The link below is to an article reporting on the shortlist and winner of the 2018 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding. The winner was ‘Border – A Journey to the Edge of Europe,’ by Kapka Kassabova.
Glasgow’s annual book festival, Aye Write!, is getting underway. Now in its 11th year, big name writers making appearances include the philosopher AC Grayling, broadcast journalist Robert Peston, crime writer Val McDermid and the mountaineer Chris Bonington.
The name of the festival is a play on “aye right”, a sarcastic Scottish way of saying no. This encapsulates much about the literary outlook in this part of the world – a vernacular defensiveness, a strident overcompensation in the face of imagined English snootiness about Glaswegian speech. A neutral might conclude that the arts in Scotland exist in a state of perma-froth at presumed metropolitan condescension.
If support for Scottish independence can be considered a proxy for such froth, there is certainly much in evidence. At the time of the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish literary scene was near unanimously in favour of a Yes vote – nowhere close to the 55-45 split among the wider population.
This normally disputatious crowd felt overwhelmingly that the Union was inimical to Scottish culture and that the literary tradition would best flourish with independence. Little has changed since. Don’t expect much enthusiasm from them about Theresa May’s Britain at this year’s festival.
This mood didn’t begin in 2014, it must be said. In the Thatcher-hating days of 1988, the pro-devolution Campaign for a Scottish Assembly gave this starkly black and white assessment:
The Union has always been, and remains, a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland.
Is this right? Most great Scottish writers – Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, for example – thrived within the Union between Scotland and England. Indeed, most Scots will know much more about their nation’s literature since 1707 than about previous eras.
If the Union was such a problem for Scottish writers, why was it invisible in what they had to say? Why is there no tradition of anti-Unionist invective? Aside from Burns’s well-known 1791 poem condemning the “parcel o’ rogues” who “bought and sold” Scotland “for English gold”, the Union is at best an absent presence. Even today it receives little attention from Scottish writers – why?
Scottish literature’s relationship with the Union is the focus of a new book of essays which we have edited, Literature and Union: Scottish Texts, British Contexts. The most compelling explanation for the lack of literary attention to the Union is that until recently, other questions were more important to Scottish writers, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In particular, partisanship and religion long trumped national identity. Indeed, they were deeply interwoven, shaping two distinctive mythical representations of Scotland.
One was Presbyterian and democratic, the myth of Scotland’s godly Covenanting tradition. The other was Episcopalian, royalist and Jacobite, the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Forty-five Rising. Each reached back to earlier periods – the Covenanters claimed to be the true heirs of the Scottish Reformation; Jacobite sympathisers were entranced by the romantic plight of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned and finally beheaded by a Protestant queen.
Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) might be the classic example of the Jacobite representation, recounting many of the events of 1745 from a perspective very sympathetic to the Highland rebels. It was followed by a long stream of Jacobite literature – and Scott himself returned to the theme both in Rob Roy (1817) and Redgauntlet (1824).
Depictions of Covenanters are variously positive and negative in Scottish literature. Many 19th-century novels present them as heroes for their democratic outlook, with their roots in the culture of ordinary folk. John Galt’s Ringan Gilhaize (1823) is one example, telling the story of three generations of rural people.
Other writers are repelled by the illiberal and philistine totalitarianism they discern in the tradition. The most notorious example is James Hogg’s 1824 satire, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, whose lead character considers that having attained his place among God’s saved, he has carte blanche to commit terrible crimes.
Nationalism took hold on the Scottish literary scene over the course of the 20th century, primarily under the enduring influence of Hugh MacDiarmid. Even so, he and others held to a view that Scotland’s Reformation had been just as bad, if not worse, than the Union. For McDiarmid, it was the founding of the Protestant church – and not the merger with England – that was the beginning of the repression of Scottish folk and their authentic culture.
Novels and poems about Covenanting and Jacobitism still abound today. James Robertson, for example, who is appearing at this year’s Aye Write!, makes sport with Covenanting fanaticism in The Fanatic (2000) and The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006). Robertson has also written the only novel that has brought Scottish nationhood into focus in recent years: And the Land Lay Still (2010). More generally, the Union remains a submerged and largely invisible feature of the Scottish literary landscape.
While it is true that the Union never enjoyed much of a fanfare among Scottish writers of previous generations, it was rarely if ever the focus of their work. Several even made conspicuous contributions to British – indeed to English – national identities. How else do we account for the fact that the figure of John Bull was the coinage of a Scottish doctor, John Arbuthnot, and Rule, Britannia the work of the Scottish poet, James Thomson?
