PM Press Blog, Review

THE FIGHT TO NOT CONFORM: Kavan Stafford on James Kelman’s ‘God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena’

By Kevan Stafford
The Glasgow Review of Books
August 19th, 2023

Today, in a new essay for The Glasgow Review of Books, Kevan Stafford looks at the way Kelman uses his latest novel as a vehicle to talk to us, his readers, about a range of important matters, not the least of which being – himself.

God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena was published in America and launched virtually, with an event hosted by Peter Maravelis of City Lights Books. But, in the Scottish literary scene, it has made barely a ripple.

The book has been ignored in the British press, aside from a few perfunctory reviews,1 and some Glasgow Review of Books readers may be hearing about it now for the very first time. This is a shame, as it is a remarkable example of Kelman’s later fiction and, as I discuss in this essay, may be his most personal book to date.

God’s Teeth is, on the face of it, a simple enough story of “Jack Proctor”, a writer who won “the Banker Prize”, many years ago, for one of his novels and who has agreed to be a writer in residence for an organisation known as the House of Art and Aesthetics in County Cork in Ireland.

His experiences dealing with badly organised events, disrespectful students, terrible accommodation and a tiny rental car make up the bulk of the book, which is initially presented as a stream-of-consciousness novel, only for it to be revealed at the very end that it is in fact a report from Proctor on his time in the organisation, similar to Alasdair Gray’s story, A Report to the Trustees of the Bellahouston Travelling Scholarship.

I’ve mentioned that God’s Teeth is probably Kelman’s most overtly personal novel and, in this essay, I will examine the book in that light. I will relate Proctor’s experiences to some of Kelman’s own, and demonstrate that Kelman is taking this opportunity to settle scores with some of his critics, but also with himself. I will show, throughout, that God’s Teeth can be seen as a self-directed satire of Kelman’s own literary life.

Any, and all aspiring literary critics have it drilled into them that they should resist the urge to read too much of an author’s life into their work. Works of fiction are just that, and attempts to link fiction with reality are bound to be trite, at best. This is usually good advice.

It becomes less useful, when we (as we do here, with Kelman) have a library of non-fiction work and interviews, in which the author gives readers his own thoughts and opinions on the same matters we now see reflected in his fiction.

So, in this specific instance, the need to discuss the relationship between fiction and reality, especially in terms of satire, becomes an obligation. Jack Proctor is not James Kelman – but they share enough DNA to make the comparison meaningful.

‘Anti-establishment’ vs ‘prize-winning’ writer

A common criticism of Kelman is that he plays the rebel when it suits him, while (supposedly) still being a member of the literary establishment. An example of this would be Theo Tait’s interview in The Guardian, from 2008, where Tait says, “what is less clear is how Kelman squares all this implacable hostility with his own quite considerable standing: he is published by Penguin and Random House, has been awarded many prizes, is respectfully treated by reviewers”.

Quite apart from the extent to which Oxbridge graduate Tait’s treatment of Kelman during this interview (For example, when he insists that Scots is a dialect, or says that, ”It’s clear he sees me, if not as an agent of this right-wing state, then certainly as a brainwashed minion doing its bidding.”) refutes his  claim about ‘respectful treatment’, winning prizes has never done much  to endear Kelman to the literary establishment.

Yes, Kelman won the Booker in 1994, and the thrust of Tait’s argument is that that anyone who wins the Booker can no longer criticise the establishment which has bestowed it. The problems with this line of reasoning are manifold but can be summed up as follows – the Booker judges  wanted very much not to award him the prize. This is clear from several judges’ public reaction to his book. However, they felt they must because his work deserved it. Kelman collected it for the same reason.

The folder of clippings on Kelman kept by the Mitchell Library preserves a record of responses to his win such as that of The Daily Express (“Mr McWho?”2), the London Times who called How Late it Was “a perversion of the literary novel”3, and, of course, Rabbi Neuberger who said the book was  “just a drunken Scotsman railing against bureaucracy”4. These are just a few of the reactions. Kelman wins awards, but remains unwelcome in the literary establishment.

