10 Contemporary Scottish Writers you should have Read

Rabbie Burns, Bobby Stevenson, and Walt Scott are so 19th century! Ahead of the Edinburgh Festival next month we thought we’d bring you up-to-date with the current literary scene in Scotland.

James Kelman

Kelman has received slews of literary awards over the years, but he is still best remembered for the upset around his Booker Prize winning novel How Late It Was, How Late—definitely the first book featuring over 4,000 uses of f**k to win the award. His work is often accused of falling short of an agreed universal standard, but I find it excellent that he exposes why said standard is unable to live up to its own claims of universality. Pick up any of Kelman’s reads and you’ll find a political agenda trilling through guttural Scottish tones where the ‘bad’ language is actually a reflection of the language of the ‘common man’—not in the low sense.

‘[Al]l you’ve got to do is follow some people around and look at their existence for 24 hours and it will be horror. It will just be horror.’ James Kelman

Kelman rejects the conventional rules of English literature by abandoning quotation marks, which barricade working-class characters’ voices from the omniscient, authoritative standard English voice of the narrator flexing it’s interpretative prowess. Nicholas M. Williams deems obscenity in Scottish writing to be a form of scotology (1999, 225). Maybe we should all embrace it, but perhaps not at that next publishing meeting.

Catch him on 18th August at 1.30pm at the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre.

Janice Galloway

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is arguably the best novel of all time. The ‘80s and ‘90s saw an upsurge of Scottish fiction ‘formally and linguistically as well as thematically [different] from the accepted norms of the English novel’ (James English). The novel’s protagonist funnily enough lists Kelman and Alisdair Gray in her reading lists. Galloway’s novel also adopts the section breaks used in Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines (1984) and A Chancer (1985). Galloway expertly rejects standard typographical conventions to show the central character’s breakdown by allowing her first-person narrative to trickle into the margins.

‘Female experience in Scotland is dislocated by a national language which is both male and androcentric, an issue which is certainly tackled by both Kennedy and Galloway.’ Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

She mixes stylistic traits borrowed from Kelman and Gray with so-called female concerns—i.e., consumerism, domesticism, friendship, and health (Thomson, 166). One of the beauties of Scottish literature is its ability to reject the standard conventions of ‘Englisness’ and adopt it’s own postcolonial narrative in a country we almost forget was a colony—only joking, please don’t deport me Ms May. You definitely need to read Trick if you’re a fan of The Bell Jar.

Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay is most known for her poetry and short stories—click here to read her terrifically astute poem on ‘Climate Change’ (she said at a talk last year that it should be read in Nigel Farage’s accent). However, if you are only now being introduced to her, you need to read her novel The Trumpet. Focusing on a Scottish jazz musician, Joss Moody, the impulse came from the true story of Billy Tipton. Tipton was an American jazz pianist who on his death was discovered to have the body of a woman. While Tipton was white, Kay refreshingly interjects a biracial presence into a predominately white Scottish culture.

Her talk at the Festival is currently sold out, but you may catch a glimpse of her on 16th August at 1.30pm.

Ali Smith

Residing in Cambridge, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in publishing who hasn’t hear of Ms Smith. Smith is stylistically edgy but I find her more recent novels trickier to read. Infinitely more enjoyable are her short stories and the Winner of the Whitbread Award her novel The Accidental. She rejoices in steam of consciousness, which is no less apparent in her latest novel Autumn. The first instalment in a seasonal quarter of novels, which will be separate but connected to explore how we experience time. Smith abandons conventional forms and rejects gender stereotypes and conventional ideas of sexuality. I found her poetic tones did jar at times in her more recent novel, however, it was a linguistic marvel. Winter is coming, and I can’t wait to see what it has to offer.

See her at the Festival on 20th August at 5pm.

Alasdair Gray

‘The best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott’. Anthony Burgess

Perhaps overanalysed, Lanark: A Life in Four Books has wormed its way into the Scottish canon playfully blending genres to fuse the real with dystopian surrealist sketches of Glasgow. Every first year literature student had mis-quothed Barthes’ death of the author (who argues that the author is a construct and we should focus on the text), but it’s apparent that Gray fights against this interpretation with every fibre of his being by drawing attention to the novel’s fictionality.

'I want Lanark to be read in one order but eventually thought of in another.' Alasdair Gray

His novels (and even the four parts of Lanark) can be read individually, but they can also be thought of as a body of work which Gray obviously intrudes upon through his metafictional manipulation of literary forms. Rather than Barthes, Gray lends himself to Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’ and Wayne Booth’s implied author (The Rhetoric of Fiction). In these theories, the omnipresent author isn’t always a factor, and such is the case with Gray’s body of work.

