12 Dec 2014

The Best Scottish Books of All Time

The Best Scottish Books of All Time
Thy List? Tis Biblioclasm and Libricde!
It's time to examine the list of Best Ever Scottish Books, the Top Ten, the Top Fifty, the Top One Hundred — and more!

The first thing we need do here is disabuse ourselves of the notion of these lists for now and forever.  A list might serve a journalistic impulse to summarise things (noble enough) or the bureacratic desire to order everything but what else is at play.

The aim? To publish continuing compendia of commercially available items that are in the opinions of our literary arbiters the best existing examples of what they present as Scottish Books.

Still, we have to take a step back and peer into the darkness and require of these list writers: what is the point?

For they are all in on the act.  In this indelicate business, leading the pack, although not the search engine rankings, is The List who sampled the intellectual impulses of what they call 'a team of authors academics and journalists' and produced a bombastic contribution to the Best Of Scotland genre with their ambitiously titled 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time — which if you think about it, also includes the future (give up now, kids).

Then there is The Scottish Book Trust which with have compiled their  

50 Best Scottish Books of the Last 50 Years.

And The Scotsman, never to be left out of any midden of cultural grandiloquence or promotional too-too have contributed not once, but twice to this parade, and have offered their own overdone:

20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read 

and an equally insincere re-hash of the 50 Best Scottish Books.

Finally, and in no fear of exhausting the subject, the books department of Herald Scotland, and piloted by Rosemary Goring, have contributed their tuppence-worth in the form of 

Your Hundred Best Scottish Novels 

— a tip of the hat to their readers but nonethless a similarly unimaginative riff on the same marketing exercise.

To consider why we even have these lists is to take a closer look at what many refer to as the culture industry.  In favour of these lists, they at least keep critics in work, and they will promote sales, both specifically and generally.  

Obviously, the writers and publishers which feature on the Best Scottish Books lists benefit, but that is far from the point.  The books themselves, you see, will be here long after Scotland has become independent, rejoined the Union, and become independent again.  The books will outlive the websites which create these homegenous entities called lists, but in the present moment the lists damage culture to the core, because they are uneven and trifling, and appear to even the most gullible as what they are; poorly conducted marketing exercises.

There is of course no academic substance to be found in such lists.  Maybe this remains to be seen and perhaps students in future decades will sit their finals, not facing such problems as:

Discuss addiction and self-concern in relation to Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting

but will simply have to turn up and respond to a question like:

Name the top 75 Scottish novels of all time

with a First Class Honours degree going to anyone that can list any more than 70 of them.

To say the lists of Best Scottish Books are marketing exercises is easy, because it such a basic truth.  The List, The Scotsman and the Herald in Scotland rely on advertising revenue, and this means they need as many readers as possible, whose attention spans they are selling to their clients. 

This fact of life is the needful pre-requisite of everything these papers publish, which must in this day and age be bite-sized, conservative, and frankly not very interesting. What they are offering in the absurd fiction of their lists of Best Scottish Books is a vivid example of how their so-called promotion of culture is a means of detroying it.

A more interesting question is what if any need is there for literary critics at all?  Clearly these lists do not amount to criticism — the lists of Best Scottish Books amount to favouritism in the face of commerical pressure, and a solidifying of the assinine idea that art can be classed in perceptible ranks of best to worst.

So on a wider note, we need ask again what need have we of criticism, for we would say none at all if this is what it amounts to.  It is true that the profession of critic is far from being fashionable these days, and that is probably not the fault of the women and men of the profession themselves, but is the result of the shit they are obliged to peddle, while being politically contented that they are actually doing any good.  

Criticism as we first discover it is an academic field, and its social function in that realm is to satisfy the same requirements that science and other disciplines meet explaining phenomena in a rigorous and methodological way.  In bringing money and the ideologies of the hulking great corporations which so inefficiently supply our news into the equation, the work of the book critics loses all aesthetic or immanent value, and they become book peddlers, who may as well be reviewing carpet slippers or cookers.

Blogs, author websites and even the newspapers themselves continue to demonstrate an even more plain truth, which is that authors make the best critics themselves.  Those who know about the French New Wave in cinema, of the 1950s will affirm that the principal directors of the movement were also critics.  This is not to say they were movie reviewers, but in their writing, the New Wave directors were able to give detailed analysis to other directors who had never before been treated with much respect.

This is pertinent insofar as there are writers in Scotland, some of whom have published many books, who are never discussed by our critics.  Authors on their blogs are not party to this ridiculous behaviour, whereas the critics (or let us call them 'reviewers') write run-of-the-mill articles in an unimaginative and glossy style, and rarely challenge their readers to try new things.

So in book criticism, as revealed in these witless lists which we implore our readers have nothing to do with, all there is left for amusement is the capricious or ideologically motivated promotion of books, which in all cases are being promoted by similar reviewers elsewhere.

Nothing can validate this process and nothing can validate these awful lists, other than perhaps the idea that there might be waiting in the wings, a list titled: 

The Best Lists of Best Scottish Books of All Time

That may be worth seeing.