In Kelman’s depiction of Proctor in God’s Teeth, he takes the opportunity to discuss this matter in detail, and to satirise those who direct such criticisms at his work. He ‘lampshades’ the criticisms by having a jocular and patronising poet voice them to Proctor:

All the same, he said, you must find it a little ironic – as a proud Scot Jack which I know you are – attacking the so-called establishment yet more than willing to receive its rewards, and who can blame you for that Jack a rather tasty prize of how much did you say? Many many thousands, was it not, the old Banker?

This focus on money is deliberately depicted in as crass a way as possible, especially since money worries – about petrol, about hotel stays, about food – are an ever-present theme in God’s Teeth. Early in the novel, Proctor’s insistence on having a space to work is greeted with confusion by the organisers (who are, perhaps, more used to dealing with authors without pressing financial needs, who can afford not to work and, instead, treat the writer-in-residence post as a holiday).

Financial struggles have been a feature of Kelman’s own life. He has been supported in his writing by his wife’s income, from working as a social worker, while his writing itself has rarely brought in much money. In 2012, Kelman told the Scotsman that “as a writer, last year I think I earned about £15,000. And that after being a writer for about 40 years”.

As any author earning as little as this (or less) from their work knows very well, refusing awards with cash prizes is a luxury afforded only to the privileged few.

That said, the truth is that Proctor is reluctant to discuss his Banker Prize-winning work not because he is embarrassed at having been paid for it, but because he is tired of discussing one particular aspect of it. An aspect which Kelman has also had to discuss to the point of nausea. Swearing.

Proctor says of his novel:

Fifteen years ago I was awarded the damn prize and these buggers were still picking over the bones. Fifteen years of puerile chatter about “bad words”; it drove one to distraction – fucking nuts as we say in the business.

The “bad” language in How Late it Was, How Late was one of the most discussed aspects of the book. Journalists took the time to count the expletives, causing Kelman to remark, “imagine going to journalism school to count the number of fucks in a book5“.

Years later, in another Guardian interview, Kelman stated that he did not believe “his critics have been genuinely upset by the amount of swearing in his work. “I think, ultimately, it’s something else””. That “something else” is hinted at in the poet’s rant about Proctor’s winning the award. Awards and money, the poet suggests, are for those who deserve it. Not those who receive them and then are ungrateful.

But is Kelman himself ungrateful? In his speech upon his receipt of the Booker prize, he accused the British literary establishment of prejudice, saying that “a fine line can exist between elitism and racism and on matters concerning language the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether.”6

This may seem like ingratitude, or (it could be argued), as the articulation of an uncomfortable truth. In either case, a presumed need for ‘gratitude’ introduces precisely the kind of power imbalance (between one who bestows, and one who receives ‘with gratitude’) that Kelman rails against. After all, if it has been agreed that the work has merit, why is ‘gratitude’ necessary? Why are working-class writers like Kelman expected to grovel?

This attitude is reflected in God’s Teeth, when the organisation which has invited him to be an artist in residence seems perpetually baffled that he is not grateful for the offer of a room in a tiny B&B, of a tiny car, or for the opportunity to speak to writing groups. What is implicit is the belief that Proctor (and, by extension, Kelman himself) has been given something he doesn’t deserve.

For a parallel Kelman would undoubtedly dislike, if he was ever to read this essay, we can look to the Barbie Movie. “I deserve this”, says the Barbie winning the Nobel prize at the beginning of the film, to great applause. “I deserve this, and so do other authors like me,” say both Kelman, and his creation Proctor, upon receipt of their own awards, to no applause at all.

Kelman’s exclusion from the literary establishment can also be demonstrated by something other than the prose of God’s Teeth; its publisher. Kelman currently has no UK publisher and this book, along with other recent works, has been published by a small US, independent publisher – PM Press. What’s notable about this, are all the instances where it hasn’t been noted.

Like many independent presses; PM Press is a fantastic, radical publisher and there are good reasons why a writer like Kelman would be happy to join their list – but, if writers like Salman Rushdie or Will Self found themselves without a UK publisher, this would definitely be a thing worthy of note, and it’s likely that an outpouring of ink from literary columnists would follow decrying the situation. Not so for Kelman. Like Proctor, he is tolerated by, but not a part of, the literary establishment.

