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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