The depiction of Glasgow in books
Angelica gives her perspective on reading Glaswegian literature as someone who moved here for University.
Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain, which won the Booker Prize in 2020, joins a long list of rich, and at times, dark, depictions of Glasgow in literature. His story was rejected by 30 publishers before going on to be the defining book of the year. It shows that despite a lingering reluctance to invest in realistic and hard reads, the appetite and respect for this genre is still very much alive. Douglas Stuart also referenced the notoriously dark and difficult How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman, saying it changed his life and was “one of the first times I saw my people, my dialect, on the page”. Meanwhile, the four volumes that make up the cult classic, Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray, were also widely rejected by potential publishers before going on to be called by the Guardian as “one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction”.
So, what is it about these challenging books that grabs our attention? And is the reputation of Glaswegian literature being so dark deserved or justified? It is a cliché that the Glasgow depicted in books is a gritty and tough place with crime, alcohol and poverty as common themes. Literature has portrayed Glasgow as a place to be wary of. It is wonderfully dark, representing the realities and hardships of life, and filled with emotional tolls and madness. You could read these books as reinforcing negative stereotypes about the city and consolidating pre-existing ideas. However, I see these portrayals as dynamic and layered stories and histories, and a way to access moving human experiences.
Being from London, most of the Glasgow I imagined or saw on social media before I arrived consisted of gentrified and trendy areas with overpriced oat milk lattes. I knew nothing about Glasgow as a city. However, I immediately found Glasgow to be a dynamic and electric place full of culture and nightlife; a hub of vibrant student activity. Of course, I am nineteen years old moving into university in the 21st century and living in the West End. The rise of students has accelerated the gentrification of the West End, an area which doesn’t necessarily accurately represent the rest of the city- as in many other areas poverty continues to govern people’s lives. Reading books set in the 1950s and 1980s is a window into another Glasgow. Glaswegian literature gives a profound voice to the struggles and triumphs of a hardworking and sometimes hard-done-by city. Literature is, after all, the place for anyone of any background to express their experiences fully.
My favourite of the four Lanark volumes is number three, where Gray throws the reader into a hazy fog of confusion as the protagonist, Thaw, awakes in a Glasgow-like city. Thaw suffers from a fictional disease called ‘dragonhide’ where his skin turns scaly as an external manifestation of emotional repression. He is then swallowed by a mouth in the Earth and he awakes in a nightmarish and corrupted hospital. So much of this book is centred around emotional turmoil, madness and apocalypse. The dystopian modernity exposes a dark side of life. In more modern representations of Glasgow, the same themes recur. In Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, the writer describes a 1980s Glasgow as full of alcoholism, depression and violence. It is extraordinary how these poetic descriptions of suffering are so accessible to people from different cultures. The darkness of the realistic themes, I believe, has made Glaswegians accepting, open and forgiving.
My experience of this city is one of overwhelmingly positive friendliness. I see Glasgow has struggled as a city, but the end result is optimistic. They are amazing story tellers. You only have to get in a taxi to end up in a meaningful conversation. They may have suffered, or are suffering still, but it makes their humanity exceptional, and Glasgow’s depiction in literature brings this to the fore.