I’m about to interview James Kelman, inarguably one of the most important writers working in Britain today. As I climb the stairs of the University of Dundee’s Tower Building, I’m feeling terribly anxious. Over the course of his career, Kelman has garnered a bit of a reputation for giving quite thorny interviews and I’m worried that this one might end up contributing to that reputation. When I enter the corridor of the University’s English department, I can see him all the way down at the other end. He has his back to me, one arm pressed against the wall, leaning with his legs crossed. He is talking to two of the lecturers from the University’s creative-writing department. As I walk closer, I begin to pick up his voice, his unmistakably Glaswegian accent. He is talking about the Caribbean Artists Movement. When I introduce myself, he greets me warmly. So far so good, I think. We go into the room where the interview will take place. A camera has been set up, which doesn’t help with my anxiety at all. When one of the lecturers asks if he would like a coffee, Kelman asks her if there is any green tea. He is now seventy but his face still looks very boyish, particularly when he smiles. The only real sign of his age comes when he asks me to sit on his right-hand side because of a slight deafness in his left ear. When the tea arrives we start the interview.
Of course, Kelman has not travelled to Dundee from his home in Glasgow just to be interviewed by me. The real reason he has made the trip is to promote his new novel, Dirt Road, as part of the Dundee Literary Festival, and as the interview begins he is quick to give his views on the role of literary festivals in contemporary society: “Most literary festivals are basically book festivals,” he says. “The thing has to do with books. It doesn’t matter who’s written the book, Franz Kafka or Simon Cowell, what’s important is the idea of the book. So you’ll have Kafka and Cowell together talking about what they have in common, which is that they’ve both written books. So obviously there’s nothing they can talk about, apart from, ‘Do you use Tipp-Ex?’ or, ‘Do you have pencils?’ or, ‘How was your hotel?’ … They can’t actually discuss the work.”
I ask him if, by putting Kafka and Cowell side by side in this way, he is implying that there should be a distinction made between high and low art. The question makes him wince slightly: “I don’t at all,” he says. “I don’t think you do any favours to people like Cowell and others by saying its the same thing. I don’t think it’s fair. If a footballer or somebody has produced an autobiography, I think it’s up to the organiser of a festival to say, ‘We don’t want to humiliate this guy by putting him in a chair with these writers who spend every waking moment involved in literature.’” As another contrast to literary writers, Kelman mentions writers of genre-fiction, a topic he has discussed, often very derisively, in previous interviews. A few years ago, for example, when Kelman was at the Edinburgh Book Festival, he rebuked the writing of Ian Rankin and J.K. Rowling, as well as the Scottish literary establishment itself, by lamenting that, if Scotland were in charge of the Nobel Prize, the award would go to “a writer of fucking detective fiction” or a novel about “some upper middle-class magician.” Speaking to me, he is less vitriolic: “When you’re involved in genre fiction, I think part of the problem is you have to ignore the points that bring value … In order to look at genre-fiction, you have to ignore that. Because in genre-fiction you don’t get it. It’s just not there.”
When asked if he thinks that the kind of fiction he is involved in creating has an intellectual role to play in educating readers away from genre-fiction or other types of simple or generic art, Kelman shakes his head: “I don’t see it like that at all,” he says. “That right away cuts across something for me. I think the writer’s job is to write properly and what readerships are about is another area and it’s not anything to do with the writer at all. My only thing is to finish a novel properly. Do the work properly. The education process has got nothing to do with me.”
