COME DOWN FROM YOUR TOWER, ALISON
Over the past decade the Scottish novelist A L Kennedy has become notorious for her malodorous stories of young girls and old men. But if she doesn't cast off her critical virginity, says Will Self, she's in danger of losing favour among even her most ardent fans
Sunday 22 August 1999
Scottish Writer B - a neurotic livewire of a woman - is hardly more complimentary: "I don't know her, but she looks like a masochist to me. The way her hair is all scraped back from her face in her author's shots. It's so severe - I'm sure she's a masochist." When I tell B that there are extensive scenes of masochistic sex in Kennedy's latest novel Everything You Need it utterly confirms her opinion: "Told you so."
Scottish Writer C is an altogether more verbose affair. A tall, gangly streak of dour probity; while C wouldn't normally give you the time of day, the subject of Kennedy's work draws from him a tirade: "There's certainly a malodorous freshness about her," he begins, "and like many Scottish writers of her generation she seems to have a tremendous sense of entitlement. That's the problem with the Scottish literary renaissance - these people have won too easily. They've advanced under the cover of Kelman's barrage of demotic Scots - but really it's deranged them with shell shock. The whole pack of them - Welsh, Warner, Kennedy as well I suppose - have this attitude of contempt towards journalism and by extension metropolitan culture, but it's absurd! Scottish literary culture was one of the powerhouses of the Enlightenment. It was a culture founded on newsprint and the essay - something this generation appears to have forgotten."
Not that C was altogether dismissive of Kennedy: "She's a promising short-story writer, but someone should really persuade her that it isn't necessary for her to be chained to a typewriter. She's written too much too quickly. Her publisher should offer her a sinecure on condition that she agrees not to deliver another book for a good few years." Ouch! A, B and C were not insistent on their anonymity, but I think we'd better maintain it unless we want independence in Scotland to be accompanied - as it so often is elsewhere - by civil war.
I called Kennedy's editor, Robin Robertson, to find out whether some kind of a furlough was being arranged for Kennedy. It wasn't. He wasn't exactly forthcoming about what is was like to work with Kennedy, but he did let fall that she required "a good deal" of editing on the last novel. Actually, I'd called Robertson because I was having considerable difficulties with Everything You Need. It wasn't, you understand, because of the graphic depictions of auto-erotic asphyxiation and infected labial piercings which litter the text, it was because I couldn't read the thing.
I'd enjoyed Kennedy's first short-story collection Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, and found her first novel Looking for the Possible Dance to be an affecting - if slight - tale of a young woman reaching a kind of maturity. When, however, I got to So I Am Glad, a piece of modern fantasy in which another young woman has an affair with Cyrano de Bergerac, my impetus began to be replaced with inertia. I simply couldn't get through the thing. Determined not to be defeated, as I was going to interview Kennedy and wished to acquit myself honourably, I moved on to her latest resolute that I would leave no page unturned.
Well, it's nearly a month later and so far I've only managed about half of the tome. In my defence I suppose I could mention that Everything You Need is over 500 pages long, but I've read at least five other 500-pagers during this period. No, I'm afraid that for me the novel was straightforwardly unreadable. I didn't want to know what happened next in the narrative, such as it was; and the effect of absorbing one after another of Kennedy's beautifully constructed metaphors was analogous to having a spider spin its web in my frontal lobes. It was the text itself that appeared to be hobbling me.
Hence all these conversations with Scottish writers; hence phoning Kennedy's editor. I was worried that my own hyper-criticality was infecting my understanding of her work. My problems with Kennedy's writing, and in particular with the latest novel, centred on the very areas which C had outlined. There was no real sense of the following in the book: who, what, where, when or why. The very questions which must be answered if one's to write a decent newspaper article.
Not that Kennedy would wish to do something so declasse; although she admitted to me that she's written the odd piece for the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times. "I just put down unreconstructed socialist rants and they print them." No, Kennedy is "proud" not to read newspapers or watch television. As she put it to me: "I can't be certain that the people I'm writing for will have read the same newspaper." Ah, that may be true Alison, but what you could be sure of is that the paper they do read would be describing the same world as the one you might read.
