IT WAS FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY: How controversial it was, how controversial

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Indy Lifestyle Online
`Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear." So began James Kelman's How late it was, how late - published this week in 1994. And so began a year of literary controversy as the novel - estimated, by then IoS literary editor Blake Morrison, to contain at least 4,000 "f---s" - went on to win the Booker prize in the autumn.

Kelman published another novel, The Good Times, last year and is now visiting professor at the University of Texas. Since 1994, however, the profile of Scottish fiction has risen, with Alan Warner, Jeff Torrington and Irvine Welsh the most notable beneficiaries of Kelman's trailblazing.

How late it was, how late takes us inside the head of Sammy, a Glaswegian ex-convict and drinker who's had one bender too many. He's assaulted by the police, loses his sight and his girlfriend, but gropes his way towards adapting and surviving. Its absorbing stream-of-consciousness narrative - and expletive-strewn language - was, initially, well received. There were many comparisons with Beckett, as well as Pinter, Proust and Steinbeck (IoS), Gogol, Joyce and Solzhenitsyn (Independent), and Kafka (Times).

There were predictable caveats: the "uncompromisingly, working-class Glaswegian" voice would "pose problems for non-Scots" (Sunday Times); there was "no way of assessing its authenticity" (Telegraph). Which was precisely Kelman's raison d'etre. Establishment approval was "a form of colonisation", he told the Observer: the "act of fellowship with the writer" extended "domination over the subject, as if they owned the experience".

When the Booker shortlist was announced, controversy began to brew. Kelman was up against Romesh Gunesekera (Reef), Abdulrazak Gurnah (Paradise), Alan Hollinghurst (The Folding Star), George Mackay Brown (Beside the Ocean of Time) and Jill Paton Walsh (The Knowledge of Angels). Major authors had been excluded; it was "a Mogadon list" for booksellers; John Bayley, the panel's chairman, pined for P G Wodehouse.

Kelman won. He made a passionate acceptance speech and declared: "My culture and my language have the right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss that". But discontent quickly emerged. Kelman had been a compromise choice. One judge, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, called it "a disgrace" and left the ceremony. She later said the book was "crap".

The debate on Kelman's merits and the judges' methods went on to rage in the newspapers, while WH Smith's marketing manager said the prize was "an embarrassment to the whole book trade". Waterstone's in Glasgow shifted just 13 copies the next week.

After the award, Kelman commented that Roddy Doyle, the previous winner, got away with his dialect because his characters are "jolly and Irish, rather than dour and Caledonian". Little has changed. Last year, Kelman talked of still being "an ethnic" in his own community; he is studied at Glasgow University ... on a "Foreign Literature in Translation" course.

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