Is there such a thing as national culture?


The celebrated author of Trainspotting, Porno, and Skagboys, talks to the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference on the experience of Scottishness in a globalizing world and the narrow-minded hierarchy behind the Booker Prize. 

Irvine Welsh
22 August 2012

I’ve always considered myself belonging to the school of writers who should be read but not heard, so I don’t know what set of circumstances leads me to be standing here today. I suppose the subject matter, a national literature, is a compelling one for me, given the current political situation in these islands with the forthcoming independence referendum, and the fact that I’m now in genuine exile in the US, rather than a half-arsed one in London or Dublin.

It only really hits you living outside the UK, how much the casual remark “I’m Scottish” or “I’m British” is, bizarrely, such a political statement. I speak as someone who has been described over the years in British Council, and other, literature as both. My friend Phillip Kerr and I find it amusing how I can be described as ‘Scottish’ while he’s referred to as ‘British’ in the same festival brochure, as we grew up about three miles from each other in Edinburgh, and both left that city in our teens, to go to London. This, like so many things, is down to perceived social class differences. I don’t want to get sidetracked by dwelling on class; at this stage let’s just acknowledge the fundamental veracity of its relevance to this debate, and leave it at that.

As this discussion originated in Edinburgh half a century ago, I’m going to focus mainly on the Scottish situation, as it’s a pretty unique one. For we live in a country that isn’t a nation, but has been lurching, almost apologetically at times, towards that status, picking up some of the trappings of such an entity en route. But, lest we forget, this is still a region of the UK.

The political and cultural landscape was unrecognisable 50 years ago, when Hugh MacDiarmid delivered his lecture on a ‘national literature’, provoking his famous spat with Alexander Trocchi. We’d come through the horrors of war and holocaust, and people who regarded themselves as progressive politically saw internationalism as unambiguously good and desirable. It was forward-looking and inclusive, respecting the culture and aspirations of all, and based on fraternal, even socialistic notions. Nationalism, even dressed up in ‘national liberation’ clothes, was seen as morally dubious and inherently divisive.

Now the dominant model of ‘internationalism’ is capitalist- and media-led globalization, levelling national and regional differences into a monolith of confused, debt-fuelled consumerism and bland, disposable culture. Today it’s difficult to imagine, even without underestimating the formidable power of Scottish contrariness, that kind of discord existing between such freethinking mavericks as Trocchi and MacDiarmid. I’m quite sure that both, whether their vantage was the Scottish borders or New York City, would look at the UK in a globalized world and acknowledge that there were bigger fish to fry.

As both a nation and a national culture, it’s important to remember that the UK ascended on the back of the first imperialist epoch of globalization, when world markets were dominated by militaristic nation states. Paradoxically, the current era of globalization has, in some ways, strained the relationship between a national-cultural identity and a nation state, which, certainly in Britain, is starting to disappear. Rearguard actions by the establishment to promote a mono-cultural British nationalism are usually unable to move beyond the traditional bedrock of that nationalism; what Stuart Hall calls “the idea of an assumed Englishness”, which has always negotiated against difference. This negotiation against difference is mirrored by the current mass production and dissemination of culture, whereby overt regional and national differences in this context, are in the first instance, perceived as troublesome barriers to mass sales.

We can spend all day debating what is national and regional literature to the point where it becomes meaningless. In an American context, look at Wikipedia, and you’ll find writers as diverse as Steven King, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler all described as ‘regional’. The criterion for being a ‘national’ writer often seems to be as trite as living close enough to Manhattan to be able to attend the occasional New Yorker cocktail party.

Global mass culture is now largely governed by an increasingly image-dominant, rather than linguistic-dominant, means of cultural production. Therefore, it’s more difficult for it to be limited by national boundaries. In such an environment, the main question for storytellers who see themselves as working outside the global cultural highway of London, New York and LA is, what kind of room for manoeuvre do we have, in a global literary marketplace, to express national or regional culture? Moreover, can writing still be undertaken – and indeed, writers be formed – within a ‘national’ culture?

The Scottish experience says a resounding ‘yes’ to this. Prominent novels that have come out this year, from Alan Warner, James Kelman, Jenni Fagan and, less obviously but still emphatically, Ewan Morrison, John Niven and Dougie Johnstone, clearly could not have been written by non-Scots. Even genre fiction writers, often derided as writing into marketing holes, must convey a sense of place, and perhaps even of national character or archetypes.

Yet, Scottish fiction has an uneasy relationship in the ‘British’ literary paradigm, dominated by this imperialistic idea of an assumed Englishness, which, as Hall reminds us, exists to negotiate against difference. Only one Scottish novel has won the highly imperialist-orientated Man Booker Prize, routinely chosen by a largely upper middle-class English panel, and alternating around 50-50 between largely upper-middle-class English writers and citizens of the former colonies, presumably to stamp legitimacy on this ‘global accolade’. Kevin Williamson of Rebel Inc, and Scottish Writer of the Year Alan Bissett, both recently attacked the anti-Scottish discriminatory nature of the prize, producing hard, sobering statistics in support of their arguments. That they haven’t been deemed worthy of a reply can only be due to either the arrogance of hierarchical power, this negotiation against difference, or in this case, more likely, that the Booker apologists simply have no arguments to refute these observations. Hegemony not only breeds arrogance; it also promotes intellectual enfeeblement. The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology. The academics who are custodians of the prize however, can only offer bland and complacent corporate PR speak in defence of an award based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured.

