Monday, July 13, 2015

James Kelman and the "Art," Not the Social Message, of the Short Story

One of the many benefits I enjoy from writing this blog is that I occasionally get a message from a fellow-fan of-the-short-story calling my attention to a writer that I have neglected.
A few months ago I received some correspondence from Brian Hamill, submissions editor of the new Scottish journal thi wurd, asking me if I had read the stories of James Kelman, a writer he, and others, call the greatest Scottish writer currently at work on fiction both long and short.
I am embarrassed to say that I had read only two Kelman stories, "Home for a Couple of Days" because it was in The Oxford Book of Scottish Stories (1995), edited by Douglas Dunn, and "Some Thoughts That Morning" because it was in the Clocktower Press collection edited by Duncan McLean entitled Ahead of Its Time (1998). I took another look at the two stories and recalled them as relatively simple, even inconsequential stories—one about a young man who has come back to his home town after an absence of a couple of years to find, not surprisingly, that things have changed and the other, as the title suggests, just some random "thoughts" by a guy on a subway and generalizing about the "great swaths of hypocrisy in the world."
But when a reader of this blog recommends a writer to me, I take it seriously and follow up. Maybe I was just not reading as carefully as I should have. So I ordered copies of Busted Scotch, a selection of 35 Kelman stories previously published in his collections in Scotland, but not so well known in the U.S., and The Good Times, his first book after he won the Booker Prize in 1994. I started reading. I also started reading some background material on Kelman and some reviews and academic criticism of his short fiction. Right away, a couple of issues about Kelman's use of the short story as a form caught my attention..
First there is the issue of language and culture. Kelman has been blasted by some for his overuse of four-letter words, even going so far as to count how many times "fuck" is used in his prize-winning novel.  In his acceptance speech for the 1994 Booker Prize, Kelman insisted that his culture and its language have the right to exist and added, "A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether." This connection between elitism and racism bothers me, for it seems to justify a common notion espoused by postcolonial and cultural critics—that if you place a high value on "art" as being aesthetically valuable rather than being socially polemical and possibly useful, you are definitely elitist, and may indeed be racist. Because I have always refused to value fiction as a container for socially significant content, I have been accused of being "elitist" and, by implication, racist.
James Wood, one of the judges of the Booker prize that contentious year Kelman won has said that although Kelman's claim that verbal elitism approaches actual racism may seem "politically overwrought," he adds  that the "overwrought" negative reaction to Kelman's win—with one judge calling How Late It Was, How Late "crap" and one critic saying the author himself was an "illiterate savage"—may justify Kelman's claim.
I am not so sure that one bad diatribe deserves another.
In his New Yorker review of Kelman's collection If It Is Your Life, Wood says Kelman's strongest work is in the short story form rather than the novel. Other critics and academics agree that it is Kelman's short stories, rather than his novels, that will assure his place as a writer. In an article in Journal of the Short Story in English, academic critic J. D. MacArthur says Kelman told him that everything is in his short stories. "If people looked at the short stories they wouldn't ask me the questions they do about the novels."
Adrian Hunter, in his essay on Kelman and the Short Story in the Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman (2010) says that Kelman "approaches the short story not as a condensed, attenuated or unelaborated novel, but regards its shortness as a positive quality. However, instead of focusing on Kelman's mastery of the short story as an art form, Hunter insists that Kelman is attracted to the short story because its "atomistic, discontinuous quality" seems so suitable for stories about a working class that is "powerless and sundered." Kelman is drawn to the short story, says Hunter, because it is a "form that in its very brevity tends towards the fragmentary, inconclusive, atomistic… perfectly calibrated to the portrayal of a working class that has….become…isolated.."
This notion that the short story is an appropriate form for the expression of a Marxist view of the plight of the working class is a popular one recently, and has provided some academic critics vitae fodder in an era when the study of "culture" has surpassed the study of literature in English departments around the world. Although Kelman has stated his allegiance to postcolonial thought, I am not convinced that his form and language are in the service of exposing, to use Hunter's words, "superstructural economic forces" of the plight of the working class, of being on the "wrong side of the labour-capital equation."
The short story has never had a political agenda, has never been politically polemical, has never succeeded as "realism," in the Zola/Howells sense of emphasizing social content rather than aesthetic form. I have never read or heard a short story writer who has argued otherwise.
In his long background piece in Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 2000), Stephen Bernstein says the "smallness of event" in Kelman's fiction is a conscious strategy, "part of a thoroughgoing socialist commitment." But Kelman's own remarks on this issue, quoted by Bernstein, does not support this oversimplification of his work.
Kelman says the whole idea of the "big dramatic event, of what constitutes 'plot' only assumes that economic security exists." What Kelman is actually talking about here is similar to what Frank O'Connor says in the opening chapter of his book The Lonely Voice. As an example of the relative unimportance of economic security or social injustice to the short story, O'Connor cites the difference between America and Ireland's success with the short story and England's relative failure with the form and preference for the novel, which he attributes to the difference in the national attitude toward society.  In America the attitude toward society, O'Connor suggests, is that "It may work." In England, as "It must work." And in Ireland as "It can't work."  The novel, says O'Connor, can "adhere to the classical concept of a civilized society, of man as an animal  who lives in a community."  But the short story, he says, "remains by its very nature remote from the community—romantic, individualistic, and intransigent."
The problem with critics of Kelman's fiction is that although they seem to recognize that he is more powerful as a short-story writer than as a novelist, they seem stumped about how to describe that success—that is, without attributing to Kelman's short stories the kind of realism, social commentary and socialist polemic they find so readily in the novel but which seldom appears successfully in the short story. I suggest that it is doing Kelman a disservice to try to read his short stories as if they were like novels in their social or socialist significance.
I would like to offer some suggestions about a few of Kelman's short stories as just that-- short stories—not sections of novels or novelistic in either technique or theme.
