It’s pure dead brilliant to welcome fellow Scottish writer, David Ross, to discuss a topic which I’ve often
ranted blogged about – using regional dialects and accents in writing. It’s a route I chose to go down when writing Talk of the Toun so I’m chuffed to bits to share David’s take on the issue in his guest blog post.
This is perhaps my favourite of all the reviews I’ve yet seen about my debut novel ‘The Last Days Of Disco’. It’s not a favourable one by any means, and its minimum rating of one star was clearly given reluctantly. But I came to view it as something of a badge of honour. And I had seriously hoped it might be a cover quote on the new book ‘The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas‘.
The books of other writers which have stayed with me longest are all inextricably rooted in their context, as I hope mine are. The characters are the key to how the story develops, and their believability is absolutely crucial. How they speak is central to this. Imagine any of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown-based books with Jimmy Rabbitte or Imelda Quirk’s dialogue appearing in a more standard English. It would be ludicrous. It would sanitise the characters, robbing the books of their unique vitality and life … in fact, it would remove their very soul.
I have written only two published books. My perspective on the subject of writing in a regional dialect is not only coloured by this, but also by the acknowledgement that I didn’t write the first with the aim or expectation of having it published at all. I think this is an important distinction. There was never a conscious choice to tone down accents as a result of any external pressures. I was also largely unaware of the received wisdom that regional dialect was something of an impenetrable barrier for most readers. Although I did recall the Booker Prize controversy over James Kelman’s ‘How Late It Was, How Late’, it preceded my own writing attempts by almost 15 years.
My preoccupations as an architect – my alter-ego does that for a living – have always been about people. The concerns of architecture are relatively universal: the need for shelter, for buildings that help to heal, teach or inspire. The only things that influence different responses are context and people. I approach writing in much the same way. Context is very important to my writing, and the way people interact with their environment and with the people who share it with them is primarily what the books are all about. In the same way as it would feel false to have invented fictional ‘towns’ which are obviously amalgamations of specific places, I can’t imagine softening the authenticity of the language simply in order to broaden appeal.
My two books (and the other three that are currently in progress) are really about ordinary people, their hopes and dreams in the face of pragmatic fears of likely failure. Both completed books are set in the early 80s … in the days before technology changed the way we communicate with each other. Again, I think this is significant. My memories of the Ayrshire of the early 80s are principally to do with things said and the funny and direct way in which they were said. We spoke a lot, and with unique expressions and profanities that you often wouldn’t hear less than an hour’s bus journey away. I acknowledge that this might be an obstacle for some in terms of their emotional investment. Especially if their own experiences were formed by totally different, and perhaps more cosmopolitan, environments. The final book in the ‘Disco Days’ trilogy takes place largely in the present day, and this time the locations include Shanghai and San Francisco. The principal characters speak differently in this one. But not because of any desire to smooth the rough edges of the previous books. They do so as a consequence of the international and cultural influences they’ve adopted in the thirty years since they were teenagers who had barely travelled beyond the boundary of their Ayrshire roots.
An analogy with foreign language cinema might help reinforce a point. Regardless of how brilliant a film like ‘City of God’ is, I appreciate how the English subtitles aren’t for everyone; that perhaps it’s necessary to work harder for the undoubted joys that are gained. But the Brazilian film’s story isn’t parochial, it’s universal. And the local rhythm and timbre of the vernacular dialect is a really beautiful thing. If this ethnicity can be properly and appropriately harnessed, it invests a level of believability to great writing. And if the reader believes absolutely in the sometimes complex and contradictory authenticity of the characters, the freedom that can give the writer is exhilarating.
Ultimately, it comes down to who the writer is actually writing for. Worldwide mass market consumption is perhaps unlikely to come from a series of books set in a very specific regional time and place like early 1980s Ayrshire. But I wrote books that I would want to read myself, as opposed to ones that I may have wanted an entire English-speaking world to read. This may seem like an unlikely paradox but I’d just rather be The Ramones than The Stones, if you get my drift. And I’m extremely fortunate to have the support and patronage of a London-based publisher who encourages me in this regard, as opposed to insisting I find uncomfortable compromises that won’t alienate potential readers.
For those who remain doubters, I can only paraphrase Morrissey. Hilary Mantel may be well be on your side, but you lose…because Kelman, Doyle, Irvine Welsh and Helen MacKinven is on mine.
*blushes* at the wee mention – thanks David for a post which struck a chord with me and I’m sure many other writers keen to create realistic characters.