'Who would be James Joyce if they could be John Buchan?”
In 2001 best-selling crime writer Ian Rankin dedicated his book to Alan Massie, the Scottish journalist and historical novelist responsible for the quotation above. But what did Massie mean? The answer leads us to another question – when does writing become literature?
John Buchan occupies a curious place in Scottish literature. His name is well known, his books continue to be read throughout the world, yet you won’t hear his name mentioned among the ‘great and the good’ of modern Scottish writing – the ‘literary canon’, as it is often referred to. People do not readily associate Buchan’s work with Hugh MacDiarmid or Neil Gunn – yet he played a significant role in bringing Scottish literature out from under the shadow of Scott and Stevenson. You won’t hear mention of any of his works in a discussion of the great Scottish novels of the 20th century, among the likes of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Neil Gunn, or Alasdair Gray – yet his suspense novels influenced generations of thriller writers. You might hear him as a footnote to a discussion of suspense and crime fiction – which would include Ian Rankin, Ian Fleming, John Le Carré among others – but that seems to serve to marginalise him even further, and exclude discussion of Buchan as a ‘serious’ writer. The popular impression of Buchan is that he wrote crime stories, one of which got made into a famous Hitchcock film.
We can speculate the reasons for this. His life, lived mostly outside Scotland, does not fit well with our perception of how a Scottish man of letters should behave. Buchan was quick to join the British Establishment: beginning with a scholarship to Oxford (“nursery for the youth of the land” as he describes it in an article in the Glasgow Herald) then to an appointment on the staff of Lord Milner, High Commissioner to South Africa, his work writing propaganda material for the Ministry of Information, his election as a Conservative MP; and finally his assignment as Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor-General of Canada. It is difficult to define him as a specifically Scottish writer, but this probably has more to do with nationalistic chauvinism than anything else.
Is it because he spent so much time in England? Robert Louis Stevenson spent much of his adult life away from his home country yet he occupies a central place in the Scottish literary tradition – perhaps it is because the themes of Stevenson’s work are quintessentially Scottish, firmly rooted in a Gothic sensibility. Stevenson is seen as an integral part of the Scottish literary tradition; Buchan isn’t.
Perhaps Buchan spread his talent too wide, published too much. A “Jack of all trades; master of none”: the damning phrase for anyone seen to be over-achieving in more than one discipline. Was he a victim of his own success? Perhaps if he had concentrated on the biographies we would remember him as a first class biographer. If he’d only written historical books, he might have been remembered as one of Scotland’s great historians. If he’d kept his career horizons strictly within the publishing industry then we might remember him as the magazine editor who collaborated with Hugh MacDiarmid and helped get his career off the ground. Perhaps Buchan’s problem is he was too successful, did too much.
Above everything he achieved in his remarkable life, Buchan is most famous for The Thirty-Nine Steps, a slim book written during a period of convalescence in hospital, which had enormous influence in the development of the thriller/ suspense genre. Reading it now we may squirm at some of the corny sounding dialogue or descriptions, and a lot of the historical background may be meaningless to us. The suspense novel is a form of writing which dates very quickly, as it often relies on contemporary events. More disquietingly, we feel very uncomfortable at the anti-Semitism which pervades the novel as well as a certain top-down world view – these may have been representative of certain attitudes prevalent and acceptable in Buchan’s day, but they strike a jarring note with modern readers. His representation of local characters’ speech in dialect contrasts with the easy ‘official’ English of his hero and has the effect of patronising them, and rendering them ‘colourful’ local oddities rather than ‘real’ characters. Many writers since Buchan have made it their life’s work to rid literature of these linguistic anomalies which serve to marginalise local dialects and language.
Despite this, however, we are struck by how easily these misgivings are swept away once we become sucked into the plot. The Thirty-Nine Steps is an excellently paced and plotted novel that, like the best in the genre, keeps you hooked until the end.
Perhaps Buchan’s enduring fame as a thriller writer is where Buchan loses his claim to be among the great and the good of Scottish literature. And here we find ourselves in the controversial territory between popular fiction and literature: when is writing literature and when is it just writing?
What makes a work like Sunset Song endure? What makes the novels of Neil Gunn shine like jewels from the past, when the work of Alasdair MacLean – a thriller writer from Glasgow and one of the most popular novelists in the world until the mid-1970s – is all but forgotten? James Kelman and Alasdair Gray continue to be celebrated, studied and read widely, while their contemporary William McIlvanney, another massive seller, fades from memory.
Perhaps this is what Alan Massie meant. James Joyce may be revered and worshipped the world over for his crazy, towering masterpieces of dazzling linguistic ingenuity – but does he genuinely have claim to a popular readership? It takes weeks of hard work and the use of a good lending library to get anywhere with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake – but you’d read The Thirty-Nine Steps in one enjoyable afternoon. Joyce is the genius, but Buchan has more readers. Maybe that’s the ultimate difference between ‘literature’ and just writing.