Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

The poetry of literature…

🙂 🙂 🙂

In this lengthy and detailed tome, Crawford sets out to describe the development of Scottish literature from the earliest times to the present. It is clearly expertly researched, and laid out in a linear timeline that demonstrates how the writers of each generation were influenced by the ones before, as well as by the events of their own time.

Since I feel constantly ashamed of my ignorance of the literature of my own country (for which I blame the education system in force during my schooling) this sounded like the ideal read for me to discover new authors and to understand the various literary movements over the centuries. And to some degree it did achieve this, although it had the odd effect of showing me that actually I do already know most of the Scottish writers of note and have read many of the most revered books – an unexpected surprise, and a rather unwelcome one, since it made me realise the relative paucity of great fiction our nation has produced over the centuries. Of course, there are great books and great names, but nothing like the tradition of fiction writing in Ireland or England, for example.

In fact, though, despite the title and the blurb, both of which suggest firmly that this book will be mostly focused on fiction writing (the names mentioned in the blurb are Robert Louis Stevenson, James Kelman, Irving Welsh and Ali Smith), the majority of the book is a history of the poetry of Scotland, which Crawford, himself a poet, seems to suggest has a much more vibrant past and present than our fictional prose. He also talks about the philosophers of the Enlightenment, but doesn’t extend the non-fiction side to the present day, so that we hear nothing, for example, of the excellent work of modern Scottish historians, like Tom Devine or Jenny Wormald, to name but two.

There is, of course, no reason not to include poets and philosophers in a history of Scottish literature, but since Crawford had already written a history of Scottish poetry to which this book is described as a companion piece, I was surprised that this volume was so heavily weighted to poetry too. And since – go ahead, hiss if you must – I’m not terribly interested in most poetry, especially poetry written in either Gaelic or Latin since I can’t read either language, I found much of the book rather tedious, and found myself eventually skipping over large sections devoted to poets whom even Crawford himself was describing as not terribly good.

On the fictional side, Crawford takes us through from the earliest novelists, such as Smollett, to those writing at the time he published the book – 2007, I believe. He discusses the continuing exodus of Scottish writers over the centuries since the Union (1603), mostly to London but also as part of the diaspora throughout the empire. This is where unfortunately I found myself in disagreement with him again, although I accept that his stance is as valid as my own. Crawford feels that if one is Scottish by birth or heritage, then one’s books count as Scottish even if one chooses to live, work in and write exclusively about another country. I don’t. I spent a long time coming up with my own definition of a “Scottish Book” at one point, and here it is:

A novel written by an author who is Scottish by birth or choice and who has lived in Scotland long enough to assimilate its culture; and either set in Scotland or saying something significant about Scottish society or history. This means a novel may be set in a different country but must still be speaking to the Scottish experience, thus including the Scottish contribution to the British Empire and the Scottish Diaspora.

Therefore, for example, I do think Ali Smith and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are Scottish writers, but I don’t think that many of their books are Scottish books. Crawford thinks they are. This meant that many of the books he discussed were outwith my own definition of Scottish, so didn’t add much to my quest to read more Scottish fiction. On the other hand, I found his attempt to claim for Scotland some writers from elsewhere who happened to live here for a while, such as Byron, to be more than a bit of a stretch. I still found what he had to say quite interesting, though, especially the idea that it was largely Scottish Londoners who developed the literary imagery of fog-bound Victorian London.

As we got towards the present day, I discovered that our tastes are out of alignment – almost every time, authors he praised highly are ones I’m not enthusiastic about, like Welsh and Kelman, while he is completely dismissive of anyone who veers too far from the heights of literariness, such as McIvanney, Rankin, McDermid. Since Scotland is much better known in the modern world for its influential crime fiction than its literary fiction (or its poetry), this felt like intellectual snobbery to me. One doesn’t have to like all the grim and gritty contemporary crime novelists – I don’t always myself – but any history of Scottish fiction has to recognise their importance in our literary culture.

Also I fear Crawford’s clear pro-Independence stance and membership of the Edinburgh literati began to cloud his objectivity as we came right up to the present, and he became rather nauseatingly complimentary about writers with whom I’m certain he will hob-nob regularly at Edinburgh literary events. It would probably have been better if he’d stopped just prior to his own time as a Scottish poet.