Kelman writes stories that are deceptive in their simplicity. Take the three-page piece in The Good Times, entitled "My eldest." It is a first-person pov of a man at the beach with his wife and three children.  He is sitting on a boulder on the shore staring out to sea in a reverie. Nothing seems to be happening in the world.  But you sense something is going on, something that cannot be easily described or explained.
The story breaks into three separate but related elements: (1) the physical world that the narrator feels and sees; (2) the world of his wife and three children that relate to him; (3) the world of his reverie.
(1)   First there are the water insects that scuttle over his shoes, for which he does not feel anything.  Then there is the little boat in the wide expanse of the ocean. He also sees a green yacht, but it has nothing to do with him. Then there is evidence of a fire.
(2)   His children are behind him, but he intentionally stays in his reverie.  His eldest is in his line of vision, but it is as if he didn't care if he saw him or not. He senses the boy is frightened and trying hard not to be uneasy. The other son and the daughter are only incidental to him; when he teases his daughter his wife smiles, "wiping out the previous bad feeling." When he says he feels like swimming over a submarine, he winks at his elder son and tells him to come to him.  But the boy turns and runs off.
(3)   Although the physical world around him and his family are part of his experience, it is what he thinks about that is central to the story, or rather the process of his thought, for he is not really thinking about anything in particular.
(a)    The wide expanse of the ocean makes him think of the elements, life and death, which makes him think of the old graveyard; when he takes off his tee shirt and throws it back over his shoulder he thinks of the kind of luck he carries, neither good nor bad.
(b)   The  remnants of a fire makes him think of those that had been there, and he thinks if he swam out, he would not drown, unless he had a hopeless cramp or hit some hopeless undercurrent—"things that were hopeless."
The story, it seems to me, like many short stories, is about the isolated self, and the self in this story is intensely self-conscious of this isolation, even meditates on it.  It is as if the eldest son senses the father's strangeness and separation, and it frightens him.
"The Good Times" is another one of these very brief stories about the awareness of aloneness. A man wakes up during the night and senses the strangeness of the house he is in.  He thinks (and thinking is what the story is about) that his lungs are caving in and his flesh is dissipating into a vapour and his belly is full of wind. When his wife is awakened, he feels that unless she takes him with her into her dreams, he will remain alone, wondering what will happen to himself for the rest of his life. When she goes back to bed, he thinks of all his personal possessions, most of which are useless. He says, truth be told, he is fond of his ailments and even fond of his nightmares, because they are the stuff of life. He dreads going back to bed, but thinks it was probably the same for his wife, and he could just lie there and listen to her breath, watching her eyelids twitch.  The story ends with the line, "But these are the good times."
Kelman is very good at creating the subtle sense of isolation in the mind of his male characters, a budding realization of the inevitability of aloneness—a theme typical of the short story as a form.
Although Kelman seems drawn to these very brief impressionistic pieces in his collection The Good Times, he also writes more conventional plotted stories as well.  Perhaps the best known and one of the best liked is "Greyhound for Breakfast," from his 1987 collection.
The central character Ronnie is a fairly typical Kelman character.  He is out of a job, waiting for his monthly handout from the government, short on funds, a bit of a loser.  He drinks a bit too much and hangs out with his mates at bars. In this story he has bought a greyhound, although he cannot afford it, and he is leading it about town avoiding going home to tell his wife what he has done. He visits some bars where he hopes to get a positive reaction to his purchase from his friends, insisting that the intends to race the dog and making his money back. His friends are not so encouraging, Ronnie's son has gone off to London to find work, and he is not happy about it. One of his friends says, "Your boy goes off to England and you go out and buy a dog."
Ronnie becomes angry with his friends and continues to wander about, thinking about how to justify what he has done and how he will confront his wife with the news. He sits and talks for a few minutes with a man and watches some children at play near a pond, expressing some concern that they might get fall in the water or get hurt. As he thinks about how to tell his wife, he thinks that the one thing he was always good at is making excuses.
He thinks of the greyhound as a sort of metaphoric parallel to himself and others—running around a track trying to catch a pot of gold.  He thinks his son is like that. He thinks everyone is racing, or maybe it is only him in a foolish race. His thoughts about the dog and his foolish purchase, his son, and his wife intensify as he continues to wander and postpone going home, worrying about what will happen to his boy in London, wondering what he will says to his wife, until he thinks he will just tell her something or other, "what the fuck he didn't know, it didn't fucking matter; what did it matter, it didnt fucking matter."
Ronnie is a sympathetic character who tries to find ways to give himself some worth, ways to protect those he loves, ways to find acceptance from his friends, ways to make a success of his life. Kelman does a fine job, it seems to me, of creating a character and a basic situation that represents a general human sense of struggle, helplessness, loneliness, desperation. Ronnie, like many men, wants to be a good friend, a good father, a good husband, a good man.  But often one does not know how to do all that.  It sometimes seems too much, just too damned much, and one thinks that no matter what one does, it doesn't really matter.
I thank Brian Hamill for getting me to reread James Kelman. I am sorry that I am not as familiar with his work and with Scottish short fiction in general as I should be.  I hope to remedy that in the near future. I also thank Brian for sending me a copy of the second issue of thi wurd, Summer 2014, which contains, among other delights, Brian's own story, "The Snib," a wonderful "I Am Your Brother" story. The interview with Alan Warner is certainly worth reading, although it might be a bit depressing for the aspiring writer. Warner laments that people just don't buy enough good new books of fiction and poetry nowadays because they are so expensive, noting for example that he went into Waterstones recently and bought two hard backs by favorite writers and paid fifty quid for them. The sad case for many writers is that they spend two or three years working on a book and then publishers have to remainder them because they cannot afford the storage cost; thus they end up pulped. Practically no writers of good fiction can make a living doing so. He noted that James Kelman, who he called "our greatest living Scottish writer," only made about 15 grand last year. Like Warner, I also find these facts "depressing and unsettling."

