Note at a publishing crossroads: is it time for Ian Rankin to move over and let younger Scots writers take his place?

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They’d said it would take me 105 days to get to Mars in Unicorn One. I’d only been going for eight days. The window was facing away from the sun but a glint of refracted light must have found its way through the thick quartz glass. I saw my image reflected amongst the stars. My hair looked terrible.

Now, who on earth could that be?

Ah, … the main character in a delectable short story, ‘Unicorn One’, in a collection titled Storm Damage. Any reader who tests works of fiction by sampling random paragraphs is immediately compelled by this e-work to scroll back a few pages to learn that

 … within ten years of standing on that hill with Tommy, I would be selected as Scotland’s first astronaut. Not the first Scot to go into space, of course, but the first one to be chosen for Scotland’s Independent Space Program. The world’s media had regarded our endeavour as a joke. Too long had we been seen as England’s or America’s poodle. The German press had shown photographs of our most dilapidated, forsaken housing estate ghettoes and asked what kind of people would begin a Space Program with this kind of poverty rampant in their back yard.

[…]

Even within the Space Program, I had not been a popular choice for first astronaut. They had turned down pilots and scientists, Marines and arctic explorers, mountaineers and deep sea divers, only to choose me, a hairdresser from a remote Scottish town.

‘It’s necessary nowadays,’ they had told me, ‘to find people the public can relate to …

When we reached that sentence, at post-Gutenberg, we were not simply shaken out of a mood best described as chiaroscuro-verging-on-dark. Soon, we were reading all the way back from the beginning – an opening that we would have found just as irresistible, had we started where most people do:

There was a beautiful bird on the branch, singing. It was small with brown wings and perfect white chest feathers. Its tone was too shrill and its eyes darted. Its whole manner was erratic. The sunlight was salmon-pink among the trees and I knew something was wrong, something was going to happen. I didn’t hear a sound, except the bird singing, until the shot went off and chips of wood sprang towards my cheek from the tree I was standing near …

To think that in the old days of traditional print publishing, we might never have had the luck of reading John A. A. Logan — a marvellous writer happily undaunted by chronic cold-shouldering by literary gatekeepers. His success in e-publishing turned him into a lodestar for anyone publishing unmediated e-books as independently as Virginia Woolf once released her own experimental novels in print.

When we wrote about him and other young literary Lochinvars a few weeks ago, we did not mention that we had been thinking of how wonderful it would be if Ian Rankin could only award John his latest monster advance from his publisher in recognition of the e-book writer’s infinitely fresher perspective and fizzing imagination. The once-unique Rankin creation, the boozy, crusty and jaded police detective, John Rebus, has suffered, in recent years, from his inventor’s all too-obvious irritation and boredom with being forced to spin yet another tired yarn about him.

In November, this trend earned poor Ian Rankin the gimlet-eyed attention of a contributor to Private Eye’s books section (issue no: 1328) reviewing his latest novel – described as

full of reliable Scots wisecracking and people saying ‘Back in the day’, and … clearly written at one hell of a lick. Like many a previous Rebus outing, its final effect is to call the whole basis of Ian Rankin’s career into serious question.

Ouch. The Eye did not mince its words, fingering the culprit for this apparently lazy and self-indulgent offering by a writer who has by now grown accustomed to having an overstuffed piggy bank:

Brought to a waiting world amid a flourish of publishers’ trumpets, attended by wall-to-wall publicity … Standing in Another Man’s Grave can be marked down as a triumph for the old-style trade-book model …

Of course old-fashioned publishers are still capable of surprising and thrilling us with new discoveries, but at today’s publishing crossroads, you would have to be a fool to look only in their direction for the best new work.

10 thoughts on “Note at a publishing crossroads: is it time for Ian Rankin to move over and let younger Scots writers take his place?

  1. Might I suggest that if Ian Rankin is encouraged to move over it’s not just in favour of YOUNG Scots Writers. There are plenty of us NOT SO YOUNG Scottish writers who have been out of mainstream favour. From midlisters to ‘unique’ voices there’s a whole wealth of Scots writing talent (yes, women as well as men) in all genres and beyond genres! Time to wake up in general to the post gutenberg possibilities. We’re all out here. We’re not that hard to find! And from Feb 1st I myself am on a 50 DAYS OF CELEBRATION quest -opening the doors on writers/writing/reading for people to go beyond the cosy world of Rankin and Rowling! http://www.callyphillips.co.uk will find me -or facebook – or goodreads.