I'm afraid Kennedy's disdain for newsprint leads me into a quandary as far as writing about her and her work is concerned; for while with any normal interviewee I can be more or less certain that they'll read what I write, in Kennedy's case I can presumably be equally certain that she won't. Unless, that is, the only occasion when she reads a newspaper is when there's an article about her in it. And we wouldn't believe her to be that vain, now would we? So, Kennedy has argued me into a frankness I wouldn't necessarily exhibit.
Because as far as the woman herself is concerned, I like her. I'd even go further than that - she's a genuinely nice, unaffected and obviously sincere person. We chatted up a storm together, and Kennedy, who has a tinder-dry wit, told me an excellent anecdote about the creative-writing course where she'd just been teaching. Apparently one of the students had been on a similar course some years earlier where he had shat - as it were "literally" - on one of the tutors, the poet Craig Raine. (I understand Raine was asleep at the time, so there was nothing consensual about the coprophilia - or was it poetry criticism?) Naturally, when this character turned out to be on Kennedy's course, and the story went the rounds, the entire party found themselves in a situation where the coprophiliac became a kind of super German, and the bowel war could not be mentioned. From time to time he would attempt to engage Kennedy in conversations which tended towards analysis of Raine's poetry, which she would have to resist, lest his confession were to - so to speak - slither out.
It was virtuoso stuff - if only it had been fiction! But unfortunately Kennedy, like her student, has a tendency to dump on things, and really she condemned her work out of her own mouth. The sense of vagueness about period and place in the novels is clearly a function of her withdrawal from the workaday worlds synonymous with media and popular culture. I'd like to imagine that the indistinctness of her characterisation is a result of her own inability to "find herself" except through her work. (Which perhaps explains why in the latest book she has chosen to write about writing - always a recipe for turkey in my experience.) Again charitably, I hope that her failure to adequately render a sense of place is due to her own geographic dislocation - Kennedy was raised in Dundee, of mixed Welsh and English parents, was educated in the Midlands, and now resides in Glasgow. But as for that all important "why" question, I'm afraid the only answer to her lack of one is that she doesn't apply any intellectual rigour to the conception of her books whatsoever - and once more, she's proud of it.
"Oh no," she said to me when I questioned her about how systematic she was in her work. "I can't do it if I think about it too much - it just won't come." I asked whether or not she thought that this was a male/female thing. I often think that male writers prefer to express individuals' experiences in terms of generalised observations, whereas female writers tend to do the reverse. "No," she replied. "I think it's much more of an English/Scottish thing." Thus confirming the views of C as to Scottish writers' sense of entitlement - in this case the Right to be Vague. Kennedy seems to have a naive belief that her muse is a kind of farouche unicorn, who will only emerge to lay its horn in her lap if she maintains her critical virginity. It's a big mistake, because she obviously is capable of such deliberations and they would put a stop to her prolixity.
Scottish Writer D (my wife, Deborah Orr), had kinder things to say about Kennedy's work: "You say her sense of people, places and things is vague and confused - but isn't that the postmodern condition?" Hmm, s'pose so, but I thought one of the points about the postmodern condition is that Stendhal's maxim - "art is the mirror of life" - should no longer apply, in which case it's perfectly in order for Kennedy to write entirely naturalistically.
Not that I regaled Kennedy with all of this when we met; I was so in give-her-the-benefit-of-the-doubt mode, that I confined myself to the most routine of questioning. I suppose I might've advanced my criticisms if Kennedy had shown any real evidence of being interested. I'm almost certain this was diffidence, rather than arrogance. She said nothing overtly modest, and nor did she show any willingness to engage with the current literary scene, or any of her contemporaries' work. I did inform her that I'd only managed to read half of the new novel; and she - in response to the invariable musings about autobiographical content in her fiction - told me to read her BFI Classic on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
In this I discovered more fulminations against the media. I learnt that "poking yourself in the eye with a hot fork" was preferable to watching British television; and that most of the British media was aimed at a "mythical mass of putty-brained money addicts, or sex-and-substance-abusing CJD victims". I rather regret allowing Kennedy to get away with her hang- em' highmindedness when I was with her, because it made me all the more narked when I got home.
