Irvine Welsh says his breakthrough novel Trainspotting would never get published today.
IRVINE WELSH, KRISTEL THORNELL, BEATRICE MACNEIL, A.L. KENNEDY and LIAM CARD as part of IFOA’s round table A National Literature at Harbourfront’s Studio Theatre, Saturday, October 27.
The second-last day of the International Festival of Authors brought a deluge of rain and a small crowd to Harbourfront's Studio Theatre for a round table about whether such a thing as a national literature still exists in a rising global culture.
Though the discussion never got heated or exceptionally lively, the panel of five writers - Canadians Beatrice MacNeil and Liam Card, Scots Irvine Welsh and A.L. Kennedy, and Australian Kristel Thornell - maintained a thoughtful discussion that never lagged, thanks to moderator James Grainger.
"Do you consider yourself to be a Cape Breton writer or a Canadian writer?" he asked MacNeil, who immediately answered, "Cape Breton" (in a strong Cape Breton accent), adding that she prefers to write while in Cape Breton. This proved an earlier point Grainger had made about how we seem to be moving toward more regional rather than nationalistic focuses in our literature.
The authors who had spent time living abroad felt differently, though. Thornell, who said she definitely doesn't feel like an authority on Australian culture, said she does find that the time she's spent living in the States has made her reflect on, often nostalgically, and write more about her native Australia, including in her recent debut novel, Night Street.
Kennedy said that good literature is personal and unique and universal, independent of an author's nationality, a recurring theme on which everyone agreed. She and Welsh spoke about how being from Scotland has impacted their careers.
"In interviews when I first started out people often asked me, ‘What's it like being a Scottish writer?'" quipped the hilarious Kennedy. "I'd think, ‘What's it like being really patronizing?'"
Welsh said that being Scottish helped draw attention to his early books 20 years ago, but that the media landscape has dramatically changed since then, largely because of globalisation. "Twenty years ago there was a wave of Scottish writers and we got some international attention. There's been a new wave since but not even people in London know about it.
"Nowadays it's impossible to imagine the New York Times doing a feature on Scottish writers like they did back then."
He also feels that his breakthrough 1993 novel, Trainspotting, which has sold over a million copies, probably wouldn't even be published nowadays, at least not by a large publishing house. Global culture, he said, is driven by the markets and capitalism and has led to a bland disposable culture where we think that Simon Cowell created pop music and iTunes invented hip-hop and Amazon invented the novel. In order to be accessible to everybody, culture gets watered-down and homogenous.
"Less risks get taken in this global world," said. "And writers are forced to write into these little boxes. The market is prescribing and dictating what gets written. It's very different for writers now because without exposure it's hard for them to find success."
"Writing what's national and regional is now subversive," Kennedy added.
A touching moment came near the end courtesy of Card, whose novel Exit Papers From Paradise, about a plumber who sets out to become a surgeon, was published by Dundurn Press this month. The young writer admitted that a few years earlier when he wrote his first book, he obsessed about writing something that would sell. The result was a novel about a young couple obsessed with their BlackBerrys.
For his second go, he realized that focusing on marketability wasn't the right approach. "Instead, I tried to write a novel that my friends would like," he said, his emotions suddenly overtaking him. He grew quiet in an effort to not burst out crying, much to everybody's surprise.
Giving up on what you think the public wants in favour of the preferences of you and your friends - a more regional group, if you will - was clearly not an easy path for Card to take, but it also taught him some hard-hitting, valuable lessons.
The ever-observant Kennedy rubbed his arm supportively before picking up the thread, saying that she's "seen the dead hand of the public telling writers what to do. You see eight or nine of the same novels over and over again."
The problem with commercial advice, she said, "is that it's completely uncommercial. The last thing you want to read is a copy of what you read last."