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Aaron Kelly, Irvine Welsh

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005

240pp., ISBN: 0719066514

Robert A. Morace, Irvine Welsh

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

180pp., ISBN: 9781403996763

Reviewed by David Borthwick


In these two extremely welcome and scholarly accounts of Irvine Welsh’s literary output Aaron Kelly and Robert A. Morace focus on Irvine Welsh as a literary outsider, a writer whose themes and content manifest themselves in ways that confront and challenge the expectations of the literary establishment. Each of these monographs deals with Welsh’s political concerns, his key themes and stylistic preferences, as well as considering in substantial depth the cultural context of Welsh’s work in the rapidly changing social and economic landscape of Britain over the past twenty five years.

Kelly and Morace are perceptive in their insistence that Welsh’s work is particularly tied to the times in which he writes. It is not merely that he has managed to ride the zeitgeist, but that he has found himself in the uncommon position of being a participant in defining the spirit of the times in which he lives, from cult author to literary celebrity (following the 1996 release of Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Trainspotting) and on to one of the poster boys for the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement that New Labour attempted to harness following their 1997 election victory. There’s a sense in which Kelly and Morace do not only write about an author and his work, but about ‘The Irvine Welsh Phenomenon’. Indeed, this phrase forms the title of Morace’s introductory chapter, which takes in the nature of literary celebrity and examines ‘the potency of “Irvine Welsh” as signifier’ (Morace, pp. 12–13). The apparent incongruity of a writer’s name in quotations marks—a brand name, a designer label—is perhaps one of the best ways to holistically account for the trajectory of Welsh’s (uneven) literary career. His high profile adventures as cult author, as well as commentator and rent-a-gob for outlets as disparate as Loaded and The Daily Telegraph, act as magnets for hyperbolic soundbites: he is ‘the poet laureate of the chemical generation’ (The Face), ‘The Sir Walter Scott of Postmodern Grunge’ (Malcolm Bradbury) and ‘a travesty for Scotland’ (Alexander McCall Smith). What 'Irvine Welsh' or an ‘Irvine Welsh book’ signifies seems dependent on where you’re standing, its value as shifting as Renton’s persona in Trainspotting. Neither Kelly nor Morace shy away from close and rigorous critical examination of Welsh’s status: whether literary outsider championing the cause of the Scottish underclass, or producer of a marketable style which allows his readers to slum it by consuming ‘authentic’ narratives from the wrong side of the socio-economic tracks. In many ways, these authors accept that—perhaps of necessity—Welsh does both. Kelly is of the opinion that the film adaptation of Trainspotting became as much burden as boon for Welsh: ‘the contradiction between the content of the novel’s critique of consumer capitalism and the implication of Trainspotting as product in precisely those economic imperatives is an issue that impinges upon all of Welsh’s subsequent work’ (Kelly, p. 74). Morace gives a fascinating account of the marketing innovations undertaken to collide book publishing with music marketing in the promotion of Welsh’s work, pointing out that the artwork for the cover of The Acid House (1994) was designed by a company more used to working for the music industry. It is clear that Welsh’s work was from an early stage aimed specifically at an untapped market of younger readers (a group Morace sometimes refers to as ‘postliterate’). Whatever the social or political content of Welsh’s work, then, the machinery harnessed to bring it to a modern market means that the whole ‘Irvine Welsh Phenomenon’ is riddled with contradictions.

Nevertheless, Kelly concludes that even Welsh’s later work ‘retains a perception of the continued oppressions, disenfranchisements and inequalities of class in an epoch that complacently proclaims a “classless society”’ (Kelly, p. 225). The central thrust of Kelly’s book is to ‘attest to Welsh’s resistance to accepted narratives of national and regional identification and his investigation of the voices produced from the margins of contemporary social fragmentation’ (Kelly, p. 30). Kelly is very strong in his examination of the social and economic landscape of Welsh’s version of contemporary Scotland, believing that ‘Welsh’s work demonstrates that poverty, inequality and suffering exist not because capitalism is not working properly but rather because that is precisely how capitalism does work’ (Kelly, p. 225). This is not only literary analysis, or a defence of an unjustly embattled writer, but also quite overtly political writing in itself. Morace’s book, by contrast, interrogates different aspects of the cultural landscape Welsh writes both from and about. He is convincing in his examination of Welsh’s work using the logic of contemporary film and music culture. Alternating narratives are ‘the equivalents of split-screens and parallel editing’ (Morace, p. 79) while Welsh also ‘employs the DJ’s tools of mixing, slipping, and scratching to create the print equivalent of dance culture in particular and the visual age in general’ (Morace, p. 103). Both writers demonstrate Welsh’s commitment to writing about, perhaps even for, groups that feel, in Morace’s words, ‘cut off from past, present and future’ (Morace, p. 75).

