In pursuit of a political philosophy
Some years ago I interviewed a Scottish author who offered a few mild criticisms of James Kelman's novels before asking me not to repeat what he'd said. I knew why he didn't want to be quoted. One sometimes wonders whether it's possible to admit to not always enjoying Kelman's work without being denounced as a capitalist running dog – at least that's the impression I came away with after reading The Red Cockatoo, a new volume analysing Kelman's politics.
The book begins by listing commentators, including an “Alan Massie” (sic), who have made “extraordinarily vicious” criticisms of Kelman's work. They don't mention the many writers influenced by his work. There is at least a good reason why Kelman admirers are so defensive. In the 1980s and after Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994, criticism of his novels often had a class rather than a literary basis. One remembers Simon Jenkins's criticism of How Late It Was, How Late's Booker victory; he wrote it “contrived to insult literature and patronise the savage”.
Miller and Rodger contend Kelman's political essays, which are collected in And The Judges Said … and Some Recent Attacks, pass unnoticed because the “ Scottish literary establishment” finds them “forthright and provocative”. Kelman's essays, like Don DeLillo's plays or John Updike's poetry, were bound to suffer in comparison with his novels, not for political reasons, but because they don't impress as much as his fiction. Being an accomplished novelist does not mean you can also write good poetry, plays, reviews or essays. It's not always or even often a transferable skill. Nobody can doubt Kelman's sincerity, but Mitchell and Rodger do him a disservice by comparing him to Orwell and Montaigne, whose gifts as essayists t hrow i nto relief Kelman's faults.
Kelman dismisses mainstream politics. He bel i e v e s t he wielding of power is as corrupting of those who handle it as those who suffer it. He prefers to involve himself in grassroots groups organised ar ound s peci f i c issues such as winning compensat i on f or men and women injured through working with asbestos. According to Mitchell and Rodger, Kelman doesn't judge the success of these groups by whether they achieve their goals but by the degree to which the campaigns raise political consciousnesses. Fine – but once a consciousness is raised, what is to be done with it, especially as Kelman disdains traditional politics? Is he waiting upon some sort of psychic tipping point after which the revolution is inevitable? Again, the authors don't appear to know. They can't even say how successful these campaigns have been in the short term, writing instead that “ a qualitative assessment remains elusive”. As an evaluation it lacks a Kelmanesque bluntness.
The second half of the book concerns a Self Determination And Power c onference that was held in 1990, an event organised by Kelman and at which his f el l ow “ libertarian socialist” Noam Chomsky was a speaker. The authors argue this marked a pivotal moment in the development of Kelman's political philosophy.
is Maybe leaden.
There are questions pertaining to Kelman's politics that are lightly fielded. Kelman is quoted as saying: “Good art is usually dissent.” But does taking grants from a governmentfunded arts organisation, as he has, compromise his message? We're told Kelman “ is generally against artists having to apply for these types of grant themselves”. Why? Because it's time-consuming? Or it turns artists into civil servants? The authors don't explore the subject.
Nor do Mitchell and Rodger interrogate Kelman's judgments. “ You know,” he once said, “ if you write in English normally you can't help but take on the values of the English upper class.” Really? How does that work? Did it happen to George Orwell? Robert Tressell? Charles Dickens, whom Kelman admires? His statement goes untested.
The Red Cockatoo sets out to explain and defend Kelman's “art of commitment”, but it raises more questions than it answers. The book is also badly proof-read. One tires of the promiscuous commas, semi-colons used instead of colons, AWOL apostrophes, and misspelled names. I expect I'll be judged guilty of “ the usual media distortion”, but Kelman's defenders on this occasion have muddied rather than clarified his political thought.