James Kelman: On Form

As his Lean Third short story collection is polished and republished, James Kelman, our grand master of literary fiction reflects on the craft and slog of experimental writing, class, culture and the high profile controversies surrounding his great works

Feature by Alan Bett | 01 May 2015
  • James Kelman

In James Kelman’s afterword to the new printing of his Lean Third collection of short stories, he ponders over the use of Gil Sans in the original 1985 edition, Lean Tales – his third joining those of Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens.  The typeface was agreed and celebrated over whisky with Gray, Owens leaving the boys to it. To the uninitiated it seems a dull conversation at best, or slim excuse for a bevy. To fans of Kelman – a sculptor of words on page – it’s a decision of significance.

"I wanted to be a painter as a young artist," he says, explaining his attachment to the visual. We sit in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, sipping tea and coffee from paper cups. "I was very keen on what painters did and thought that was really exciting, so when I started writing I wanted that same excitement." He talks of the crucial nature of indentation in paragraphs, technology and print. Short stories which “would only operate with a typewriter because all spaces are equal. Anything else is a kind of illusion, between an S and an F in those things and an I, the space itself is the same. That obviously differs on computer.”  This devotion and perseverance with form and structure  is what pushes more knowledgeable critics to positively compare his work with the modernist experimentations of Joyce and Woolf.

Form is important, you see. It’s a lesson learned twice today. Firstly when Kelman schools me on his literary craft. Then once more, when I blindly accept his Grand National tip: a horse which ambles in a distant 14th later that day. As a Glasgow boy who started placing bets at 15 and spent much of his youth in bookies, I expected more.  But as a writer Kelman is a surer bet. A dead cert. In fact he often seems to be running a race entirely of his own.

The relevance of a space, a comma, a colon, and their effects; it’s something rarely considered in modern literature. He shakes his head a little, explains how this indicates just how barren UK literature has become. That people have made experimental fiction a genre in itself instead of experimentation being at the heart of all literature. “You think if the art itself is healthy, surely all artists should be engaged in attempting to move forward. And that just gets described as experimental. It just assumes that the norm…there’s no originality in the form.”

“I always thought it was important to get rid of recollection, then you have to explore a thing in that one-to-one immediate way” – James Kelman

It’s certainly nothing new, using form and technique to pull the reader towards the dramatic moment. The greats – Kafka, Joyce, Beckett – all engaged. “Some great writers can defeat that argument, like Tolstoy, you know?” Kelman questions. I nod sagely. “But most of the great writers, I think, during that period, are all engaged in trying to get to the dramatic moment and that separates them from other writers… if you’re analysing it you go, that’s how he did that. With a great writer like Kafka you can see precisely that’s what he’s doing; look how he’s using verbs. You get that with Dickens too. Look at these two pages, every sentence begins with 'and'. You’re rushing on; you don’t have time to stop.”

But his own fine craft – signified by a lack of punctuation and paragraph by design: a finely tuned Glasgow vernacular, repetition, repetition, repetition – has been mistaken for simple guttural flow, often from those who should know better. He was questioned on whether he ever revised his work when A Disaffection was shortlisted for a prize, or, as one of the adjudicating panel asked, "Did it just come out"? Kelman was scathing when responding in kind. “It jist comes oot, ah says, it’s the natchril rithm o the workin klass, ah jist opens ma mooth and oot it comes.”

Journalists have also felt this indignation, largely when keen to pigeonhole the man and his work in terms of class. I sense none of this today. He’s open and generous with answers. Focused, mind you, very focused. When a question is deemed not fit for purpose he’s too decent to mention it, but not guarded enough to hide this opinion – the eyes turn to granite, a spark within. His softest moment comes when discussing the Print Studio Press he was involved in with Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard and others in the late 70s. The smile this generates is warm and genuine. Was this press an attempt to circumvent mainstream publishing? "Well, there was no option,"  he answers. "To that extent it was the same then as it is now, we had to fight our corner, you know? And a lot of young people are doing that now."

I bring up the controversy surrounding his 1994 Booker Prize win for How Late it Was, How Late – that wonderful dervish of a book. But he’s not biting today. Booker judge Rabbi Julia Neuberger famously baulked at the language (an estimated four thousand fucking, fuck, fuckts – and further delicious variations of said word), calling the book "crap, frankly" and its winning "a disgrace". He was branded "an illiterate savage" and his work "cultural vandalism" by The Times' columnist Simon Jenkins. For a man who speaks in measured tones and utters not one profanity himself today, to tie him directly to the voice of his characters, simply due to the working class connection, shows extreme ignorance. You would think the literary establishment would delight in discovering a language, rather than being disturbed by the subversion of something they feel ownership of. “I don’t really know,” Kelman replies wearily when questioned on the origin of this feeling. “Obviously it’s an awful lot of things which I’ve answered many times over the years in different ways. It’s a waste of time talking about it, in a way.” It’s easy to understand his reticence when even those not fully familiar with his work are, however, familiar with these high profile reactions to it. “It always gets appended to your name.” He says.  “You just continue really.”

I broaden the question, asking whether this hostility may arise from the frustration of those who are not culturally qualified to judge this work; unable through lack of experience to engage with its language and lives. When reviewing Kelman’s masterful and hilarious 2004 novel You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free, Irvine Welsh suggested it was "the book that many hand-wringing liberals have always wanted to write but are manifestly ill-equipped to undertake." So, does he ever feel the working class experience provides an advantage over the lives of those more sheltered establishment authors? "I don’t think there’s any question that it does," he agrees initially, although making very clear that every life is valid and a source for art. "The problem is that you have to be able to engage in a thing before you can make use of it, so you have to be in a position to write and create before you can make use of the experience that you have." It’s reminiscent of the famous dictum of his comrade-in-form Virginia Woolf – "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." That position is not so easily attainable for those without privilege, prompting Kelman to rage in his Lean Third afterword over 'The truth, that art cannot be sustained by wage slaves, by people whose time on this planet is sold as the means to survival.'

Still, those cocooned by privilege would never have the experience to bring many of his Lean Tales to life: tight bastards offering nothing but negativity in A betting shop to the rear of Shaftsbury Avenue, the futile Kafkaesque bureaucracy of a lad’s first day on the shop floor in Extra cup. I stray dangerously close to 'It jist comes oot' territory when asking how he translates these real life situations dramatically onto the page. “No, that’s not the way it operates.” He shakes his head in disdain. “In a way that’s part of that same set of fallacies that says you go round with a tape recorder or something. I know that some writers do operate from recollection. I always thought it was important to get rid of recollection, then you have to explore a thing in that one-to-one immediate way. Nothing is taken from air or interpretation; in a way that’s anathema to what I’m talking about, or the art I wanted to create. What I do is like pulling teeth in that way. It’s hard and it’s a slog. It’s not like setting down ‘what did I do in my holidays last year,’ or ‘characters I have met.’ I mean, that’s like Reader's Digest in a way.”

With the interview formally over, the intensity of his answers breaks like a fever. We chat generally and genially, discuss a mutual friend. Even my cheeky bastard legacy question is amiably brushed off. He’s only 68 and thankfully for us he’s only looking forward. Finally he delivers that doomed tip on the afternoon's ponies. Then he’s off, the cultural vandal, illiterate savage – our finest living writer. And I’ll let you decide who we are.

A Lean Third is out now, published by Tangerine Press, RRP £12. Also available are limited edition options of hand bound, signed and lettered copies

The book launches at Word Power Books in Edinburgh on 8 May, no doubt to be toasted with a uisque or two