A book of mine will be published in the United States next month. Two cheers for me. Pegasus, the publisher in question, is a devoutly independent operation. This is no small feat in any part of the world. In New York, it’s tough to achieve. That deserves another cheer.
The book and its successor were issued by Mainstream, an Edinburgh publisher that in recent years has managed to be both independent and a partner of Random House, the gigantic and loveable multi-national. Random House has its towering headquarters in New York, but is owned in turn by Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate. So where does that leave me?
Here I am, a Scot, writing a couple of fat books about an American within what Hugh Andrew would probably call an Edinburgh-corporate-New York “nexus”. I am also a Scot who will be voting for independence the minute the doors open. According to Mr Andrew, I’ll be endorsing something that “represents the worst of all worlds for our writers and culture”. Professionally speaking, I’ll be cutting my own throat.
Should independence befall us, says the managing director of the publisher Birlinn, I and everyone else in the scribbling game in these parts will become “foreign”, trapped behind an “artificial wall”, cut off – it seems for all time – from the London action. I’ll email Claiborne in New York this instant to tell him the sad news. Perhaps he can arrange food parcels.
Mr Andrew offers his prophecy via the Think Scotland web operation. If he’s right, the chaps – such a plethora of chaps – who put the thing together should really change the name. If they want to be “vibrant” within “a UK open market”, Think Britain would probably do the trick. The usual contributors to the site would find that no wrench.
Amid his thoughts on nationalism, Mr Andrew has plenty to say about the failure of the SNP government to support the Scottish book business. He has a point. But he would have had a point when Labour was in power, when Tories governed the country, or when the old Scottish Arts Council was first established. For most of the 20th century the literature of Scotland was not exactly enhanced by the Union. Ask the writers.
Perhaps that’s why so many of them refuse to blink at the prospect of independence. Some have long memories and plenty of experience of that “UK open market”, the one that treated Jim Kelman as a barbarian at the gates when he won the Booker, the one that reacted with a kind of astonishment when Irvine Welsh published Trainspotting. The sub-text was never hard to decipher. But look: some of those Jocks even write books.
Scottish writers and publishers have always – always – been close to last in line for public funding. The publishers are not thriving just at the moment (though Mainstream’s decision to shut its doors next year had nothing to do with profitability). So how are the poor writers coming along? Any that people might have heard of beyond the Great Wall of Nationalism?
Mr Andrew names no names. He concedes, however, that the crime novels written here are “full of Scottish features and details” and yet “they fit into a much wider cultural nexus”. Indeed, he corrects Ruth Wishart for enthusing recently over the Scottish tint of the Edinburgh Book Festival. “Ruth,” it seems, “was celebrating the strength of British identity and how successful Scots are within that cultural nexus.”
Seriously? That’ll be McIlvanney or Rankin, then: “Scottish features and details”. Mr Andrew should have come out and said what he meant: “local colour”. I’m fairly confident, though, that neither of those gentlemen would recognise themselves in those terms. Birlinn’s MD seems truly to believe that there is no such thing as an inescapably Scottish form of what he calls “genre” fiction.
If independence were to give us an SNP government, meanwhile – of that there is no guarantee, but Unionists refuse to believe it – we risk ending up like the Irish, treated as “foreign”, shut out by London and its single market. Apparently Scottish writers have never been excluded in this manner before. This will be news to some of them.
Publishing in Scotland is a fraction of the size of “London” publishing. Like differences in population, this is perfectly true, but it hardly counts as a revelation. Some Scottish publishing requires more public subsidy: also true. It happens also to be true of publishing in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where precisely the same complaints are made over inadequate funding, but where there is no SNP to blame. The detail escaped the notice of Mr Andrew.
The arrival of the 21st century might also have passed him by. Like any staunch Unionist, he cannot help but regard London as the centre of the cultural universe. The fact is, nevertheless, that we only have Scottish literature and Scottish publishing because perverse types refused to take that view. Regardless, Mr Andrew believes that Scottishness itself is only viable within his “nexus”.
So what is that exactly? What is “London” in modern publishing? Random House (German) is one of the so-called Big Six along with Hachette (French), Macmillan (German), Penguin (still part-British, but now 53% owned by Bertelsmann), Simon & Schuster (American) and HarperCollins (Planet Murdoch).
Mr Andrew advocates an official approach recognising “that an enhanced growing and profitable publishing industry in a symbiosis with London represents the best option for Scottish writing and Scottish culture. It is an approach that recognises that ‘British’ is part of the heart of ‘Scottish’.”
So note the list offered above. There are many more than six publishers in London and the UK, of course, but as in the United States those half dozen multi-national giants have more, comfortably more, than 50% of the market by sales. So what’s British about them? Close to sod all.
It could be that I’m not the sort of Scottish author Mr Andrew has in mind. I did once turn down an offer from HarperCollins, it’s true, but that had a lot more to do with odour of Murdoch than with nationalism. Perhaps I’m not the symbiotic type. It’s fascinating, though, to still come across the sorts of Unionist who believe their whole world will come to an end if loyalty to London falters.
Robert Louis Stevenson knew all about the British cultural nexus. He also abided by no one’s stereotype. But Louis did not once misunderstand himself. He rebuked tedious S.R. Crockett from the other side of the world after receiving a letter with a bizarre but then-popular return address. “The name of my native land,” wrote Stevenson, “is not North Britain whatever may be the name of yours”.
I could cringe on Mr Andrew’s behalf, but he’s doing just fine without my help.
(All right, then, if you insist. The first volume is Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan, the second Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan. Stocked by all good bookshops etc.)