I wish the editors of thi wurd much luck in their efforts to promote the publication of good fiction in Scotland.  


Steve said...

"oversimplification"? Me? Ouch! I don't think you're going to like my current work on Alice Munro very much either . . . Still, it's nice to see Kelman getting some exposure.
- Steve Bernstein

Charles E. May said...

Greetings, Steve. Good to hear from you. I look forward to reading your work on Alice Munro. Where will it appear and when?

And I think any attempt to limit a short story to a social message or political ideology is to oversimplify it. The form is just not a good carrier of social content. Like all good short story-writers, Kelman knows that.

Steve said...

Well, I don't think that's what I do in that piece. Maybe quoting 9 words from an article of nearly 18,000 to suggest that I "limit" Kelman's stories that way is the oversimplification. Still, it's your blog. Here's the Munro stuff:

"LONGING TO SEE DOCUMENTS": Writing and Desire in Alice Munro's Longer Stories," forthcoming in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 2016.

"Alice Munro's Scottish Birthright." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 27.4 (2014): 189-93.

"The Culture of Surveillance in Alice Munro's 'Wenlock Edge'," Short Story, 21.2 (2013): 59-68.

1streading said...

Thanks for an interesting article. Kelman is an exceptional writer. Interestingly, he is not alone among Scottish writers who, despite success with the novel, continue to write short stories: Alasdair Gray, A. L. Kennedy, and Ali Smith would be three examples of writers, like Kelman, who publish as many collections of stories as novels.

Unknown said...

I cull the web on a regular basis to read James Kelman or anything about him. Interesting article thanks. My favourite genre is the short story probably because of my own social circumstances. He's a breath of fresh air and never fails to bring pleasure and controversy to his art He's one of the best of the Scottish contemporary writers.