Letter from America
Douglas Stuart is the first Scottish writer to win the Booker Prize since James Kelman in 1994. Stuart has cited How late it was, how late as his ‘bible’, though Shuggie Bain has more in common with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), another transatlantic misery-lit smash. Its more obvious Scottish precursors would include the tender brutalities of Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes (1958) and the Gorbals shocker No Mean City (1935). From the perspective of literary Scotland, the harrowing content of Stuart’s novel is largely beside the point. What matters is that a Scottish novel has been recognised on the world stage, boosting the prestige and marketability of the category itself.
This reception traces a shift in literary nationalism over the past few decades. In 1994, the London press poured a ‘suppuration of racist, xenophobic class hatred’, as John Linklater put it, on Kelman’s language and protagonist. But Scotland’s first Booker winner was disowned at home, too: How late it was, how late was denounced by a former lord provost of Glasgow and regretted as an ‘unfortunate portrayal’ by the Saltire Society. Kelman explained to a Canadian journalist that ‘it’s a small country, and there’s a tacit assumption that artists and writers are employees of the tourist industry, meant to enhance the image of Scotland for overseas investors. I’m bad for the image.’
Shuggie Bain presents us with a far more depraved and disturbing Scottish scene than either How late or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (subject of its own 1990s moral panics), but the Scottish publishing and media worlds are united in their rejoicing, and the country’s most influential literary commentator, Nicola Sturgeon, gave a glowing endorsement. So far, the Team Scotland ethos of celebration has discouraged critics from voicing their reservations about the novel and its historical cues. Stuart himself, who lives in New York, has gone out of his way to nationalise his success, describing the Booker win as ‘a great thing for Scottish voices, for queer voices, for working-class voices … I owe Scotland everything.’
Both the open-armed acceptance of Shuggie Bain’s sordidness, and the banal celebration of ‘Scottish voices’, owe a lot to the literary culture of devolution. The rhetoric of national representation that powered the 1990s consensus for a Scottish Parliament helped to produce ‘Scotland’, in the words of the sociologist David McCrone, ‘as an ideological category incompatible with Conservative Anglo-British rhetoric’. Unified by the rejection of Tory rule, this image of Scotland – electorally silenced, culturally and linguistically ‘othered’, industrially dispossessed – became the key carrier of literary and political identity into the 2000s, around the time Stuart left Glasgow for New York. Strong on symbols and short on power, devolved political culture values the performance of nationality as an end in itself, but especially cherishes voices that uphold the vintage 1980s image of national working-classness. Through this idiom, all of Scotland – from the Proclaimers to the bus tycoon Brian Souter – bear the wounds of Thatcherism, and the warrant to mobilise against them.
Stuart has described Shuggie Bain as an act of witness to Tory social destruction, but the 1980s are anything but unprocessed trauma in Scotland today. Scorn of Thatcherism is fully incorporated into the logic of Scottish government, and both the parties that have led Holyrood administrations fiercely define themselves, and Scottish social democracy, against its legacy. These scars are the common currency of Scotland’s modern cultural identity: the injuries of class are incorporated into the national self-image, and the class speech of the ex-industrial central belt has been refigured as a tongue of national pain and protest.
This week, the pain feels far away. Stuart has generously shared his big moment, helping other Scottish writers to reach the massively expanded audience the Booker confers. There is nothing exactly nostalgic about Shuggie Bain, but the reception of its triumph has rekindled the warm consensus of the 1990s Scottish literati, this time free of insecurity about the dignity of the national image. It isn’t so much that Scotland has achieved a grown-up reckoning with its social history (warts, booze, paedophiles and all), as that these wounds have become a source of cultural and political capital. Today, nobody’s afraid of a Shuggie effect that might detract from Scotland’s good name, or spoil the lucrative touristic fantasies of Outlander.
The strength of Scotland’s ‘identity’ means we are free to choose between myths, and the popularity of one need not trouble the appeal of the other; which is another way of saying their truth-content is irrelevant. And this matters for whatever dimension of Stuart’s novel is grounded in memoir. Absorbed into the logic of national literary representation, the personal torment that seems to lie behind Shuggie Bain is transmuted into a display of Scotland’s unofficial stigmata, wounds beyond all healing. In the words of a leader in the Times, ‘Douglas Stuart’s Booker prize win is a shot in the arm for the Scottish novel.’