Robert Crawford

Overall, then, this was a mixed bag for me. The extensive coverage of poets may be of more appeal to others, and I did like the way he tied the various writers to the events and cultures of their times. He had a good deal to say, and said it well, about the gradual Englishing of the Scottish language after the Union, and the depressing effect this had on our literature for many decades, perhaps centuries, thereafter. But I found much of it a rather tedious read, concentrating too much on listing names of forgotten poets, and not enough on prose fiction, though perhaps there just isn’t much of a Scottish hinterland in prose beyond our few weel-kent stars.

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46 thoughts on “Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

  1. Outside of my sphere of knowledge, but I found your discussion of some of the issues the book raises (and doesn’t) very interesting. I liked your definition of ‘who counts’ as a Scottish writer. At times, I’ve pondered who counts as a NZ writer: born here or lives here and/or writes about here, and have never reached a tidy outline. I’m grateful that you’ve highlighted the more interesting parts of this book so I don’t feel tempted to have to read it 🙂

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    • I think it becomes much harder to define a book’s nationality now that people are so fluid in where they live. I reckon I’d have called all Walter Scott’s books Scottish even if they weren’t about Scotland, because he was so essentially Scottish himself. But if a writer leaves Scotland at the age of 18 to go to Uni in England or abroad and never returns except for brief visits, are they really Scottish any more? By heritage and nationality, yes, of course, but by culture and experience? But then there’s the likes of William Boyd, who sees himself as Scottish although he wasn’t born here and has spent very little time here, and has written a couple of books that definitely feel Scottish to me…

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  2. This comes across as a pretty comprehensive critique of Crawford’s overview, praising where praise is due but noting failings — especially biases — as a blot on its own claim to comprehensiveness. As he aims to bring things up to date does he mention his own contribution to Scottish poetic literature? Inclusion or exclusion: either approach must represent a thorny path!

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    • He does indeed mention himself, and does it rather well actually – he points out that his status as a leading current poet means he must be mentioned along with his contemporaries, but that he will leave the analysis of his own work to others. He also provides some of his own translations of the Latin and Gaelic poets sprinkled through the book, which I thought were really well done.

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  3. What a thoughtful, well-written post, FictionFan! I know exactly what you mean about the issue of defining what is Scottish writing. We’ve run into the same thing defining New Zealand writing for the Ngaio Marsh awards. And he dismisses McIlvanney? No. Just no. Hmmm….It sounds as though, as you say, it’s thoroughly researched, but not what you were hoping…

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    • Thank you, Margot! 😀 Yes, I think it becomes ever harder to define a book’s “nationality” when people are so fluid about where they choose to live and work. I was very surprised about McIlvanney – I suspect this book may have been written just before the revival of interest in McIlvanney’s work over the last few years, but still – I felt he rated more than a passing reference, whether for his fiction or his crime novels.

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  4. I agree with your definition of a Scottish novel, it must reflect at least to some extent the Scottish experience. It seems rather short sighted of Crawford to be so dismissive of popular Scottish crime or thriller writers, as although some of the material in such books may be slightly exaggerated or blinkered in its own way, they probably do reflect at least something of the Scottish experience. It certainly sounds as though there is a degree of literary snobbery going on. I was vaguely tempted to read this when you mentioned it in a TBR post, but it sounds as though the focus is too narrow, so I don’t think I’ll bother now.

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    • I found enough of it interesting to keep me going to the end, but I did start skipping a lot of the stuff about poets I’d never heard of. It was a pity our definition of “Scottish book” didn’t align – I really don’t feel being born in Scotland or being descended from a Scot is enough. If a Scottish Canadian, for example, chooses to write about Scottish settlement of Canada then arguably I’d call that a Scottish book more than if a born and bred Scot chose to write a story about Londoners. And I was amazed that McIlvanney only rated a passing reference, and while a lot of our crime fiction doesn’t necessarily have literary weight, the likes of Rankin undoubtedly has shone a spotlight on the changing Scottish culture over the last few decades…

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    • Thank you! I do feel a book’s “nationality” is dependant on so much more than the place of the author’s birth. I really started trying to define it when I was think about what the “Great American Novel” is, and wondering if there was an equivalent genre of “Great Scottish Novel”. So far, the jury’s still out…

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  5. You labored through that book for us, and we thank you for the thought-provoking review.

    The determinant factor for the nationality of an author ought to have a lot to do with what country she WANTS to be of or from, in a literary sense; where she sees herself as writing from and about. It can’t be just how many years spent living in one place or the other. Henry James was born into a prestigious and intellectually interesting American family, but did he become an English writer because he eventually lived out more of his days in England? (I wonder if he ever spoke or wrote on the subject.) I confess that I do think of him as an English writer, and his brother William as an American writer and philosopher. Even Henry’s stories about Washington Square seem like English literature to me. But people generally regard him as an American novelist. That seems off to me.