The key point is that competing groups, ranging from national politicians to nongovernmental organisations to indigenous activists, have come to see culture as a valuable resource to be invested in, contested, and used for varied sociopolitical and economic ends. This idea has largely been expressed on the left – both traditional and modern – in terms of the Gramscian notion of cultural struggle for hegemony. Now, everything from the Jubilee to the Olympics, to all of us sitting here, illustrates that cultural agency, at every level, is negotiated within globalized contexts; dominated by the active management and administration not only of culture, but the circumstances within which it develops. In most cases, this is seen as a legitimate, even essential mode of urban development. So these rituals and everyday aesthetic practices are mobilized to promote tourism and the heritage business, in countries where mass culture-reliant industries often comprise significant portions of the GNP.

Writers such as George Yúdice assert that a new international division of cultural labour has emerged, combining local difference with transnational administration and investment. Yúdice contends this doesn’t mean that today’s increasingly transnational culture – exemplified by the entertainment industries and the so-called global civil society of nongovernmental organisations – is necessarily homogenized. In other words, no matter how strong economic and cultural hegemony is, there is always room for maverick opposition. The biggest shock about the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony was that after 30-odd years of neo-liberal governments, such a genuinely anti-imperialist, multi-and-popular cultural event could actually take place in contemporary Britain.

So national and regional differences still function, and shape the meaning of cultural and political phenomena, from pop songs to antiracist activism. Yúdice considers a range of sites where identity politics and cultural agency are negotiated in the face of powerful transnational forces. For example he analyses appropriations of American funk music, and a citizen action initiative in Rio de Janeiro, to show how global notions such as cultural difference are deployed within specific social fields. He provides a political and cultural economy of a vast and increasingly influential art event — the insite triennial festival, which extends from San Diego to Tijuana. He posits on the uses of culture in an unstable world where censorship and terrorist acts can interrupt the usual channels of capitalist and artistic flows.

With that point in mind, I’m only digressing slightly when I focus on a piece of work, Tales From The Mall, by Glasgow-based writer Ewan Morrison, which was published this year by Scotland’s innovative Cargo Press. In the simplistic nature of market classification, this book is hard to tritely define (and therefore stock). Not only does it not fit the genre-dominated fiction boxes into which everything must increasingly be shoehorned, (again, retail-, not publishing- or artist-led), but it’s not a fictional novel, short story collection, multi-media experience, or a treatise on modern architecture, consumer capitalism, authority structures and the negation of democracy, yet it’s all of these things.

Tales From The Mall, therefore, has gained little exposure, other than a fantastic word-of-mouth through the cognoscenti. This publication posits an exciting future for storytelling, from the so-called margins. It’s an innovative book that is set largely in Scotland, but which has a global reach, as this small country interfaces with a globalised consumerist culture to produce truly zeitgeist writing.

But the supposed crisis of national culture and writing in our globalised world is, like most of our current ills, fundamentally a crisis of democracy. Faced by the seemingly impregnable forces of multi-national capital, imperialist structures and their slavish spokespersons, overloaded by impotent debate, people must have forums and space for dissent and positive resistance. I emphasize the ‘positive’ only because we must never forget that local ethnicities/nationalities can become as dangerous as ‘nation-state’ ones when they simply fear modernism to the extent that they retreat into national and defensive identities.

As I know through my own experience, the market will always convert art and culture into mass entertainment. When my first novel sold 10,000 copies, I was a local hero. When it sold 100,000, people grew more dubious. At a million copies I was a sell-out, whoring out my culture for the entertainment of outsiders. Now … I can’t even think about it. The point is, that many people locally felt an ownership of the book, and a pride in it. What was an affirmation, an attestation to a place, a way of life, a language, a class, a culture and an attitude, became seen as something else. Obviously, the book was the same; I hadn’t changed a word of it. Let me make it clear that I’m not complaining about making money – any writer that does is either a liar or crazy – just stressing that the marketplace can force the writer into a set of relationships and perspectives they might not have recalled signing up for.

So from an aspiring author’s point of view, if you’re from the so-called margins, do you play the current publishing game – eg shoehorn yourself into writing genre fiction, and ‘work within the system’, as the successful Scandinavian writers have done in crime fiction, effectively globally rebranding (at least in the eyes of outsiders) an entire genre – or do you exercise the freedom of the author and simply do what the fuck you feel like? I think I know what both Trocchi and MacDiarmid would do, but I’m suggesting that there is legitimacy, and not necessarily a dichotomy, in doing both. But wherever a writer, or their writing, is placed on the spectrum, what interests me, personally, is work which in some way, speaks the truth to power. To my mind this is still is the greatest freedom a writer can have. The celebrated, marvellous, Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy was reported to have said, “it’s alright speaking the truth to power, but just don’t expect it to listen”. While I understand what she means, I don’t think we speak the truth to power for power’s ear, but for the ear and the imagination of future generations, who would seek to live in a world free from the malign and self-serving influence of those who wield it.

So the call to arms is a twofold one: firstly, let’s have a look around, it’s a big world, and if bits of it move you, don’t be afraid to write about it. Second, be bold, and proud of who are and where you come from. Express your culture, your concerns and those of your community and the voices within it, however movable a feast that is. Because if you don’t, the chances are that it might not be around in the future. So do what Trocchi and MacDiarmid would do: don’t get obsessed with histories and legacies or markets and ‘rules’, just hit those keys and see what happens.

This speech is published with thanks to Irvine for giving permission. His latest novel Skagboys, is available to purchase here

• The Edinburgh World Writers’ conference, hosted jointly by the Edinburgh International Book festival and the British Council, ran from 17-21 August.

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