magician" instead of literary fiction.
Not naming any names, but perhaps referring to some of Scotland's better known detective writers and, it appeared, JK Rowling's Harry Potter books, Kelman said that because of this unequal praise, Scotland's own "radical tradition" is a mystery to most Scots.

Kelman, 63, whose most recent novel, was Scottish book of the year, won the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late it Was, How Late.
About his own work he said: "I don't particularly care about criticism from outside.
"The criticism that I find most marked and interesting is the kind that goes on with Scotland, and how contemporary literature has been derided and sneered at by the Scottish literary establishment. For me it's always been an indication of that Anglocentric nature of what's at the heart of the Scottish literary establishment, that they will not see the tremendous art of a writer like Tom Leonard for example, and how they will praise the mediocre - how so much praise and position is given to writers of genre fiction in Scotland.
"If the Nobel Prize came from Scotland they would give it to a writer of f****** detective fiction, or else some kind of child writer, or something that was not even new when Enid Blyton was writing the Faraway Tree, because she was writing about some upper middle-class young magician or some f****** crap."
He added: "Our tradition is actually an intellectual tradition, and an intellectual tradition that is not scared to be radical, and if that radical nature takes us into particular political positions then we should take them.
"And these positions have meant that we have not allowed ourselves to look at our own tradition, so that our own radical tradition is a mystery to us, that we don't know about our historical links with people who we should be proud of - we should be proud that James Connolly the Irish socialist leader is an Edinburgh man, why are we not proud of that? One of the greatest twentieth century socialists was murdered by the British Army in 1916 - why do we not admit what happened with John Maclean, somebody who was murdered, who was poisoned by the State. Why is he not a hero?
"How can you give all this to somebody like Burns and not give a thought to all the other great Scottish writers."


Kiwicraig said...

Hmmm... interesting. I have actually found (and it has started to be covered by some commentators worldwide, e.g. a recent article in the Guardian) that if anything, crime and thriller fiction is undervalued (more so by the certain books/literary commentators in the media and awards judges etc). Whereas literary fiction is often automatically put on a pedestal it often simply does not deserve.

So it is interesting to see a literary fiction writer considering himself undervalued. Perhaps the problem is he feels undervalued by the readers and wider public? Because that is the solace for crime writers and other writers of 'popular fiction' - in that even if certain critics, awards, and festival organisers look down there noses at them - that they are in many ways preferred by sections of the wider public.

From personal experience, I have found some of the best writing I have ever encountered amongst the pages of crime novels, and to be honest, there is a lot of drivel amongst literary fiction.

As one writer I've interviewed (who has been acclaimed as a literary writer, including by the Booker judges) said: "Literary fiction is simply a genre itself. It's isn't a better genre."

it is similar to the film students who care so much about how a film 'looks' or the avante garde and 'revolutionary' camera techniques they are trying, that they completely forget about story or holding the audiences interest in the art they are creating. Whereas the best, and classic, films are a combination of story, heart, and innovation.

If you look back at what are now considered literary classics - many of them would have been considered 'popular fiction' in their time - the tales of Jules Verne, Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson etc - even going back to the Bard, who wrote plays for the people, not the 'literary elite'...

And like their modern day 'popular fiction' counterparts, some of these stories tell us just as much, if not more, about the human condition, than modern 'literary fiction', where some writers seem to concentrate on nice 'sounding' passages of prose to the detriment of any actual storytelling.

Since the days of cavemen (perhaps an exaggeration), people have learned about the world around (and within), them via storytelling. 'Story' being a key part of that.

While there are many writers, in all genres, who are mediocre, I find it interesting that this one chooses to take shots at another genre (perhaps showing his own insecurities) - preying on well-held 'ivory tower' prejudices that just do not sit with reality.

I have plenty more to say on this 'elitist' attitude held by some in the literary fiction world, but will leave that for another time. It's just a pity that the underlying presumption behind what this author is saying, is that other fiction is inherently inferior (much in the way many NZers in certain circles used to look down upon Margaret Mahy because she wrote children's fiction, and didn't consider her a 'real' author). That is a presumption we need to exterminate.

So that's my rant, in response to his rant, done. For now.

Fantail said...

@ Kiwicraig -

He is not criticising the genre so much as expressing frustration at his society for their reading blindspots. He's suggesting that within the history of Scottish letters the current trends are getting disproportionate attention in relation to the body of work that precedes them.

Anonymous said...

Scottish people rarely read anything other than chewing gum for the brain, they enjoy non-philosophical basc genres like crime, fantasy and comedy. Sure these genres can be blended into contemporary literature but it begins to cause a need for brain use, which the market can't be bothered with. If people wanted to learn things or muse over something philosophical, maybe mr Kelman would not have this frustration. Rankin hasn't really done anything wrong, he just knows what sells. Perhaps it's more of a cultural issue, by which i mean the mind set of Scottish readers - something that we should be trying to change at secondary school level. Maybe we should be giving pupils Kelman to read, give them at least a chance to become interested