Mavericks - Irvine Welsh

Being ‘Controversial’

Did you hear the one about the novelist, the economist and the toxicologist?

I’ll begin …

Irvine Welsh is the writer of ten novels: at his most deliberately hallucinogenic he can be reminiscent of a narcotised Kafka; at his most accomplished he can draw together a finely plotted page turner that causes the reader to question their own impulses, morality and sanity. He is capable of inducing visceral repulsion in a reader followed, soon after, by tears of recognition that the pervert, the abuser was you after all. He is an expert, a technician; he rarely makes the mistake of being boring. But the characters and subjects of his work are from a working class heritage and the object of his discussion is often the chemical addictions forced upon them by faceless agents that profit from those addictions: he is the erudite chronicler of the lives of the chemical generation. History might judge him to be one of the finest, most important novelists of our age and perhaps even a social critic of some substance. But history is not so inclined as it is controlled by those with vested interests in having only a certain version (the middle class variety) of the culture being valid. Irvine Welsh, who, in a meritocracy, might be treated as a similarly important literary figure to Pinter, is routinely patronized by the ‘quality’ press, who cover him grudgingly, and only then on the basis that he is one of “Scotland’s most famous voices”, sells a lot of books and is a ‘cultural phenomenon’.

Anyone skimming the Times’s coverage of this working class writer will note that it is not exclusively disobliging (there is a lovingly told story of a bar crawl with him and Robert Crampton that entirely forgets to add a withering note of condescension) but even in reviews or articles that acknowledge his brilliance, this acknowledgement is always contextualized with some prim and prudish note that Welsh “openly admits to once being a heavy drug user”[1], or that he “sounds like a Muirhouse skinhead who’s been at the gak”[2]; that his most technically accomplished and skillfully plotted work, ‘Crime’, is only “surprisingly considered and compassionate”[3] and, though the review is positive, his ‘Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs’ is still “predictably gross and disgusting” [4] and a “page-turning adult comic”[5]

The review of the same book by Neel Mukherjee gives us a sense of how poorly rated he is by those who perceive themselves to be superior and learned literateurs. This review, which contains writing as profoundly unanimated as the following paragraph, “Skinner’s search for his father takes him to San Francisco and back. He understands what he has done to Kibby and tries to undo it. Unknown to him, the search for his father appears about to end far closer to home than he would have thought” goes on to castigate Welsh for poor writing: “The book is a toyshop of pure MDF cutouts. The characters, situations, storyline, prose — everything is so risible in its inability to convince on even the most rudimentary levels that it appears as if Welsh has telephoned it in on a very bad line.” Which is ironic given how quickly this appears to have been written and how lazy are the clichés the reviewer has found on their bad writing shelf.

What strikes is the high moral shrillness in the coverage of this writer that contrasts with Welsh’s own forgiving liberalism and lack of disgust at the behaviour of his own tribe. His crime is in having the temerity to be working class and successful (and an unapologetic drug user). This combination is forbidden. Do not follow role models who will give you permission to question your slavery.

His critics often hurl their missiles from the academic edges of an elite for whom the term ‘high brow’ is synonymous with an obsessional interest in nature, birdlife and country walks: obsessions, the variety of which are some way outside of the everyday experience or opportunities of working class urban youths, to whom such obsessions they say nothing whatsoever. Witness one Robert Macfarlane, a learned man in anyone’s currency, an Oxbridge tutor, a multi award winning writer, who describes his main field of research as being: “‘cultural environmentalism’” that he goes on to explain “has emerged over the past decade as one of the most lively interdisciplinary research fields in the humanities. Broadly put, I am concerned with questions of how literary narratives, forms and metaphors might shape (and have been thought to shape) ecological awareness, environmental activism and individual ‘place-consciousness.” [6] He is, “Interested, you could say, not only in what we make of places, but also in what places make of us.”[7] If so, you might imagine that he would be interested in the effects that urban Leith has (or had) had on its inhabitants. You might be wrong here, as to certain sections of the literary establishment, it is only the examination of some red cheeked pastoral idyll (that is entirely imaginary or fictional to certain elements of working class life) that has any value or tradition as a subject for serious contemplation: the working class experience has no academic validity, and the voices that articulate it must necessarily be satirized as clumsy, technically incompetent and structurally deficient. At any case, one wonders about the sanity of any Reviews Editor who decides to ask Robert MacFarlane to review a book by the literary voice of the chemical generation when he might have enjoyed himself rather more writing an overlong prose poem about the flight patterns of a red kite over a school field in Oxfordshire.

His analysis of Welsh’s writing is at a brutish and ham-fisted level of surface technicality:

 “Welsh also has an unfortunate fondness for adverbs, such that each verb is consummated by its cliché-making qualifier: a report is “meticulously prepared,” a lover “dozed blissfully,” a person “took his cue gratefully,” someone else “doggedly persevered.”

He goes on,

This is bad bad writing. There are tautologies (offices that are “unobtrusively tucked away”). There are mixed metaphors (the “bull of a man” whose frame was “going to seed”). There are mistakes — the use of the word “diligently” where “carefully” is meant. And there are unfortunate ambiguities, as when Welsh describes Kibby’s erection as “poking through the material of his trousers.” We must assume either that Welsh means “showing through,” or that Kibby has an unusually sharp phallus.” [8]

Here again, we see authoritative critical analysis satirizing the expression of a maverick author on the basis of that authority possessing superior levels of finesse than the examined maverick twisting beneath a smudged magnifying glass. Only an authority made confident by the endorsement of proper academic channels might be bothered to draw the distinction between ‘diligently’ and ‘carefully’: most readers would not be able to rouse themselves to bother. As to the vexed question of what poke really means? This is probably dependent on where you come from. It may be that Mr Macfarlane’s understanding is superior to Welsh’s, it may be that he is a middle class buffoon looking for an own goal, or it may be that Kibby is, in Welsh’s mind, in possession of knife-like organ.









Added Wed, 3 Feb 2016 08:19

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