Writer or artist?

Throughout the novel, Proctor is impatient with individuals he meets, either for not understanding his writing as fine art, or for failing to make the distinction between fine art and simple entertainment.  He is insistent that literary work be viewed as a fine art in the same way as visual art. When a member of staff at an institution congratulates him on keeping the art students interested, he says:

a working artist talks about art to students of art, and they enjoy the conversation. It’s pretty predictable.

He frowned a moment.

An artist, that’s what I am. A writer’s an artist.

For many years, Kelman has fought against the idea that a writer is something different, or lesser than a fine artist. Perhaps this reflects his interest in art as a young man. He has said, “Before even committing myself to the page, my interests lay in art. Until my late teens I assumed that the area I would move into would be painting”. In his essay And the Judges Said, he says “an artist can be a poet, a novelist, a sculptor, a dancer, a song-writer, a painter and so on”7 and Proctor is forced to make this argument multiple times throughout the novel.

In fact, Proctor, like Kelman, is “a severely professional writer”8 and takes both his work and the teaching of creative writing seriously. As he, amused, says to one of the arts council delegates, “I’m not running a scam here, son”. Proctor approaches writing as an art form and expects the same of those he is teaching and working with. When this expectation collides with reality some of the funniest satirical conflicts of the novel occur, and some things which closely reflect Kelman’s own life.

From 1998 to 1999, Kelman spent an academic year teaching at the University of Texas in Austin9. Kelman’s work has always been respected in the US, to his mind more than it is at home (his first book was, in fact, published by a small American publisher) and, when teaching in Texas, he “relished a status as an internationally respected writer largely free of the baggage he carries in the UK in general and Scotland in particular”.

This was something Kelman had observed before, saying that “people over there [in America] have known my work for a long time. It didn’t take a Booker for them to understand how I write. They’ve always been interested”10.

By all accounts, Kelman enjoyed his experience of teaching in the States, he had become familiar with America as a young man, and it seems likely that Dirt Road (2016), the story of a father and his son from Scotland travelling in the USA arose, at least partly, from his time there. Dirt Road, along with You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free (2004),  are  Kelman’s most comfortable and unencumbered novels, as if the change in setting, gave him permission to explore themes, such as music, which are usually absent from his work.

As part of Kelman’s work in Texas, he produced a suggested reading list for his students which was greeted with some confusion. He discussed this in a 2016 interview:

When I was teaching creative writing in Texas, for example, the students found some of what I was doing difficult, asking ‘why are you giving us Van Gogh’s diaries?’” Or he would challenge why they had adopted a certain accent rather than speaking in their own vernacular. “Young people get angry when you point out they are fighting for the right to conform.” Surely that’s the point, to be the grit in the oyster? “If your students are upset it’s no longer a theoretical position, if they get angry and walk out of your tutorial.” He roars with laughter.

Similarly, in God’s Teeth, students are distressed and confused when confronted by a reading list which asks them to look at texts outside the fictional, and at artists outside the literary. Kelman takes the opportunity to put a defence in the mouth of Proctor:

I thought people should see commitment. Not to “understand” it so much, to encounter it. That it exists in the world

People are comfortable with the ability to separate out every type of art as much as possible and resistant to seeing what they share, what Proctor labels as the “commitment”. Kelman argues that the distinction isn’t clear cut and the response is often hostile. In both Kelman’s real life class, and in Proctor’s fictional one, students end up walking out. They are, as Kelman says, “fighting for the right to conform”.

