An interview with Alan Bissett

WANR: How can literature bring about social or political change?

AB: It wakes us up.  Literature uncovers aspects of society or peoples that aren’t necessarily being shown – certainly not in any depth – by the mainstream media.  We’re becoming increasingly part of a fragmented, shallow, soundbite culture, and media treatment of political topics is framed in ways that support, rather than challenge, the status quo.  Literature, poetry and drama cut through this, and expose an audience to a worldview that you can’t package and market easily.  Good literature doesn’t bullshit or compromise and that’s how it is able to affect us: we recognise its truth, we recognise it has been hidden from us by the culture, and we recognise that, at some deep level, we already knew it.

WANR: Are there any historical examples of this that stand out for you?

AB: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Lanark by Alasdair Gray, The Cheviot The Stag and the Black Black Oil by John McGrath, Six Glasgow Poems by Tom Leonard, How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates all helped me develop a political consciousness, in their different ways.

WANR: How do you think literature compares with other art forms in this regard?  Why do you think, for example, you’re less likely to find subversive television programmes than poetry?

AB: Television and film are much more commodified art forms.  There is more money and advertising revenue at stake, and so what’s permissible – what’s saleable – is more narrowly defined.  Also, there are far more levels of veto before a film or television programme reaches the screen.  The further up the chain of command an idea passes through, the more likely it is to be met with someone who has internalised the values of power, who will find it threatening and who will reject or dillute it on behalf of power.  Gatekeepers are part of a culture ‘industry’ which is, primarily, about profit, not ‘consciousness raising’.  Because there’s no money in poetry, on the other hand, it is free to speak as it wishes.

WANR: One criticism of ‘protest literature’ could be that it is mainly concerned, or intrinsically more adept at, critiquing the status quo rather than offering alternatives.  Do you think that is a reasonable charge?

AB: Yes, but artists map out the imagination.  By making a community or a society or a country stronger imaginatively they do ‘offer alternatives’.  Not all nation-building is done through economics.

WANR: Were you inspired to join or sympathise with any literary protest movement?

AB: Well, you could describe the National Collective – which brings together artists in favour of Scottish independence – as that. 

WANR: Does your fiction contain political messages? If so, how do you go about weaving these messages into your stories? 

AB: Well, when you’re writing fiction you prioritise character and story, because if you don’t – well, who’s going to care?  You have to know what an audience has come to the text for.  If they are engaged with the actual drama then they’re much more receptive to the underlying ‘politics’, which they take in by osmosis.  But wherever there are people there is power, and wherever there is power there is politics, so ‘messages’ in fiction are unavoidable.

WANR: Do you think that political intent on the part of the author can have a detrimental effect on the quality of their literature? If so, how do you prevent this?

AB: If the politics are too high up in the mix then an author runs the risk of being dry or uninvolving, which is the worst of all possible crimes.  A book like 1984 by George Orwell is overtly political, but it’s still riveting becauase of the story construction.  Political writing has to have grace, psychological depth, technique and artistry, or else it can’t actually work.  It’s like a public speaker that can’t speak: their material might be fascinating, but unless they know how to command an audience then no-one will listen.

WANR: What is the difference between political fiction and propaganda?

AB: There is none.  All culture is propaganda anyway.  I just happen to belive in progressive propaganda, which runs counter to most of the reactionary mulch which passes for ‘culture’ in our society.

WANR: What role is literature playing in the Independence debate?  Looking at the list of projects on National Collective’s website it looks like literature is not currently a key focus.  Why do you think that is?

AB: Actually, writers have been very vocal in the independence movement.  The book Unstated: Scottish Writers on Independence, edited by Scott Hames and published by the WordPower bookshop, which contains every Scottish writer you can think of, has caused huge debate, and every single writer in it is pro-independence.  Expect the theatre scene in 2014, especially the Edinburgh Fringe, to be tackling all this directly.

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