Cosmopolitan Scum

A Genealogy of Beat in Subaltern Scottish Literature

Authored by: Fiona Paton

The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature

Print publication date:  May  2018
Online publication date:  May  2018

Print ISBN: 9780415785457
eBook ISBN: 9781315210278
Adobe ISBN:


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When Irvine Welsh took the stage at the 2012 Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference (EWWC), he stated with characteristic bluntness, “I don’t know why I’m here…I don’t particularly like doing these things” (Welsh). As the keynote speaker on “A National Literature?” he nonetheless admitted that he found the topic “quite compelling” and went on to give a sophisticated talk on the challenges facing a national or regional literary voice within the homogenizing marketplace of transnational capitalism. “No matter how strong economic and cultural hegemony is,” he said, “there is always room for maverick opposition” (Welsh, 2012). Welsh is ideally placed to articulate such a view, of course. Since achieving notoriety with Trainspotting, in 1993, he has published a steady stream of scabrous assaults on the middle-class novel. Writing almost exclusively in unfiltered Scots vernacular lifted straight off the streets, Welsh was an apt choice to speak on “Nationality and Identity in the Novel Today.” He is the best known of a group of subaltern Scots who reconfigured Scottish literature in the 1990s much as the Beats reconfigured American literature in the 1950s, expanding the parameters of content and language to effectively remove any restrictions altogether. Indeed, Welsh has been called Scotland’s answer to William Burroughs,” (“Irvine Welsh” 2016) and with good reason. Like Burroughs, Welsh embodies the “beaten down” aspect of Beat much more than the “beatific,” revelling in the deconstruction of human identity through extreme narratives of drugs, sex, money, and power. Yet while there is none of Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg’s fervent mysticism in his work, Welsh and his compatriot “chemical generation” owe a significant, albeit somewhat displaced, debt to the Beat movement as a whole.

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