  2. Hi there,
    Great article.
    Not being a Scot but hailing from Australia, you would have to say I am not biased, and after reading the amazing extract, I certainly think that a talented writer like John Logan would be an ideal candidate to step into the shoes of an author like Ian Rankin, if he were to retire.

    Margaret

  3. Margaret, I was spoilt for choice in picking extracts. Read Storm Damage, and you’ll see what I mean.

    I’m not Scottish, either, and although Scotland has long had a special place in my heart, I was only reacting to John’s story. As with the work of other writers with unusually powerful imaginations, I need gaps between his tales. The last one I read — ‘The Magenta Tapestry’ — couldn’t be more different in theme and setting than ‘Unicorn One’, and could easily match any of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales or Through the Looking Glass for bizarre magnetism.

    The Private Eye reviewer was convinced that Ian Rankin would much rather be writing about popular music, these days, and might well be right. But until the old print publishing model gives way to some new means of paying writers for work, the publishers are going to insist that dry cows with a record as prize milkers must somehow be milked on and on into the sunset — which must be torture for them (the scribes).

    I like Ian Rankin, from the scraps I’ve gleaned about him — and Rebus was a wonderful invention, in the early books. So none of this is personal.

  4. Hello Cheryll. John Logan introduced me to your wonderfully literate, philosophically smart, and fascinating topics. Let me just add my two cents about “Scottish” writers. There is, of course, a very different language, culture and literature in the South of Scotland – those people having been more heavily influenced by the British and Dutch, from what is found in the Highlands. Until fairly recently, Gaeilge or Gàidhlig was spoken up north. Consequently, in my opinion, the cadences of language and speech are much more like the Irish, and the writing far more lyrical than what can be found on the Borders. I agree that John Logan’s writing reflects a wide spectrum of colors from other cultures, but if you cultivate an ear for the Gaelic echoes, you can surely hear them in his work.

  5. You are kind indeed, oleoghain, thank you. I’ve enjoyed my education about those particular regional differences, since my fondness for Scotland is not based on any sort of expertise about it – only on close ties to certain treasured Scots in one phase of my life, and outstandingly enjoyable experiences of being there. I have trouble remembering that Inverness is part of the Highlands (never mind if it’s their capital) because it’s on the coast, and I recall it as being flat. I know that Loch Ness, past which I was driven at top speed on one of my many – always too brief – visits, is close by, but my grasp of regional geography tends to be poor unless I’m driving myself. The unforgettable astronaut in ‘Unicorn One’ sounded just like someone in Local Hero, as I read – which would be all wrong, since newspaper interviews have led me to associate John with Inverness and the Highlands, and I think the imaginary village in that film was supposed to be on the west coast. … Still better than not being able to hear any Scots accent in my head, particularly when she says her hairrrr looks terrrrrible.

    I’ve been intrigued by the presence of Russians in very different stories in Storm Damage. Reading ‘The Magenta Tapestry,’ I wondered whether oligarchs from the land of Putin might have been buying up Scotland, as well as London. … Not a question I would put to the author, as I think it’s close to unforgivable to ask a storyteller to explain a story, or a painter a painting.

    But I think it’s okay to ask you if you’re a Gaelige scholar, a question on my mind for some time, reading you on Twitter. … This being the internet, you don’t have to answer. …… [ ….longing to type a smiley…]

  6. It would be “wonderful it would be if Ian Rankin could only award John his latest monster advance from his publisher in recognition of the e-book writer’s infinitely fresher perspective!” This American is a big fan of John Logan. He’s convinced me to take the e-book plunge myself (after loads of agent rejections). What courage and imagination! I’ve always admired Scottish Lit, from Louis Stevenson to Muriel Spark to John Logan these days. Looking forward to more.

  7. Thanks, PG! John sent me that awesome news in January. I’m so proud for him (at the risk of sounding patronizing). He’s a gentleman and a scholar. I love the work you’re doing here at PG. It’s brilliant. In fact, this week, I decided to set the wheels turning for my e-publishing debut. I’m sitting on four books which I love. I’ve been writing for ten years and being rejected for five. Please wish me luck and I’m going to start following you immediately. Keep up the great work! All best to you. –Hunter

  8. Pingback: Of an orange pig, a wolf, and using literary clips to rescue literature from hyperinflated praise | post-Gutenberg

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