Saturday, August 11, 2007

It Jist Comes Oot ...

James Kelman looks back on his earliest struggles as a writer in the Guardian.(This article is required reading for anyone who argues that they don't have time or space for writing ... )

He also talks about his determination to use authentic voice to depict his working class characters in his short stories and later in his Booker Prize winning novel (extract here) and the prejudice he encountered as a result.
"Nice to be Nice" was my earliest attempt at the literary or phonetic transcription of a speaking voice. It so happens that the voice belongs to a working-class man from Glasgow. The story is told in the "I-voice", a first-person narrative. It was difficult to do. I spent ages working on it but learned much from the process.

It was one of the stories I later sent to Mary Gray Hughes. She commented on my early stories, and it was important to me, even if I disagreed with some of it. She advised caution in my use of "dialect", and warned me of the risk of alienating the reader. Mary Gray Hughes recommended I look at the work of Flannery O'Connor and Emily Brontë's use of dialect in Wuthering Heights. Of course I had my own opinions about "dialect" and I sent her "Nice to be Nice". She replied, "Forget all I said about dialect . . . you obviously know what you are doing better than anyone." I never bothered about alienating readers, neither then nor now. The priority was to write the story properly. The readers could take care of themselves.

My original intention in "Nice to be Nice" was to use the phonetic transcription only for the narrative. I thought to apply Standard English form for the dialogue. It was an attempt to turn the traditional elitist assumption on its head. I was irritated by so-called working-class writers who wrote third-party narratives in Standard English then applied conventional ideas of phonetics whenever a working-class character was called upon to say a few words. When a middle-class character entered the dialogue all attempts at "phonetics" disappeared; his or her lines were transcribed in standard form, leading to the extraordinary presumption that Standard English Literary Form is a literal transcription of Upper-Class Orature.

In "Nice to be Nice" the story is narrated in the first person by the central character. I was concerned about other characters. In what sense could the "I-voice" be defined as the central character? Only because he is telling the story. Each of the four characters would see it differently, each of the four characters had their own story, a different story. I started writing them, each as a first-person narrative. The shift in the language of each person was the most interesting factor. That subtlety, the sophistication of how human beings use language, is not possible for the elitist or racist for whom working-class existence may be an amorphous experiential mass, but if you hear one you hear them all, see one you see them all. During the Booker Prize controversy of 1994 much of the hostility directed at How Late It Was, How Late derived from the astounding proposition that the life of one working-class Glaswegian male is a subject worthy of art. I was used to the prejudice but the gleeful abandon with which some attacked my work took me by surprise. It never occurred to the literary mainstream that working-class males from Glasgow might be watching the programme or reading the newspaper.
On one occasion a member of an adjudicating panel asked him if he ever revised his stories "or did it just come out?":
It jist comes oot, ah says, it's the natchril rithm o the workin klass, ah jist opens ma mooth and oot it comes. Similar to the American dancer in reply to a related question, ah jes closes ma eyes an ma feets git to movin.
Kelman of course says he "sweated blood" getting them right.

His earliest collections of short fiction An Old Pub Near the Angel, A Chancer, Not Not While the Giro and The Busconductor Hines will be reissued by Polygon on August 30.


Argus Lou said...

Jist and oot are fine. But 'rithm' and 'klass' are unnecessary and stretching the reader's goodwill.

Anonymous said...

It does seem like he's overdoing it a bit doesn't it ? Dickens' "Hard Times" has a character that's very believably working-class (Stephen Blackpool) -- even he doesn't speak like that.

bibliobibuli said...

i have had "how late it was" sitting on my bookshelves since it won the booker. i've decided to dive into it as one of my books for the tbr challenge this year, so wish me luck!

Argus Lou said...

Good luck, Bibli! ^_^