Representation in fiction: why does it matter? The reasons are innumerable and obvious. If, for example, you grow up reading books where you don’t see anyone who looks, either literally or figuratively, like you, then there are consequences. It shapes his idea of a predetermined citizen, the value of who and what is written about, and the hierarchy of imaginative possibility. And if, as artists and those who follow them largely believe, the imagination must be a place of liberation and equality, where language and ideas are the only coins that are worth anything, that is a problem.
It was for Douglas Stuart, whose debut novel Shuggie Bath won the Booker award last week. Stuart has followed the classic trajectory of overnight success: Now 44, he wrote his book only after overcoming his inner feelings of illegitimacy, the common anxiety that amounts to an anti-right, the belief that writing novels it’s for other people, and then you saw it rejected by numerous publishers. His life was not a failure: he had left his native Glasgow for New York and became an accomplished fashion designer, and yet he was not a novelist.
But creativity doesn’t always work on a fast schedule. Shuggie Bath it draws heavily on Stuart’s childhood and the struggles of his mother, who died when he was a teenager after suffering from alcoholism for many years; It has been widely described as a love story, a tribute to a life whose hardship did not diminish its value or its deep ties. Painting a broad brushstroke, a material as intense and complicated as this seems to translate into fiction, whether in a sudden torrent or over a prolonged period.
All writers must find their own course. But it is more difficult without a guide. For Stuart, that was the novelist James Kelman, as of Thursday the only Scottish writer to win the Booker Prize, for How late was it, how late, a quarter of a century ago. Stuart, whose fictional landscape is working-class Glasgow in the 1980s and 1990s, has said the novel changed his life; and the experience of seeing “my people, my dialect, on the page” clearly lodged in his brain.
It is easy to think that the Scots were always there or there in the literary reputation game; Voices as diverse as Irvine Welsh, Ali Smith, Val McDermid, AL Kennedy, and Ian Rankin suggest long careers, rave reviews, and vast readers. But when How late was it, how late he won the Booker in 1994, it was a shock, and not just when it was announced; During the review process, Rabbi Julia Neuberger withdrew, subsequently disassociating herself from the winner and calling the book “shit.” Writing a few years ago, another judge, critic James Wood, recalled that Kelman appeared at the gala ceremony wearing an open-necked shirt and used his speech to lash out at the establishment: “My culture and my language have the right to exist, and no one has the authority to rule that out … There can be a fine line between elitism and racism. In matters related to language and culture, distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether. “
Apparently, there were no such schisms in the award ceremony this year, luckily for Booker, who just got over the uproar of last year’s split decision, which saw the award go to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo after the panel riot against the rules.
But perhaps that’s also due to the subtle, slow collapse of the winner-take-all mentality of high-profile awards. This year’s list of finalists for Booker was filled with debut writing, women, and writers of color. One of the unexpected results of this gradual and delayed expansion of the publishing world is that the sense of a fair loses its power; There’s a recalibration of the idea of big names clashing, talent belittled or celebrated, scores fixed. Once, the gossip about the Booker Award tended to focus on who cut who died at the after-party, and which agent shouldn’t sit next to which editor next year; maybe now the guest list is bigger and the guests, so to speak, can wear whatever they want, we’ll all have a better time.
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