No boy wizards, please

Kelman’s insistence on the artistic merit of literature came to a head at the 2009 Edinburgh Book Festival, when he said that “contemporary literature has been derided and sneered at by the Scottish literary establishment” and that all the Scottish Literary establishment cared about was “fucking detective fiction, or else some kind of child writer, or something that was not even new when Enid Blyton was writing The Faraway Tree, because she was writing about some upper middle-class young magician or some fucking crap”

Literary Scotland (or, at least, those representatives that could be reached for comment) was divided in its response to this. In an article in The Sunday Herald, John Byrne spoke of “the danger of Scotland becoming known as the home of genre fiction, a factory churning out these things”, while Denise Mina fomented that that Kelman’s statements were merely a “play for status”, attesting to the financial benefits, rather than the literary qualities of detective fiction as the principal signifier of the genre’s value. Asked for his own comments, Kelman said he “did not care a jot about the furore he had created”.

Maybe he was just biding his time. In God’s Teeth, Kelman gives himself the opportunity to mock his critics by putting their arguments in the mouth of a petulant student. This could be seen as a bad-faith attempt at discrediting them without giving right of reply, but if we look closely at the passage in question, we see Kelman doing something more than just burying an old hatchet:

“Are you saying that detective stories arent worthwhile?

I dont know. I dont care.

There are plenty of examples of detective stories that are proper literature, he said.

Great. Who like? Say one?

Daniel shrugged.

Just one.

He frowned. No, I’m not going to.

Why not?

You’re backing me into a corner and I resent it.”

The student is unhappy at Proctor’s insistence that he provide an example to back up his argument that detective stories can be “proper literature”. Proctor is not angry. He is not demanding an answer. He is just pointing out that, if you’re going to make a claim (that detective stories are as good as “proper literature”) you should be able to provide an example and explain why. He says, “people need to arrive at a position where it is possible to say what good writing might be, or bad writing” (p. 143). In other words, they need to commit.   

And so, this is the position we arrive at in finishing God’s Teeth. Is it good writing, or bad writing? To say it was Kelman’s best is debatable. That title, for my money, will always belong to A Chancer (1985). But there can be no doubt that God’s Teeth is some of Kelman’s best writing in years. The prose is clear, sharp and funny, and Proctor is possibly the most fully realised character of his since Helen in Mo Said She Was Quirky (2012).

What God’s Teeth really offers the reader, though, is a rare opportunity to see one of Scotland’s greatest writers laugh. Kelman laughs at his critics, at his readers, and most of all at himself. Don’t miss your opportunity to laugh along with him.

About our contributor Kavan P. Stafford is a writer, poet and reviewer based in Priesthill in Glasgow. His work has appeared in dozens of publications, including “The Big Issue”, “The Common Breath”, “The Manchester Review”, “Writer’s Forum Magazine”, “Overheard Lit” and many more. He works in libraries in Glasgow and is also the flash fiction editor for “Reservoir Road Literary Review“. You can follow him on Twitter @Kavanpstafford.

  1. The very best review of the novel is by Sean O’Reilly in Irish magazine The Stinging Fly and is well worth reading  ↩︎
  2. ‘The Blind Leading the Bland for Booker Prize’ by Compton Miller, The Daily Express, 12th October 1994 ↩︎
  3. ‘Booker Prize Judge Calls Winning Work a “Disgrace”’ by Dalya Alberge, London Times, 12th October 1994 ↩︎
  4. ‘Just a Wee Drop of Paranoia’ by Katie Grant, The Spectator, 29th May 2004.  ↩︎
  5. ‘Critics for Breakfast’by P. J. Fleming, The Big Issue, June 8th 1995.  ↩︎
  6. James Kelman’s Booker Prize Acceptance Speech, published as ‘Elite Slurs Are Racism by Another Name’, Scotland on Sunday: Spectrum Supplement, 16th October 1994.  ↩︎
  7. ‘And the Judges Said’ in And the Judges Said: Essays by James Kelman, Vintage, 2003, pp. 37-56.  ↩︎
  8. ‘Will Kelman’s London Cheers Pave the Way for Glasgow Sneers?’ by Neal Ascherson, Independent on Sunday, 16th October 1994.  ↩︎
  9. See ‘When I Was That Age Did Art Exist’ in And the Judges Said: Essays by James Kelman, Vintage, 2003, pp. 415-446 for further discussion of this.  ↩︎
  10. ‘Critics for Breakfast’by P. J. Fleming, The Big Issue, June 8th 1995.  ↩︎