As I have written previously at nas.org (“Time to Graduate,” May 29, 2000), the twenty first century abounds in signs of the repudiation of the postmodern mode in literature and criticism (and in much else as well, though not the subject here). But a recent review by James Wood in the New Yorker (“Away Thinking about Things,” August 25, 2014), indicates that rebellion was fomenting back in the 1990s. Wood tells of the fracas that broke out over the awarding of the Booker Prize in 1994 to James Kelman, a writer who uses Lowland Scots and Glaswegian dialect to portray the world of the white poor of urban Scotland. The majority of the judges, including Wood, supported the prestigious award to How Late It Was, How Late, in order to give, as he puts it, “recognition to a significant and consistently challenging writer, whose experiments with vernacular speech and internal monologue had produced some of the most stubbornly interesting work in recent British fiction.”
To others on the panel, however, the novel was, well, “frankly…crap,” as one judge put it, not to mention, as Wood summarizes, “monotonous, unpunctuated, and foulmouthed.” “Every other word is f--- was the usual reproach,” reports Wood, an estimable critic but one whose patience with the tedium of literary experimentation seems inexhaustible. He acknowledges that Kelman’s writing can be “monotonous, “ and, furthermore, that it “has almost no metaphysical dimension, as though metaphysics were offensively luxurious—brocade for the bourgeois. There is an atmosphere of gnarling paranoia,” he continues, “imprisoned minimalism, the boredom of survival.”
And Wood admits that even supporters of the novel were put off by its profanity—the f-word occurs twenty-one times in the first three pages and an estimated four thousand times in the novel, which was further assessed by one critic as nothing more than “the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk.”
In a century in which critics and public alike had been cowed into quasi-religious veneration of anything parading under the guise of the artistic avant-garde, such explicit and unembarrassed revulsion indicates a refreshing return of common sense to the common reader.
Interestingly, however, in yet another sign of the changing of the guard, bad boy Kelman did not respond to the uproar with the aesthetic defense (anything goes if I say it’s art), but with one grounded in, of all things, multiculturalism. “My culture and my language have the right to exist,” he declaimed, “and no one has the authority to dismiss that.” Culture? Language? In the beginning was the f-word? Nor can we discern from Wood’s review that Kelman employs his profanity in some poetic fashion, à la David Mamet.
And then, inevitably, Kelman warned in his own defense, “A fine line can exist between elitism and racism.” Aside from noting his appeal to the old fashioned idea of race by which even a white person can reach the blessed status of victim, can we not affirm that the response of the dissenting judges and critics was the very opposite of “elite,” closer to a man wiping the suds from his mouth, slamming his fist on the bar, and refusing to accept what his betters have proclaimed as “art”? Kelman did win the prize, but the straightforward opposition stands as testimony of the resistance, the cry of ordinary literature lovers who have wearied of having their ear canals polluted by witless profanity and their souls sullied by the assorted perversities which long ago seeped from the avant garde into all channels of communication.