It is hard to imagine a Scottish writer expressing a similar sentiment in their work today. Yet the reluctance to write about independence has continued, despite writers’ enthusiasm for the cause. It is as if the literary tradition weighs heavy on their shoulders and encourages them to look elsewhere for inspiration.
In sum, the relationship between Scottish literature and the Union turns out to be much more tangled, ironic and surprising than might have been expected. Today’s nationalists do indeed dominate Scotland’s literary scene, and will undoubtedly be in force at Aye Write!, but they do not have all the best tunes. It will be fascinating to see to what extent this changes in future.
“In the four quarters of the globe,” asked the British writer and cleric Sydney Smith in 1820: “Who reads an American book?” Smith was a career eccentric, known for odd sayings and doings, such as wearing a self-designed tin helmet as a defence against rheumatism. However, his scorn about the impoverished state of literature in the upstart nation across the Atlantic was no mere individual fancy, but a judgement backed by his nation’s sense of cultural superiority.
But pose the same question now, almost exactly 200 years later, and such complacency is hardly the response you’re likely to get. The most esteemed British literary prize, after all, has now been awarded to an American author two years running.
American writer George Saunders’ victory in the The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, for his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo, follows on from US novelist Paul Beatty’s 2016 win for The Sellout. Fears of the Americanisation of this piece of British literary heritage are likely to be renewed. Saunders and Beatty face being seen as the high-cultural wing of an ongoing transatlantic takeover of national life that recently took more bone-crushing form in the series of NFL fixtures in London.
Changing the rules
Worries about precisely such literary colonisation by the United States were voiced, in fact, when the organisers of the Booker changed its eligibility rules in 2013. Formerly a prize only for novelists of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Commonwealth, with winners including such non-UK citizens as Nadine Gordimer and John Banville, the parameters were altered so as to make the language of composition itself the key criterion. The new rules invited submissions of “any novel in print or electronic format, written originally in English and published in the UK by an imprint formally established in the UK.”
A S Byatt, a former judge as well as winner, said at the time she feared such an expansion of the field would result in “good work” going unrecognised. Her qualms were based not on nationalistic unease but in the spectre of unmanageable piles of novels to be sifted. But for literary scholar John Mullan, the risk of the rule change was indeed that the Booker would decline into a series of spectacular US/UK faceoffs. He imagined the new Booker as:
A Ryder Cup of Literature … Toni Morrison versus Hilary Mantel, or Jonathan Franzen against Ian McEwan.
Nevertheless, it is not as if the Booker’s previous criteria for eligibility were beyond criticism. How convincing a defence can be assembled for a prize whose original geographical coverage mapped exactly onto that of Britain’s recent colonial and imperial dominance? These embarrassing parallels were pointedly addressed in 1972 by John Berger, also a Booker winner. On being awarded the prize for G., he remarked that the sponsor, Booker McConnell, had derived much of its wealth from “exploitation” during “extensive trading … in the Caribbean for over 130 years”.
Novels without borders
If writers in English from Durban had always been eligible for the Booker, then why not those from Denver? If Delhi, why not Detroit? While the organisers’ announcement in 2013 triggered expressions of anxiety in the UK that the novelists of Hampstead would be ill-equipped to compete with those from Harlem, others welcomed the prize’s reimagining so as to include writers in English from beyond Britain’s recently relinquished imperial citadels. As the Scottish author A L Kennedy said: fiction is “deeply international, deeply humane. It has no borders. It’s lovely that the Booker is reaching out”.
There are striking affinities, in fact, between Kennedy’s rhetoric and that of George Saunders in his acceptance speech after winning for Lincoln in the Bardo. His novel’s subject could not be more closely affiliated with the national narratives and icons of the US: its key figure, of course, is the grieving President Lincoln. Nevertheless, Saunders’ model of literary composition and reception remains resolutely non-jingoistic:
Well this tonight is culture, it is international culture, it is compassionate culture, it is activist culture.
Two responses, perhaps, are possible in the face of nationalistic concern that the Americans are taking over British literary prizes.
The first is to recall more of Berger’s wise words in what was as much a speech of refusal as acceptance in 1972. Even at a time when coverage of the prize was modest, with the only media “platform” provided by a few broadsheet papers, Berger complained about “the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers”. The task now, perhaps, is to extricate Saunders, and Beatty before him, from conversations about their passports and instead to give their thematically challenging and formally inventive fictions the serious attention they deserve.