Now that the terrific outpouring of new Scottish writing that emerged in the early–mid 1990s is becoming literary history, these monographs arrive at an opportune time. Not only do they serve to remind critics present and future of Welsh’s influence when it was at its height, they are also especially useful to undergraduates coming to Welsh for the first time. These two works provide engaging guides to the territory. Kelly and Morace adopt a similar structure in their work, dealing with Welsh’s output chronologically, though Morace devotes a separate chapter to ‘Trainspotting: The Film’ and appends a survey of Welsh criticism. As Welsh continues to publish at a reasonable pace, it will be interesting to see how one’s view of him changes, and what influence it will have upon the conclusions reached in what are relatively early responses to the output of a now established writer. Aaron Kelly’s monograph makes extensive use of Welsh’s own words, given in (numerous) interviews. Welsh’s high-profile media presence is such that he is perhaps one of the most interviewed authors in recent history. The frequency with which Kelly quotes Welsh did give me pause for thought. One wonders how definitive, trustworthy even, we may take Welsh’s words about himself and his work to be. Reading a great many interviews with Welsh, transcribed over more than a decade, is to enter a world of contradiction and inconsistency. Welsh admits as much in one quotation cited by Kelly: ‘you can’t expect consistency from an individual in a world that’s just full of inconsistency … You’re a mass of contradictions. You just try to work through these as best you can’ (Kelly, p. 4). It seems quite possible, though, that one might find a quotation from Irvine Welsh (or even ‘Irvine Welsh’) to justify just about any position on his work one might reasonably imagine. As these two books demonstrate, however, Welsh is all about context, however mutable that might be.

To be sure, Irvine Welsh’s meteoric rise to literary fame and his subsequent consolidation of his status as cultural pundit marks a significant journey: from self-confessed hedonist and binger who likes to give his ‘self-destruct button … a wee flick every now and then’ (1993 interview, cited in Kelly, p. 2) to respected author who has ‘agreed to act as alcohol tsar to a Scottish government advisory body, offering “creative” solutions to combating Scotland’s binge drinking culture’.[1] As he approaches middle-age, after years of international travel, it is certainly the case that Welsh’s early writing is behind him. It will be interesting to see what his middle period looks like. Based on the evidence of his previous two works, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006) and If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work (2007), it seems that his style is beginning to gain some middle-age spread. Robert Morace takes a look at Porno (2002) as an example of the distance that now exists between Welsh and his preferred subject matter. Welsh has lost touch with the rhythms, cadences and concerns of both speech and life in his Leith constituency. [2] Morace dwells on the limited use of dialect in Porno, where it is sparingly employed to represent only a few characters (mainly Begbie and Spud). Renton and Sick Boy, by contrast, are rendered in a much more standard way. Morace uses this as evidence of how far ‘both characters, like their author, have moved from their roots in Leith’ (Morace, p. 132). It is not only Welsh’s distance from his favoured subject matter that seems to afflict his more recent work, but a determination to be more ‘literary’. Bedroom Secrets, Morace notes, is self-consciously entitled ‘a treatise on hate’, containing several ill-executed references to other classics of the ‘double’, including Hogg’s Confessions and Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Morace is unafraid to point out that Welsh’s recent prose has often been of poor quality, stilted and affected, having lost the economy and edge that characterised the very early writings. Welsh’s last two books have been appallingly overwritten, something Liam McIlvanney spent considerable time pointing out in a review of If You Like School: ‘Someone gives “an affirmative nod” (perhaps to balance the moment in the opening story when “Scott shook his head in the negative”). There is no action, gesture or facial expression whose import is not spelled out’. As McIlvanney says, the writing ‘grows more comically baroque with every page’.[3] Even Morace who, on the whole, deals warmly and sympathetically with much of Welsh’s output, is forced to admit that ‘he has become unwittingly self-parodic’ (Morace, p. 139). One might add self-reflexive to the list, perhaps. In Bedroom Secrets, Caroline asks Skinner why his bookshelves contain no Scottish fiction. He replies: ‘Not for me. If I want swearing and drug-taking, I’ll step outside the door and get it. But as for reading about it…’[4] Maybe Welsh’s readership is getting equally jaded, or just plain older, and open to such in-jokes. On the other hand, his novella ‘Kingdom of Fife’ (in his most recent collection of stories) is a remarkable comic tale that made me sincerely hope for a return to form. More puzzling is the afterword to the collection, in which Welsh provides a disclaimer stating that the story ‘is not meant to depict the “real” place, but rather the “Cowdenbeath” of my imagination at the particular time of writing’. What is it he is trying to say? That now he no longer represents truthfully life in Scotland, but purely an imaginative invention? That while everyone is familiar with his use of Edinburgh, the people of Fife are more sensitive? With Welsh now offering disclaimers, it is a sure sign that the times have changed.

These two informed and sensitive responses to Irvine Welsh are exciting additions to a particularly fecund period in Scottish criticism. Kelly and Morace provide contrasting but complimentary approaches that investigate in considerable detail Welsh’s political dimension, his cultural status and his developing style. Taken together, they represent a scrupulous survey of Welsh’s first decade and a half on the literary scene.



[1] Guardian, 15 October 2007.

[2] As the author acknowledged in interview with Melvyn Bragg, South Bank Show, ITV1, 1 October 2006.

[3] Liam McIlvanney, ‘Under the Table’, Guardian, ‘Review’ supplement, 21 July 2007.

[4] Irvine Welsh, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), p. 299.