James Kelman horrified the literary establishment when he won a major award for his fourth novel, “How late it was, how late” in 1994.
A novel about an ex-con losing his sight as the result of a beating by the police and then coming up against the state in its other manifestations, was too raw for middle-class minds who labelled its author an “illiterate savage”.
That was twenty-five years ago, you tell yourself, surely we have moved on since then.
His first collection of short stories, “An old pub near the angel”, appeared in 1973 thanks to a small American publisher and his latest novel, “God’s teeth and other phenomena”, has been published in 2023 by PM Press, another small publisher in the US.
He remains marginalized within a UK literary establishment that is more at home with Scottish writers, like Irvine Welsh, whose depictions of under-privileged lives somehow lend themselves to being glamorized in ways that Kelman’s never are.
The character at the heart of “God’s teeth and other phenomena”, Jack Proctor, is not a down-and-out but a writer in his mid-sixties who accepts a writer’s residency for an arts organization, partly because when his wife tells him they don’t need the money he reasons they probably do.
He also accepts the residency because he takes writing seriously and has something to impart on the subject.
The novel is a full-frontal assault on the creative writing industry and the “art police”, Proctor’s term for the self-elected custodians of what is to be considered good writing.
One chapter describes two groups of children exploring the countryside and coming to a stream of water that might be hazardous in places. One group hesitates, thinking how best to make the crossing, but they lose the impetus and see the unsteady boulder as simply too unsteady, the submerged stone as too slippery.
The other children move swiftly and just go: “unsteady boulders would be dislodged by somebody standing on them for any length of time, but dislodgement does not happen with the children’s passing movements …the speed carries them, and they make it across to safety.”
The chapter’s tale becomes an extended metaphor for the task facing the writer: escape the art police, run and jump and land ahoy, “nay need for any keeper”.
Proctor can be cranky, especially at the lack of proper organization and the need to plan his days without his wife being there for the nitty-gritty of living and feeding himself: “I was turning into one of these mental male guys who have to phone home from cafes, Hey honey, do I take sugar in my coffee?”
Behind the black humour, the satire and the grumpiness, Proctor takes on the serious business of preparing material for his talks and sessions with budding writers. It’s a question of attitude and fortitude: “Life is too short. Or long, depending”. In the meantime, Kelman goes on writing.
“God’s teeth and other phenomena”, by James Kelman, is published by PM Press.