But a second possible response to Saunders’ victory may offer a better cure for the prize envy of the smaller-minded British reader, currently sore at US literary success. Yes, Saunders may have won the Booker. But in Kazuo Ishiguro, Britain currently has the holder of the biggest literary trophy of all.
Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.
In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.
In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).
A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.
A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.
But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.
Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches. At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.
These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.
Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristoand others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.
Reframing the narrative
The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.
For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts. At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.
Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.
Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.
There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.
All literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.
He is famous for his love of honey, and being a bear of “little brain”. So Winnie the Pooh might be a little surprised to find himself the subject of a major new museum exhibition.
Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic will explore the creative partnership of writer A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard. Together they produced the much-loved whimsical stories featured in Winnie the Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).
The decision by the Victoria and Albert museum in London to hold the exhibition proves that the bear and his friends have become establishment figures. As children’s literature expert Peter Hunt notes, they are “part of British culture, passing from generation to generation”.
One element of the incredible success of the Pooh books is that they reflect ideas about childhood that emerged in what is widely known as the “golden age” of children’s literature, spanning from the mid-19th century to World War I.
The golden age view of a child’s world was one that was close to nature – the child an innocent before the imposed horrors of school and education, and a figure of loss and nostalgia for the adult. This was very much the landscape of Winnie’s home in Hundred Acre Wood.
As cultural theorist Stefan Herbrechter said: “Children are supposed to live in a world of their own, which is clearly defined and marked out as the space and time for play and in which toys are the main objects and controlling devices of socialisation.”
However, Milne’s books are more poignant and have a slightly different flavour, than other examples, such as Wind in the Willows (of which Milne was a great fan, writing a stage adaptation). They came after World War I, when many illusions about innocence, the upper class, Englishness and patriotism had reached breaking point.
They contain traces of the experiences in the trenches that marked both Milne and Shepard, whose illustrations of carnage at the Somme and Paschendale were the subject of a separate recent exhibition.
The pastoral paradise of Hundred Acre Wood was one that Milne, who wrote passionately in favour of pacifism, conjured from his own childhood memories – back to a time before the terrifying intrusion and destruction of the war.
As such, Milne’s invented world is also saturated with loss, poignantly embodied in the depressed donkey character of Eyore, who sees no reasons to be cheerful. It is also haunted by the threat of leaving the safe space of the wood for places over the horizon that can’t yet be seen. When Christopher Robin and Pooh organise an “expotition” to the North Pole, they find a large pole in the woods and label it accordingly.
Toys, argues Herbrechter, are intimately concerned with storytelling. They are “like little story machines, narrative catalysers, objects that help make sense of the world”.
This idea is addressed with humour and complexity in Milne’s writing, and beautifully rendered in Shepard’s illustrations that always emphasise the “toyness” of the animals. It explains much about why these books have remained so loved.
Pooh the satirist
Milne shows his real life son Christopher (whom Christopher Robin was named after) how playing with his toys is a kind of writing, just as the playwright makes scenes for his characters. Before he wrote the Pooh stories, Milne worked as a playwright and as a satirist at Punch magazine.
We can detect the specific pleasures of introducing the craft of storytelling to his son from a man who made a living from writing. Milne’s stories gently teach the young credulous reader, who reads literally, that they may be other more rewarding ways of interpreting the world, and what the difference is between what people say and what they mean.
Milne offers the pleasures of word play. The narrator explains that “Winnie the Pooh lived in the forest all by himself under the name of Sanders”, which meant “he had the name over the door in gold letters and lived under it”.
The non-literal reader is invited to find this funny. Similarly, if Piglet says anything “carelessly” he is probably concealing a very important wish. He will say he isn’t afraid when he wants to appear brave.
Although the Pooh books were famously dismissed by fellow satirist Dorothy Parker, who wrote a dismayed and withering review of Winnie-the-Pooh, the success of Milne’s works suggests that he managed to translate his love of making stories into a form that beguiled the child reader. Stories which showed how they too might make an imaginative life for themselves in the world of storytelling and understand how to master words and meanings.
In one notable scene Pooh finds himself stuck on the doorway to Rabbit’s house, and must wait for a week until he is thin enough to be pulled free. Christopher Robin sits down with him and reads him a “sustaining book”, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness.
The comforting presence and companionship of a good book is something all readers of Pooh take away with them. And it is perhaps this which explains the enduring popularity of these stories, which taught us how to read and write in our own way.