I have a confession to make: I’m not one of those who make it a matter of pride to have read every Booker Prize-winner as soon as it appears. You may say, how can you keep an eye on the progress of the English language if you’re not acquainted with the detail of every one of these newly-minted masterpieces? Sorry; I simply couldn’t. But, thanks to a bug that succeeded in cancelling all our Christmas celebrations, I had time to immerse myself in a recent specimen – not the latest, but the prize-winner for 2020. It’s a first novel by Douglas Stuart, a Scot, and it’s a gloomy Celtic tale of fairly low life in the suburbs of Glasgow. 

The first thing to say is that Celts, whether from Scotland, Wales or Ireland, and from the Celtic diaspora in North America, have scored an astonishingly high tally of literary successes over many years, going all the way back to Sheridan and Goldsmith in the eighteenth century, and including Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Rattigan among countless others in more recent times. So we’re justified in having high expectations of a garlanded newcomer. 

As I say, the winner I read over Christmas is a glum tale. It’s called Shuggie Bain (Shuggie is apparently an affectionate Scots diminutive of Hugh) and its cast-list consists of some of the least privileged members of Glasgow society, which it dissects with an objective but compassionate scalpel. Shuggie himself is a young boy pathetically attached to his mother who is an irredeemable alcoholic. 

Of course we encounter a lot of Glaswegian dialect and slang, which contributes to the colourful texture of the work. But what I found most striking was that the vernacular is heavily laced with American.  The author himself seems to have absorbed so much American that he has even made his characters speak it. Now, they are not living in the no doubt highly Americanised Glasgow of the late 2010s: the novel is set in the 1980s. Stuart’s own use of English is heavily Americanised, to the point of misusing British English: we don’t spell the noun ‘practice’ with an ‘s’ as the Americans do, but Stuart does. For us the past participle of the verb ‘fit’ is ‘fitted’; he uses the American ‘fit’. For him, the preposition ‘round’ no longer exists, and has been taken over at every appearance by ‘around’. That is thoroughly American. Whatever it’s like now, I don’t think vernacular Glaswegian of the 1980s would have been as fully drenched in these Americanisms as this. Also oddly, Stuart frequently commits the well-known solecism of writing ‘disinterested’ for ‘uninterested’. In this as in the other samples I’ve given, it’s not his characters speaking, but his own authorial voice. 

In other words, he seems to have a fairly shaky grasp of basic literate English. Perhaps this reflects his considered position: the traditional and agreed rules governing the language are out of date and can – perhaps need to – be discarded. (What virtue is there in discarding them in favour of American rules?) More interestingly, the Booker Prize judges themselves seem to agree: they clearly have no interest in the maintenance of the well-established rules of British English. Fine novelists in the past, from Scott to Joyce and beyond, have almost always adhered to those rules – they govern the medium in which they have chosen to communicate what have proved to be enduring contributions to our literature.   

But of course Modernism – that battery of supposed precepts for the arts of the twentieth century – did away with all conventions. Perhaps the Booker judges are still working to that deliberately iconoclastic brief. It’s not for a mere commentator like me to challenge such visionary instructions, even though they are now over a hundred years old and not invariably seen as fit for purpose. I merely take note. Time, needless to say, will tell.

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