This month, in addition to his unco calendar slot, The Orraman gives us the benefit of his opinion on, among other things, Muriel Spark and why we need to stop reading Brands and start reading authors...
It's been a veritable cultural battle ground as we entered 2018. Well known literary figures have been involved in stramashes about Burns and his 'reputation' as the fall out of the gender 'equality' argument sparked not so much by 100 years of votes for women and more by the actions of one Hollywood Producer, has continued to rage. As the dust settles I'm minded to ask: Has Muriel Spark knocked Rabbie Burns off top spot in 2018?
I like Muriel Spark’s writing. That’s the best place to start. Start positive. Like everyone else I read ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ – well before my prime, I think I was about fourteen. I didn’t get it then (though I thought I did) and I didn’t read anything else by her, simply because, well, life goes on. Read the book, seen the film… move on.
But the literary marketeers have been out in force recently and in the land o’ ‘you’ll of hud yer culture’ it’s been impossible to miss Muriel over the past month or so. Like Hogg’s Brownie, she’s here, there and everywhere. Always one to stay ahead of the curve, I started reading her work back in October and I’ve been consuming it ever since. I’ve now devoured most of the novels/novellas – all free and gratis from the library because I’m damned if I’m going to pay out £9.99 per title x 22 for the ‘new’ editions on which this Muriel lovefest is based. It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I can, without fear or favour, recommend Muriel Spark – for people who like that sort of thing it will be the sort of thing they like. My eyes have been well and truly opened to her writing in all its glory. So I guess I can thank the marketeers in one respect for bringing her ‘above the radar’.
However, spoiler alert – the spoiler being the crushing of your response ‘it’s life affirming that one of our ‘great’ Scottish authors is finally getting the recognition she deserves’ - in bald terms Muriel means money for marketers. And that, dear reader, is I suggest the main driver behind this wall to wall Muriel Spark extravaganza to mark the centenary of her birth, rather than an altruistic desire to ‘big up’ one of wur ain.
I have been ruminating on why it is that other dead Scots writers haven’t been given the same treatment. How about J.M.Barrie (1860-1937) Did his 150th get this kind of appreciation in 2010? Yes it was marked but beyond Kirriemuir and Dumfries I’m not sure he hit the radar. As for S.R.Crockett (1859-1914) due to an overlooked typo many years ago regarding his year of birth, his 2009 centenary was more or less entirely overlooked. Thinking it was 2010 the boat was very firmly missed. Not that anyone much cared. I was there for the centenary of his death in 2014 which saw a wee flurry of interest and the application of the soubriquet ‘Scotland’s Forgotten Bestseller’ but he’s still pretty invisible in the world of Scots literature/culture. He cannae get arrested in the hallowed portals of the canon. (or Canongate.) Robert Louis Stevenson (1850- 1894) had a 150th in 2000. The Milliennium was more important. Certainly I don’t recall much about it. If he’d had the Muriel treatment I’d not have missed it. And it’s not just down to the rise of social media, I’m sure (though of course that plays a part).
RLS has had a slow burn over the past twenty years, but he’s getting there. #RLSDay (which now lasts a week) might be seen as a prototype of the Muriel Spark 100. But as regards money spent and ‘coverage’ it’s not in the same league. And he’s certainly in her shadows right now. I am actively engaged in trying to find out if there’s going to be a RLS 125 ‘year’ to match Muriel for the 125th anniversary of his death, which falls in 2019. No sniff of it yet. Perhaps the appropriate people need to crunch the numbers and do the feedback evaluations on the success of Muriel before they commit? Perhaps it’s the Treasure rather than the Island that they hope to Kidnap.
Also overlooked are James Hogg, Walter Scott, John Galt… the list goes on and on. You might argue that their ‘dates’ are wrong – but I don’t remember celebrations in the 70s or 80s for any of them. Of course we didn’t ‘do’ that sort of thing then. It was before computers and credit cards never mind smartphone apps. But watch out for James Hogg 250 in 2020 and Walter Scott 250 in 2021. Aye, right. I conclude that in Scotland we are pure pish at giving credit or recognition to our ain. Most of these men have ‘missed the boat’ as far as promotional branding are concerned. The dates don’t match up. I wonder, is that a good enough reason to overlook them? Lewis Grassic Gibbon was given a wee heft up with the film of his book, but it all goes quiet soon enough after the main marketing event has left town. And yet Outlander? It’s enough to make a reader of dead Scots authors weep.
