This week I started re-reading Shopping in Space, a book written jointly by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, that takes a look at a number of writers who found themselves being lumped together during the 1980s and early 90s and tentatively categorised as ‘Downtown’, ‘New Narrative’ or ‘Post-Punk’ but whose writing Young and Caveney opted to term ‘Blank Generation’ fiction, after Richard Hell’s most famous song, to give them ‘the necessary link with punk’ and to convey ‘something of the flat, stunned quality of much of the writing’.
At the point when I first read Shopping In Space shortly after its publication in 1992, I was spending more time reading than I was listening to music. Certainly there was still plenty of great new singles and albums coming out by acts like – off the top of my head – My Bloody Valentine, The Breeders, Slowdive and Teenage Fanclub but new literature struck me as much more dynamic at this time when grunge largely ruled the planet. Admittedly when Nirvana were at the top of their game with tracks like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Heart Shaped Box, grunge might have seemed like a truly great idea but Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and co? No thanks.
The writing discussed in the Shopping in Space was typical of the kind of thing I was reading back then: Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Gaitskill, Joel Rose and Jay McInerney, whose Story Of My Life was a particular favourite. Additionally, I was also very keen on Raymond Carver and the so-called ‘dirty realists’ along with the curiously named Breece D’J Pancake, who like Kurt Cobain died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and the three Glaswegian authors, whose work had been collected together in the 1985 anthology of short stories, Lean Tales: James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens.
What excited me even more though was my discovery of a whole new wave of younger Scottish writers that included Gordon Legge, Duncan McLean and Irvine Welsh. Finding an extract of what later would become the second chapter of Trainspotting in a yearly anthology called New Writing Scotland was almost like discovering The Damned or The Sex Pistols on John Peel.*
Or maybe I should say that reading the Edinburgh based litzine Rebel Inc. was like listening to the Peel show and its pages would introduce me to Laura Hird, Alan Warner, Sandie Craigie, Paul Reekie and many other new voices ‘from Embra and other bits of Scotland like Falkirk’.
Before long I was dabbling myself, trying my hand at writing very short stories that were sometimes only about a page long. Soon I began sending these off to small press publication; some were accepted though mostly I would receive a bog standard rejection letter.
One time, when I was trying to enter a story for some competition organised by Glasgow Uni, my typewriter ribbon – remember this is 1992ish – began growing ever more faded to the point of illegibility and with a deadline looming and zero money to buy a new ribbon I hit on the only solution I could think of that would make my submission even reasonably presentable: I used Letraset for the last couple of paragraphs before rushing out and delivering the final piece by hand.
It didn’t win the competition but did make the shortlist which was selected by Janice Galloway (I was a big admirer of her debut novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing) and I was invited along to read my piece at an event in a hall somewhere deep in the bowels of the uni.
It was the first time I’d ever set foot inside a university. Well, barring when I got signed in for concerts.
All these years later, I’ve started writing some fiction again after enrolling for a part time course at a local university that isn’t Glasgow and this is taking up more time than I’d imagined. Therefore, for the next six or seven weeks, posts on here might be a wee bit shorter than usual and possibly a bit more spread out too.
Next up on the reading list is Joel Rose’s Kill Kill Faster Faster (my copy is on Canongate’s old Rebel Inc. imprint), a novel that’s discussed in Shopping in Space and which Irvine Welsh proclaimed ‘A Modern Urban Masterpiece’ and ‘The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins’, which Irvine Welsh actually wrote and which the Independent has called ‘a return to top form for the Trainspotting author’.
*If Irvine Welsh was The Damned or The Sex Pistols then, applying the punk analogy to myself, I was probably in a band that once supported Eater.