Happy New Year!
January is the double headed month. We look backwards and we look forwards at the same time. Sometimes we get stuck in between. It can be a conflicting and confusing time. I have been looking backwards at my Gateway articles from last year while trying to ponder what should be my focus for the year ahead. My self-imposed field is culture, specifically Scots culture. As every year begins I struggle with the same issues: where to start? ‘what’s the point?’ and ‘who am I to write about culture?’
Last year I started on an exploration of some ‘greats’ (if you’ve read any of my articles you know that I have a problem with ‘great’ as a literary concept and construct) Beyond that I undertook a prolonged exploration of a group of writers called (by me) The Edinburgh Boys. I also started ‘Digging up the Kailyard.’
There is more work to be done on all these areas. There is always more work to be done in the defining, redefining and general exploration of culture in general and Scots culture more specifically. This year I want to push forward and explore more.
I like to work organically, in response to my reading and to things happening round about as well as delving back into ‘theory’ and ‘history’ of Scots literature. Following the lead of James Leatham I’m comfortable giving my own, unique view on things, however unpopular it might be. I’m not trying to become ‘great’ after all. Just trying to bear witness to my own experience and understanding. And because I’m not being paid by anyone I have the freedom to do this. I am not ‘owned’. My writing has no commercial imperative. It’s of little value to the ‘system’ so I am roundly ignored by most. That doesn’t matter. Bearing witness isn’t about making friends, or even influencing people. It’s about bearing witness.
This year I have a few topics/themes/ riffs if you want to be hip, which I intend to explore. But of course I may head off-piste as things develop. My key stated cultural resolution is really to delve into and where possible expose and unpick the actualities of cultural elites in all their forms (including what I think is possibly a unique Scottish trait of the ‘anti-elite elite’.
So in the coming months you’ll be treated to articles entitled:
What Price Culture? Firing the Scots Canon and Whose Culture is it anyway? I will be ploughing my way through some very claggy ground, I don’t crave or expect agreement from my readers but I do hope, through my challenging opinions (and I’d hope through decently reasoned argument) that I will encourage readers to think outside of the box/es into which Scots culture is all too often placed.
I’ll give you a wee starter for ten. Bookfellas. Heard of them? Probably not. Not unless you’re among the Scots cultural literary elite in which case you’re probably not reading this. Yet for them to be what they want to be, we should all be aware of them. They are going to ‘help’ us after all.
In short, Bookfellas is a concept dreamed up by The Scottish Book Trust (hmm… that very name gets me thinking challenging thoughts ) to encourage more men to read and especially to get them to read to their sons/children.
I’m guessing that the cultural reference is to ‘Goodfellas’ while the ‘style’ is ‘Reservoir Dogs’. I suspect it was a good idea when kicked around in the office by a bunch of those who do not think of themselves as the elite but truly believe their own press that they hold the future of Scots literature in trust for the rest of us. But the devil is in the detail. And in this respect I suppose I am the devil’s advocate.
I ask: Are we charity cases? Do we need people to tell us what to read? Of course recommendations are a great thing, especially from respected sources. BUT. The Scottish Book Trust represents something specific (in my view). It is partly a business - they exist to promote the authors/publishers they are in line (or in cahoots) with. Most people are a) unaware of this but b) find no shame in it anyway. After all, the marketplace is important and we all have to face commercial reality no? (Well, no, actually, not if we’re to be ‘trusted’ with representing and being a port of call for anyone interested in Scots writing).
The ‘Trust’ side of the Scottish Book Trust exists to promote and encourage culture (but I suggest a fairly limited and middle class elitist form of Scots culture) and somehow they have to find a way to resolve the commodification of culture. Actually, it’s not something I think they have a problem with. It’s I who stand outside of the capitalist model, not they. Inside the system they probably see no irony in setting up a project thus:
Bookfellas is a Scottish Book Trust initiative that brings together 50 men and aims to raise £50,000 to ensure that everyone in Scotland has the same opportunity to thrive through reading and writing. We want to encourage more men to read for pleasure and highlight the importance of dads reading to their children.
Laudable on the surface. But think about it. Here’s how they are ‘selling’ it to the men they want to be their role-models. First, you dress in a suit and tie like something out of Reservoir Dogs (well, that’s so cool isn’t it. This whole idea of gangsters being smart and ‘goodfellas’ being ‘bookfellas’ etc. Forgive me if I don’t split my sides laughing at the post-modernist intellectual juvenilia of it all)
They state as follows:
Reading and writing have the power to change lives.
And yes, you have no opposition from me on that score. They give some facts and figures, all very worthy of why it’s so important to get folk reading.
Reading for pleasure is more important to educational achievement and future success than wealth or background.
