November 7, 2013
J.K. Rowling is not going to make a list of “favorite Scottish books” anytime soon
by Michael Elmets
From Robert Burns and Walter Scott to Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Hugh MacDiarmid, the list of names associated with Scottish literature is littered with some of the greatest authors ever to write in the English language. And, with novelists and poets like Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, A.L. Kennedy, and current U.K. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, contemporary Scottish literature is not without its fair share of prominent writers.
But unfortunately, for many readers, contemporary Scottish literature begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and ends with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That’s why it was so shocking to see J.K. Rowling’s name excluded from the list of eligible authors in a competition hosted on the Scottish Book Trust’s website “that pits Scotland’s top writers in a public vote to find readers’ ‘favourite Scottish books of the last 50 years’.”
Since publishing her first Harry Potter novel in 1997, She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (ok, that joke probably wasn’t worth it) has written six further Harry Potter books in addition to two best-selling novels on the way to becoming one of the highest-grossing authors in history. Rowling’s exclusion from the list of authors eligible in the Scottish Book Trust’s competition reflects both the vibrancy of contemporary Scottish literature and the fact that she just isn’t that great a novelist. To put it in the terms used by Scottish literary critic Stuart Kelley, who helped to assemble the list, “There are a lot of works [included] which expand the novel, books which fundamentally change what a novel does.” More bluntly, “There are 50 better books than [Rowling’s 2012 novel The Casual Vacancy] on that list.”
Voting is open to everyone and ends November 18. The top ten vote-getters will be revealed at the end of November during Book Week Scotland. Below you’ll find a quick look at some of the books that were good enough to make the list.
Less well-known than he should be in the United States, Alasdair Gray is considered by many to be one of the most important contemporary Scottish writers. The publication of Gray’s 1981 “Loosely autobiographical, blackly fantastical” masterpiece Lanark “Changed the landscape of Scottish fiction” and prompted Anthony Burgess to declare him “The most important writer since Sir Walter Scott.” Lanark is now “Widely regarded as the most remarkable and influential Scottish novel of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The only writer to have two books make the list, Iain Banks was a writer of both mainstream fiction and science fiction (his science fiction works were published under the name Iain M. Banks) published 29 books prior to his death in June of this year. The competition’s website refers to The Bridge, which is composed of three intersecting narratives, as “A darkly brilliant novel of self-discovery [on] the cutting edge of experimental fiction.”
There is a long tradition of Scottish crime writing and the list of novels nominated for the Scottish Book Trust’s competition reflects that. Perhaps less well-known than fellow Scottish crime-writer Iain Rankin, Glaswegian novelist Denise Mina has used the crime novel as “A scalpel to analyse contemporary society.” To quote Stuart Kelly, “She is more like Zola than Christie” and “Her debut, Garnethill, [looks] stonily at sexual abuse, psychotherapy, cover-ups and the disconnection between what is right and what is legal.”
Probably the best-known novelist on the list, Muriel Spark was a towering figure in post-war British fiction prior to her death in 2006. The winner of numerous awards, she was included on the list despite living most of her life outside of Scotland. While Loitering with Intent was the only of her books to make the list, any number of her 21 other novels could easily have been chosen. Set “On the grubby edge of the literary world” of London in 1949, Spark’s “Stiletto-sharp and icicle-cold” novel was short-listed for the 1981 Man Booker Prize.
Michael Elmets is a former Melville House intern.