Anyway, she was, as I say, raised in Dundee, the daughter of a primary- school teacher and a university lecturer in psychology. The psychologist - Kennedy's father - upped sticks when she was small, and until recently they weren't in touch. Kennedy's substitute parents (or additional parents) were her maternal grandparents: "If you want to talk about fucking fathers talk about my grandfather, because my grandfather was my fucking father." All of her books are dedicated to this trio, in different combinations. Her grandparents have died since she began publishing, but she remains very close to her mother. At home "we spoke RP - I didn't meet a Scots person until I went to school".
So, no Scots in the home, and the beloved grandparents down south in the Midlands. When Kennedy went to university to read drama, she chose Warwick - presumably because of proximity to them. A picture emerges of a considerably reduced-fat Scottishness, like Andy Stewart singing "Auld Lang Syne" in a kilt. Indeed, the only really Scottish characteristics I can discern in Kennedy's writing are the odd piece of dialect thrown in - "dunting", "guddle" - and a fair bit of sexual guilt. As a writer it seems to me that Scottishness had become part of the problem for her - not its solution. I wasn't surprised to find that Kennedy has a considerable involvement with, and enthusiasm for, the British Council, that well-known refuge of those too deracinated to be anything but Brits Abroad.
In one recent interview in a Scottish newspaper, the writer described Kennedy's flat as "stylish". And while it's true that it's located in one of Glasgow's most beautiful 19th-century terraces, the flat itself is relatively pokey, being on the attic floor. Kennedy was looking fairly uncomfortable when I arrived, having been cloistered with our photographer for a while. She's been having a lot of trouble with her back over the last three years and holding position for the shot was "agony". It's this slipped disc injury which seems to have placed Kennedy under a lot of pressure; pressure she equates with money anxieties, yet I wondered whether or not the whole have-to-write-in-order-to-eat problem wasn't being overstated, despite the fact that we were in a garret.
We repaired to the sitting-room where we got more uncomfortable. Kennedy's flat seems like something out of her fiction - rather fusty and indefinite, yet oddly enclosed. Despite its fair size, very definitely a solo dwelling- place. The television set was small and placed on a low shelf so that it could only be comfortably regarded by a dwarf. "Yes," she laughed: "I don't really want one at all, I tried to get a video monitor but they're too expensive." Money loomed quite a lot in our conversation - mostly as the root of the evils of the writer's life. The hated articles for the Sunday Times; the hated interviews and publicity tours for her books.
Why Kennedy, whose sales compare not unfavourably with my own, is so stressed out about money is beyond me. She hasn't any enemies of promise to contend with, being both childless and a teetotaller. No, I'm afraid I saw the money anxiety as another aspect of what can only be a mistakenly- imposed Exaggerated Sense of Mission. It's all there in Everything You Need, a kind of mawkish self-pity about the writer's life, which we all feel now and then. But while it may be a shame for us poor writers to have our loneliness confirmed by our professional requirement for solitude, it's hardly the worst thing that can happen to someone.
However, the worst thing could be to forget that having a talent represents a privilege quite as much as it does a duty. Kennedy is a talented writer who seems to be succumbing to a baptism of caresses, and it is this which gives the lie to the kind of writer she's in danger of becoming. There are some writers who are writers' writers (technically demanding, carving out new conceptual space for the art form); and there are readers' writers (direct, gripping, entertaining or highly intimate); and then there are those who have the misfortune to be critics' writers - which is to be avoided at all cost.
Kennedy is in the process of being pumped up by various poetasters: a potential Booker shortlistee; a "writer for the next millennium" - whatever puff they can't wait to exhale. Critics find Kennedy irresistible because she has mistakenly allowed their perception of her to conform with an idea of the writer as supramundane, off with the fairies of creativity, and - unlike them - incapable of reading a newspaper. She would be wise to disregard all of this in order to concentrate a bit more on life and a little less on art. 1
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