    By comparison, Colm Toibin would be an Irish writer if he spent the rest of his life teaching at Columbia or Stanford. But he also has a home in or around Enniscorthy, returns there regularly, and cares about Ireland like one cares about a sibling or a right arm. If he didn’t have that home and didn’t return regularly, and if he started writing stories and novels set in America that are about America (Brooklyn, to me, is more about Ireland than America, though it’s a close call and it’s only one book) perhaps we’d begin to think of him as an American novelist. But that’s hard for me to even conjure.

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    • Yes, especially with the constant flows of immigration and emigration which have always been there, but now happen at a much higher rate, a book’s “nationality” is far less determined by the simple fact of an author’s birthplace. Intriguingly, I actually thought Henry James was English for many years (not having read any of his books, though), and was surprised to discover he was actually American. Conrad is another – to me, his books are completely English, not simply because he chose to write in that language, but because he writes so knowledgeably about the culture. And a current Glaswegian crime-writer, Abir Mukherjee, drives me crazy because he chose to make his main character an Englishman in the Raj despite the huge number of Scots who served in India, meaning that while he’s very much a Scottish writer, I can’t claim his books to be Scottish books. And yes, I agree Brooklyn is very definitely an Irish book despite taking place mostly outside the country.

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  6. I’m sorry this one failed to live up to your expectations, FF. I hate when that happens! Still, you make some valid points, I think, about just what constitutes a Scottish book, and I find myself agreeing with you. Even though I write a bit of poetry, I don’t consider myself a poet. Regardless, I would have been disappointed, too, at picking up a book and expecting to read about prose, yet finding chunks devoted to poetry.

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    • As so often, I think the blurb of this one gives a misleading impression it’s mostly going to be about prose fiction. I’m sure plenty of people will find all the stuff about poetry interesting – I did, myself, to a degree, though I felt there was far too much of it. But in then end it didn’t add many books to my list of Scottish novels to be read which was what I was looking for…

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    • Ha! I must admit when I started looking up author pics he looks much more fun than his book made him sound! I had this image of him as a forbidding old Professor, gazing contemptuously at his undergraduate class – namely, me! Whereas, looking at him, I have a feeling we’d get along just fine… 😉

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  7. This didn’t particularly appeal to me to start with, but your use of the word “tedious” at the end clinched it. I’ve not read nearly as much “Southern” literature as I should have, which is a shame since there’s a good chunk of it out there. At least you made the effort to remedy your situation. I’m just sorry it wasn’t what you’d hope for.

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    • There are so many great books from around the world, and we’re both lucky that we live in English-speaking cultures so have access to most of them. The sheer number makes it hard to concentrate on just one geographical area, but there is something quite satisfying in reading about your own culture, I find.

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  8. I updated my OS, and now I’m having trouble with WordPress. These kinds of things irritate me. I hope this comment goes through, because WP won’t allow me to like this post. I continue to be impressed by your ability to stick with a book, even if you’re finding little of worth in it for yourself. That said, this means you’re doing a service to others, so I applaud your selflessness! Cheers!

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    • Your comment made it through! Ugh – WordPress is great when it works, but it can be a temperamental beast! There was enough in this to keep me mostly interested, especially once I decided to skip over a lot of the poetry stuff. It was just unfortunate that Crawford and I didn’t really agree on much! 😉

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  9. I’m not a poetry fan myself, I get through it too quickly and I don’t like rereading much so it just doesn’t work for me. Now, I am very interested in the fact that Scottish writers are the ones who came up with this fog-bound London theme-how did that come about?

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  10. This does sound like it would benefit from a narrower focus – keep the poetry to another volume! I’d never thought about it before but why does Ireland seem to have so many more famous writers than Scotland?

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    • I don’t know – it was only when I started hunting for Scottish classics that I realised that apart from Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson we don’t have too many great names. We do however have loads of world-leading philosophers, scientists, mathematicians and historians, so maybe our education system drives us more towards factual creativity than artistic? I blame John Knox, but only because I *always* blame John Knox… 😉

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      • There is definitely lots of other fields the Scots have contributed to! And you could argue that with people of Scottish ancestry so far flung around the world, Scotland has also contributed to the development of many other nations!

        When I went to Christian school, our biggest rival school was named John Knox and they always beat us in sporting events. I didn’t even know who John Knox was but had a deep resentment against him from a young age!

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