It seems that unless it’s Rabbie Burns we don’t want to know about celebrating or commemorating the lives of our dead authors. Bring on the haggis every January and that’s more than enough Scots culture for the year. And when, apart from at a Burns supper, did you actually read any Burns? Burns is a cash cow that keeps on giving. He’s quintessentially Scots. And he’s a poet. For some reason I can never fathom, poetry is unreasonably privileged in Scots culture. It it’s said that everyone has a novel in them (some best left there) I think that in Scotland people believe that everyone is a poet simply because Burns existed. It gives us ‘the right’ to be poets – as a job… now, even Burns struggled to do that.
It is, of course, quicker and easier to engage with poetry than 18th or 19th century prose fiction. So are we just lazy? Or just pure ignorant. Be it ‘A man’s a man’ or ‘Peter Pan’ we seem to prefer our Scots culture in soundbites. We rarely explore beyond the bestseller. That is such a shame. There’s so much more to enjoy from the history of Scottish prose – yes, even the 1890s that much maligned ‘dark ages’ of Scottish fiction which, ironically, happened to occur the last time marketing was king of the castle and the masses were being sold to hand over fist. But those ‘celebrities’ were looked down on by the young turks who came after, dismissed as the ‘next great thing’ struggled to find market share. And we, the reader, lose the plot.
The cynic in me suggests what we are looking at here is the fickle finger of fashion in the world of publishing at work. Combine it with the fickle finger of fashion/ come political and social agenda of academia and Muriel Spark provides us with the perfect storm.
Because you’ll notice that all the above named authors are MEN. And Muriel Spark is a WOMAN. And the times being what they are, it’s about time for a WOMAN to be recognised, isn’t it?
While there’s no doubt that Rabbie Burns still sells, the modern world of publishing needs more than Burns to keep it Scottish. Tartan Noir is an emerging brand. But publishers are all looking for that ‘killer app’ aren’t they? I doubt that content is king or queen any more.
It’s handy that Muriel Spark’s work is still under copyright. That makes it potentially lucrative for a publisher – but only if they can ‘shift units.’ And to shift units you need hype, right? You need a kick ass marketing strategy – and that means BRANDING. Muriel Spark 100 is the brand of the year in literary circles. This seasons Empress. I’m not suggesting that she’s naked but I am suggesting that there is naked greed at the root of the fashion festival that is dressed as a cultural renaissance (we Scots should be very wary of that term) for women Scots authors. I hear murmers about Susan Ferrier coming out of the closet, (a 150th anniversary in 2004 doesn’t spring to mind) and I suspect Margaret Oliphant would be an even harder sell. (200 in 2028 – get prepared, publishers).
Before I’m accused of being unreasonably cynical, or torn down on social media by Muriel fan frenzy, I will reiterate that I am a ‘fan’ of Muriel Spark’s writing. She is complex, intelligent, she’s definitely a writer’s writer – she had me at this in The Comforters: ‘it is as if a writer on another plane of existence was writing a story about us.’ A sentence like that can sustain my thoughts for hours. She writes about identity, she’s dark, she’s light, she really has a lot to recommend her to all kinds of reader. And plenty for the academics to get their shark like teeth into. That’s not the issue. The issue is that she’s being branded. Marketed. One might say pimped out. In order to make money.
So read Spark. Go to the exhibitions. Engage with the celebrations. But retain enough integrity to realise you’re being sold. Read her in spite of that, please. But read Muriel the writer, not Muriel the brand.
In conclusion, the proof of this pudding will be in the eating. Let’s see whether this same strategy is employed in the coming years to other Scots writers – especially those out of copyright who do not fit in with the zeitgeist – or whether the dust settles and we are back being force fed Rabbie Burns ad infinitum. Because he’s easy to market. Don’t get upset about tartan and shortbread, or see you Jimmy hats. They are all just employing the same strategy. Brand Scotland. You are not just a target market, you are a reader. You have a choice. And you can add the meaning to the marketing. You can turn reading into a personal journey of discovery. And it needn’t cost the earth – especially if you support your local library!
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