It is important to note that Kelman has shown little interest in formal education throughout his life. He left school at the earliest opportunity, when he was fifteen years old, and did not return to formal education until, as a young writer, he went to university to study literature and philosophy; he dropped out before finishing his degree because he disliked the way the literature was taught. He is now a strong proponent of self-education. Speaking to me, he says: “When you’re young, I think it depends on what you have access to, where your own interests lie. And you can make extraordinary leaps.” To help make this point, he tells me about the types of books he was reading in his youth. Despite his current distaste for genre-fiction, he says that commercial novelists like Harold Robbins, as well as writers of Westerns, such as Louie L’amour, were early interests. Then, as a progression from these kinds of pop-fiction, he began to develop a fondness for more literary authors, telling me that “it’s a short jump from Louie L’amour to people like Jack Kerouac, believe it or not.” Also, because Kelman had a keen interest in painting, he would often read the biographies of great artists when he was a teenager: “It was the life of the artist that was always exciting to me, because they had a good night life,” he says with an impish grin. “I wasn’t really interested in the life of the saints. I was just like an ordinary teenage boy. I mean, for god’s sake, I would rather read about Modigliani working his way through night clubs in Paris, painting lassies in the nude.”
Among Kelman’s early reading, there is a noticeable lack of English authors. He tells me he read Enid Blyton when he was very young, but did so simply because “there would be no such thing as a toddler who is not reading Enid Blyton in my generation.” The only English writer Kelman mentions reading as a teenager is D.H. Lawrence; yet he admits that the sole reason he bought Lady Chatterley’s Lover was “for the sex.” Discussing this early disregard for English literature, Kelman tells me, “It had no interest for me, simply because of the class and the elitism that you constantly bump your head against. The racism and all that. English literature is just absolutely full of that, and it’s as if nobody notices it. No one often does notice it. But if you’re at the receiving end of it, it’s really quite shocking.” And Scots so often are at the receiving end of this prejudice, says Kelman. He tells me that whenever he came across Scottish people being depicted in English literature, they were barely recognisable as human beings. Rather, they are portrayed either as having a “type of assimilated Scottishness that I would not cope with reading,” or they are represented as “clowns” with nothing in the way of emotional or intellectual depth: “They’re basically saying that your people aren’t capable of reading a book, never mind writing one.”
This kind of stereotyped Scottishness was the only literary depiction of Scottish people and culture Kelman knew as a young boy because he didn’t begin to read works that were part of the Scottish literary tradition until he was an adult. In his youth, he was completely unaware that there even was such a thing as a Scottish literary tradition simply because it was not taught when he was at school. Even when he began studying at Strathclyde University, there was nobody there teaching Scottish literature in any kind of serious way: “I felt as if I was from Mars,” he says. “I don’t know if it happens nowadays, but in those days you didn’t even have a Scottish literature department, you just had maybe one room and the guy who specialises in the Scottish stuff. That applied to Scottish philosophy as well. It’s not treated with respect, and because of that younger people cannot learn within a tradition, so all they can do is discover it in a piecemeal fashion.”
Kelman’s dislike for university also came from his feeling that, within the literature department, there was a flagrant refusal to recognise the prejudice and elitism that he saw as inherent to so many of the texts he was being made to study. He tells me that he once had a bitter argument with one of his lecturers who was unwilling to concede that Evelyn Waugh’s third-person use of the word ‘paw’ to describe the hand of a black character was a clear indication of the author’s racism. Kelman, sounding exasperated, as if reliving the argument, says, “Either he’s a racist or he’s the most inefficient writer going.”
The ethics surrounding the use of third-person narration in fiction is a matter of great importance for Kelman: “In order to do what I do as a writer you need to subvert the third-party,” he says. “First person is too easy, so you have to find a way into third-party…. The third-party’s supposed to be objective, a statement of the facts. Like the equivalent of literary logic. There is no value, it’s not a value-laden text. That’s always the assumption, or the presumption you might say, about third-party narrative.” To illustrate the problems that can arise from using third-person narration, Kelman asks me to consider the sentence, ‘The pretty girl walked into the bar.’ After a pause, he says, “If I was a lassie, I’d slap you right in the mouth. How do you define pretty? That’s the god-voice. How could you be a woman and read that? That’s English literature. Everything is male value.”
