A Disaffection

So the longlist for the Booker Prize 2011 has been revealed. For the winner, a bounty beckons which is almost unparalleled in the literary world – a huge sales boon, blanket media coverage and (virtually) guaranteed interest in future publications. It almost seems inconceivable that a Booker Prize-winner could muster the following statement: “My wife has been my most crucial support, financially as well as emotionally and psychologically. She worked full-time up until her retirement a couple of years ago.”

The man behind these words is James Kelman, the 65-year-old Scottish writer who won the Booker in 1994 for his novel How Late it was, How Late. He had been shortlisted for the prize five years previously (for A Disaffection), and was also nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in both 2009 and 2011.

So why is the British public so disaffected with such an acclaimed figure?

I thought there might be a resurgence of interest in the Scotsman after Philip Roth was awarded the Man Booker International earlier this year. Not because Kelman had been longlisted for the prize, but because the ensuing controversy surrounding Roth’s award was strangely symmetrical to the media circus which followed Kelman’s Booker victory in the early 90s.

When How Late it was, How Late won the award, judge Rabbi Julia Neuberger resigned – in a remarkably similar manner to Carmen Callil – denouncing the book as “crap”. Numerous journalists assented to Neuberger’s opinion – Simon Jenkins in the Times called him an “illiterate savage”. In Kelman’s acceptance speech – which was neither illiterate nor savage – he claimed “a fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether”.

Most of the criticism aimed at the novel was in response to Kelman’s use of Scots vernacular, though there were many objectors to the abundance of expletives (one detractor managed to count 4,000 f-word instances). His critics would claim the novel is “difficult”, though there was far less clamour when Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, another novel written using vernacular, scooped the same award in 1993.

Kelman himself admits that his triumph may have hindered his sales: “I don’t think it’s proved to be that good for me, winning the Booker in 1994. The hostility, the attacks, interfered with my work in a way that I don’t think I ever really recovered. When you have bookshops saying ‘we won’t stock this guy’s books’, it makes it difficult . . . Even if I do a reading just now, people will say: ‘Well Jim, about your sweary words’. It’s had a very sad effect.”

The statistics reinforce his point. There have been 42 Booker Prize winners, of which How Late it was, How Late sits 35th in terms of sales figures. Since Nielsen Bookscan records began in 1998, it has shifted a modest 11,168 copies. Granted, the novel’s sales will have predominantly come in the period immediately after the award win (and therefore before Bookscan began recording sales), but comparing the title’s sales to those of Doyle’s aforementioned Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (90,778 copies) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (156,738 copies)—both pre-1998 victors—suggests Kelman may be right.

Roth, incidentally, has enjoyed a 165% sales boost since winning the Booker International, despite Callil’s condemnation (and resignation, no less). She said of Roth: “[he] digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist . . . The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I hear the swish of emperor’s clothes . . . He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

Callil’s main contention of the award – besides her breathlessness – was that “to give this prize to yet another North American writer [following the award to Canadian Alice Monro in 2009] . . . suggests a limited vision, to say the least”. Others shortlisted for the award include Chinese writers Wang Anyi and Su Tong, Spaniard Juan Goytisolo, Lebanese Amin Maalouf and Indian Rohinton Mistry—hardly a scarcity of non-American (not to mention non-Western) writers to choose from.

It would seem that while Roth’s controversial win has resulted in a sales boon, Kelman’s saga has had the opposite effect. His most recent novel, Kieron Smith, Boy (2008), was largely well-reviewed, with many of his supporters citing it as his most mature and accomplished work to date. It also won Scotland’s prestigious Saltire Society Book of the Year award. Yet, Kelman claimed that it had earned him just £1,400 in the 12 months following its publication.

In spite of this, the Scot is often compared to great canonical modernists—various versions of his book jackets liken him to Kafka and Joyce. Personally I see greater affinities with the likes of Faulkner and Chekhov—Kelman’s short stories are effortlessly erudite, sparse and yet impeccably constructed, with the dry wit Chekhov exudes. His characters reflect upon themselves, questioning their every move and motive, using their lively, demotic prose to muse upon the fabric of the everyday.

Over the years, I have worked my way through Kelman’s catalogue, and have returned to his short stories many times. In an age of bite-sized, e-reader inspired snatches of reading, they really ought to enjoy a renaissance. His novels – Kieron Smith, Boy and A Disaffection in particular – are among the best I have read, and his two collections of essays are fantastic, acute observations on a broad range of topics – from “A Brief Note on the War Being Waged by the State Against the Victims of Asbestos” to “Art, Subsidy and the Continuing Politics of Culture City”.

Almost 20 years after his Booker triumph, it would seem that the Scot is in danger of being perennially undervalued on these shores. And yet “Kelman is a true original, who writes with genius about those at the margins of society, but at the very centre of the human heart”. From whom does such high praise come? Carmen Callil, no less.


Photo courtesy of Murdo Macleod.