The Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman

The Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman

The Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman

The Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman

Synopsis

James Kelman is the most influential and controversial Scottish writer today. Yet despite international fame and recognition, his radical art is often subject to caricature and misunderstanding. The first major collection of essays devoted to Kelman's writing, this anthology clarifies and explores the full spectrum of his extraordinary work. Original essays consider novels, short stories, essays, polemics, and plays, and the vigorous debates they provoke. Key topics include Kelman's distinctive approach to language and narrative technique, his influence on recent Scottish fiction, his affiliations in socialist, nationalist, anticolonial, and gender politics, his interplay between political, linguistic, and artistic agendas, and his place within realist, modernist, and existential literary traditions. Contributors also address wider debates in which Kelman's work is prominent, including the literary status of vernacular writing, the politics of canonizing working-class culture, and the validity of postcolonial approaches to Scottish literature.

Excerpt

James Kelman is probably the most important Scottish writer now living; certainly he is the most influential and acclaimed. and yet introducing him as a ‘Scottish writer’ already begins to shape our response to his work, in ways that are potentially limiting and simplistic. (To be sure, calling him ‘important’ and ‘acclaimed’ exerts another pressure.) Kelman’s fiction is obsessed with such pitfalls of description, and often loops back on itself to question names, labels and first impressions, paring away received bias to get at the thing itself. His art declares war on stereotypes, but is saddled with plenty of its own. For the sake of accuracy as well as brevity, the unadorned facts of Kelman’s life and career appear separately as ‘A Brief Biography’. But how to describe Kelman’s writing, which so often demands to know by what right and from whose perspective representation takes place?

We can begin by considering how this theme within Kelman’s fiction relates to the real-world debates surrounding it. For example, this series of Edinburgh Companions locates Kelman within the field of Scottish Literature. Is this where he belongs? the day I began this Introduction, the following headline appeared on a newspaper website: ‘James Kelman launches broadside against Scotland’s literary culture’. Shifting metaphors from warfare to divorce a few days later, another paper breathlessly reported ‘Literary Scotland torn apart over Kelman spat’.

The trigger for this latest ‘spat’, Kelman’s thinly veiled rubbishing of Ian Rankin and J. K. Rowling (‘if the Nobel Prize came from Scotland they would give it to a writer of fucking detective fiction, or […] writing about some upper middle-class young magician’) highlights a tension involved in any attempt to define ‘Scottish Literature’, or to situate a writer like Kelman within it. Do even the shoddiest genre novels qualify, so long as they are ‘reflective of Scottish origins and experience’? Classifying literary works simply according to nationality seems to mean placing Harry Potter alongside Walter Scott – both came from Edinburgh, after all. Kelman’s highly politicised work cannot be comfortably mounted within a national canon defined in these terms (namely, in his words, ‘praise the mediocre’). and yet . . .

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