The way Kelman has subverted the third-person narrative voice in his own writing is by using a unique stream-of-consciousness style which the scholar Paul Shanks has described as “a form of free indirect discourse mixed with interior monologue.” In other words, the third-person is always limited to the character’s own perspective and never takes on the omniscience of what Kelman calls the “god-voice.” This narrative mode allows for the objectivity of third-person while avoiding the problem of assigned value. Yet Kelman avoids this problem in other ways too. Talking about, A Chancer, the first novel he ever wrote, but the second novel he published, Kelman says, “In that novel, there are no adverbs. There’s only concrete. There wouldn’t be anything with a value on it, unless it was said in dialogue. Because I tried to create a value-free novel.” He smiles, but there is a hint of resignedness when he says, “That never gets picked up.”
Indeed those who criticise Kelman’s writing most vehemently often do so by completely ignoring the experimental nature of his work. These detractors, instead, tend to focus their criticism entirely on the type of language he uses, particularly his use of explicit language. He tells me that this has been true from the moment he started writing. By way of example, he says that when he was in his mid-twenties he attended a creative-writing workshop run by the academic and poet Philip Hobsbaum, and the first time that Kelman ever read one of his own short stories aloud several of the other students were completely appalled: “There was a couple of people that never came back to the class after that,” says Kelman. “They said that they were shocked that they should hear the language of the gutter. That was their phrase.”
Even with the plethora of awards and scholarly admiration which Kelman has received since the days of Hobsbaum’s workshop, there are still large numbers of readers who condemn his work as vulgar or puerile simply because of the explicit language that he uses. Perhaps the most savage bout of criticism Kelman has ever received came in the wake of of him being awarded the Booker Prize in 1994 for his book, How Late It Was, How Late. The novel concerns a working-class Glaswegian who wakes up following a night of heavy drinking to find that he has been blinded after being badly beaten by the police. Because the book was written in a Glaswegian dialect which frequently makes use of explicit language, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, one of the judges on the Booker panel, threatened to resign if the book won, and when it did she denounced the work by saying, “Frankly, it’s crap.”
In an attempt to prove the vulgarity of Kelman’s novel, one tabloid journalist estimated that the word ‘fuck’ appeared 4000 times throughout the work. However, this is the exactly the type of criticism that Kelman finds so irksome because he feels that it manifests a fundamental misunderstanding of how literature operates: “Oh, I used the word ‘fuck.’” he says. “Well, it wasn’t really me. It was a character … Maybe they thought it was me that said ‘fuck off,’ whereas it was the character in my story. I still get that all the time. People still say, ‘Why are you swearing all the time?’ And you go, well I’m not swearing all the time. Don’t you realise it’s a character in a story? Other cultures don’t have that, so why is this still an issue?”
In the acceptance speech he gave at the Booker Prize ceremony, Kelman famously said, in defiance of the criticism he was receiving, “my culture and my language have a right to exist.” He has also stated that to take issue with the expletives in his work is to “beg the question of what those words are … involving me again in a value system that isn’t your own to deny.” Speaking to me, he says, “It’s not as though you write that way in order to irritate people.” Rather, Kelman has consistently used his fiction to create authentic depictions of the lives and characters of people from the cross-sections of society which are generally ignored or stereotyped by the British literary establishment. Importantly, however, when so many British readers have their own prejudices regarding these communities, Kelman often can’t help but irritate a great deal of his readership. And when so many readers continue to say, as Kelman says they do, “We don’t want to hear about the guy who’s in the gutter. Keep the language of the gutter for the people in the gutter and let them stay in the gutter,” publishing the kind of honest representations of working-class life that Kelman does so well necessarily becomes a political act.
I ask him if he thinks he would ever be able to create a work of literature that is unpolitical, but he tells me that he was forced to realise, very early in his career, that it was impossible ever to separate politics from art: “If you’re really doing your work as an artist you don’t need to try to be political,” he says. “If you pursue your work honestly, it will always be political.”
Ed – Interview was conducted 20 October at the 2016 Dundee Literary Festival.