Sounds good but I wonder if that is really true? Their argument is that while over 60% of mums aged under 25 read to their children only 25% of dads do. Okay. But do they consider that these ‘dads’ may be out working? There is scant real interrogation (that I can see) of the socio-economic conditions of people and WHY dads may read less to their children than mums.
Anyway, what they want is to
Help us turn Scotland into nation of booklovers.
Now I would love that. Truly. I do believe that reading (for pleasure or for any other reason) is a great thing. That it’s a great way to access our culture and learn about ourselves and our place in the wider world. Or it can be. It can just be a way to perpetuate propagandistic myths about the capitalist model and a hierarchical society which alienates all but the elite and those aspiring to elitism. And when that is the purpose of books/reading is it any wonder that many folk (of all genders) don’t engage.
Which is sort of my case in point. The Scottish Book Trust does not speak for all Scots writers. It claims to champion ‘the good’ but who is it who decides the criteria for ‘good’? That’s where the argument falls down. You might remember me going on about this last year in my ‘Only Connect’ article as well as the articles on Burns and Scott. It’s a recurrent theme of mine, sorry. But I don’t apologise because I think it’s an important theme to interrogate.
I might humbly suggest that many men (and women and children) are alienated from reading because they do not see a reflection of their own lives in the work they read. And they have no way of discovering writers who share their experience. They are ‘sold’ from on high – even if what they’re being sold is Trainspotting. Be it aspirational elite, heroin chic or tartan noir – what’s being sold as culture is a construct and a pretty narrow construct as well. And not one that reflects across the whole of Scottish society/culture. Just think on that – I will explore this in more depth in future articles.
Back to the current example though. In their avowed laudable goal to make Scotland a nation of booklovers, here’s what The Scottish Book Trust are going to do.
The idea is simple. Each of the 50 men commits to raising £1,000 each in any way you like by April 2017. Each of the 50 men becomes a role model for reading in their families, at work and with friends. The money raised will support Scottish Book Trust’s literacy programmes.
Okay… read on… here’s why, as a man, you would sign up (apart from wanting to wear shades, a suit, and be like a combo of Goodfellas and Reservoir dogs of course)
You will immediately become part of an exclusive group of 50 men across Scotland. You’ll meet new people and widen your personal and business networks. You’ll be championing a great cause, having fun and making a real difference to the future of people in Scotland.
Okay, now I really feel I shouldn’t have to point out the herd of elephants trampling round this room. You aim to promote inclusive reading habits by creating an exclusive group? I suppose it’s an example of faith in a trickledown version of capitalism is it? It certainly doesn’t say ‘grassroots’ to me. It smacks of top down thinking. And as such it will surely fail. It may perpetuate the same small elitist circle, reaching out to the aspirational, but it will not engage those who perhaps need most ‘help’ – if you think non-readers need ‘help.’ For me the only ‘help’ such people need is to being able to access appropriate reading matter – and by appropriate I mean what they WANT to read. I believe there are plenty of writers out there living ‘under the radar’ who are writing the kind of things that these ‘non readers’ would read. But they never make the headlines. They have no ‘commercial’ value to the likes of the Trust and therefore they cannot be matched with potential readers. Instead, we are all to be served up with the ‘good’ by the ‘great.’ In the name of preserving and promoting our Culture. Not good enough in my opinion.
It is, of course, easy to criticise. I’m not trying to knife anyone, just trying to raise consciousness, and I will attempt to explore the theory and practice of how we can develop and engage as a nation with our own written culture throughout the rest of this year. That’s my cultural resolution. I hope you’ll join me on the journey. You don’t have to buy anything, you don’t have to wear a tie or be a ‘cool dude’. You don’t have to be a man. Just someone who is open to the idea that culture shouldn’t be boxed up and distributed to the masses – but that it is actually a part of the very essence of who we are.
I’ll leave you with a wee ditty. To the tune of Auld Lang Syne. Feel free to sing along.
‘It’s good because we say it’s good, it’s good because we say
It’s good because we say it’s good, it’s good because we say.’
I need no Bookfella to encourage me to read. Nor do many other men I know. I do know a lot of men who would read more if a) they had the spare time and b) could find something to read that felt appropriate to them. If you’re in this position then you have to do a lot of work for yourself – go ‘under the radar’ and seek out the writers who are writing the sort of thing you’re interested in reading – they are out there but no Bookfella is going to be your guide towards them. I can’t offer recommendations because I don’t know your personal taste. But I can tell you that awards and bestsellers are constructs of an aspirational cultural elite and if you are not one of them, then accepting their recommendations isn’t likely to yield the results you are looking for. If you’re looking for a ‘real’ writer who is something like you – an ‘ordinary’ sort of guy – then you have to look for ordinary guys. Don’t look up. Look under the radar. Don’t worship, explore.
Something to think about till next month then...
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