You may not be able to catch him at the festival, but you can see his interviews on YouTube and the BBC.

Irvine Welsh

If your eyes are feeling slightly drained after the glare of beach reading, then you should relish the opportunity to see Welsh’s premiere of his new play at the Fringe. In his novels, Welsh (like Kelman) rejects the aforementioned narrative hierarchies by allowing his characters’ speech and perspectives to shine through. In Bakhtin’s terms: ‘authoritative discourse permits no play with the context framing it, no play with its borders, no gradual and flexible transitions, no spontaneously creative stylizing variants on it’ (1981, 78). Under these terms, Welsh provides a ‘polyphonic heteroglossia’ of assorted voices to allow multiple meanings, exposing political and class dynamics. I wouldn’t expect anything less from his new play and cannae wait to see it!

Catch The Performers at The Assembly Rooms from 3-27th August: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/performers

Alan Warner

'It's the most f*****g unbelievable country.' Alan Warner

Okay, so clearly not all leading ladies are Eliza Bennetts, and never has this been more apparent than in the painfully visceral Morvern Callar. This is one of the most surprising novels I’ve ever read. Alongside Welsh’s Trainspotting, Morvern Callar is considered as part of the ‘repetitive beat generation’ as popular music is an integral feature. From escaping post-industrial Scotland to the rave clubs of the Spanish Med to car stereos music. Definitely not easy beach reading, but one to reserve on the bookshelf for that right frame of mind.

A.L. Kennedy

Can we call her AL? Her writing is emotionally demanding and linguistically astonishing. With the rise of strong voices like Janice Galloway and A.L. Kennedy, it silenced the viewpoint that Scottish writing in the late twentieth century was an exclusively male arena. They articulate Scotland in their own way while seeming genderless. Kennedy is a master of blending fantasy and realism. A stand-up comedian, you may even catch her at the bijou Stand Comedy Club.

Catch her on 24th August at 11.45am

Anne Donovan

Cast in the shadow of Irvine Welsh, many Scottish authors (or rather female Scottish authors) are known as Rention’s bairns. In Buddha Da, Donovan shows an individual struggling with the knowledge that his own culture doesn’t fit him anymore.

‘Ma Da's a nutter . . . He'd dae anthin for a laugh so he wid . . . but that wis daft stuff compared tae whit he's went and done noo. He's turnt intae a Buddhist. At first Ma thought it was anther wanny his jokes.’

Expertly written in dialect, Donovan offers the viewpoint of each family member—whereas Welsh and Kelman share exclusively male perspectives. Her most recent novel Gone Are The Leaves was short-listed for the 2014 Saltire Scottish Literary Book of the Year Award—and we can’t wait for a woman to win this award again, as A. L. Kennedy was the last to win in 2007.

See a recording of a past Ed Fest interview at: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/media-gallery/item/anne-donovan-kirsten-innes-and-allan-radcliffe

James Robertson

Although brought up in Bridge of Allan, Robertson was born in Kent. A jack of all trades, and a master of the novel, short stories, and poetry, Robertson also runs an indie publishing house, Kettillonia, and is a co-founder (with Matthew Fitt and Susan Rennie) and general editor of the Scots language imprint Itchy Coo (produced by Black & White Publishing), which produces books in Scots for children and young people.

At a literary debate in the ‘80s, Robertson took exception to ‘a well-known Scottish novelist’ stating that there isn’t in any politics in Scottish writing. Like Robertson, I have always found that Scottish literature doesn’t need to be a political novel to expose a political agenda. Many have found that Scottish writing since the ‘80s has been a main contributor to Scottish devolution. Definitely start with Land Lay Still.

See him on 17th August at 3.30pm

Honourable mentions

Louise Welsh

Right. Confession. I know Louise Welsh should be on this list but I haven’t read the psychological thriller The Cutting Room but intend to. Welsh has a tranche of literary awards and I can’t wait to see what all the hype is about. Catch her with Heinz Helle on 22nd August at 8.45pm.

Jenni Fagan

As should Jenni Fagan. It feels like she’s been nominated for most of the awards out there and I’m looking forward to reading The Panopticon as soon as I can.

See her on 14th August at 8.30pm

Someone not make the cut? Post your comments below to tell us whom we missed.


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