In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section James Kelman

  • Introduction
  • Introductions and Overviews
  • Kelman Essays, Interviews, and Nonfiction

British and Irish Literature James Kelman
Scott Hames
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0162


James Kelman (b. 1946) is the leading Scottish writer of the post-1960s period and widely known for championing the artistic validity of working-class language. With his fellow Glasgow writers Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, and Liz Lochhead, he is credited with inspiring a “new renaissance” in Scottish literature in the 1980s and 1990s. Kelman’s influence is strongest and clearest near to home, but his significance is not confined to the Scottish context. His innovative treatment of voice and subjectivity marks a new paradigm in literary realism, an approach driven by his powerful critique of social and linguistic prejudice. Usually viewed as a Scottish, working-class, and neo-modernist writer, Kelman himself locates his work in “two literary traditions, the European Existential and the American Realist.” Whatever disparate labels and comparisons we might attach to this writing—such as “Kafka on the Clyde” or reviewers declaring him “both angrier and funnier than Beckett”—Kelman’s work is strongly grounded in a personal and independent ethical vision. His political ideals and commitments (socialist, anarchist, anticolonial) are inseparable from the fiction, which is frequently centered on the everyday dramas of marginal and isolated characters. Better known than much of his published fiction is Kelman’s lucid and forthright critique of elitist and “colonising” value systems baked into the conventions of standard English literary form. These enforce the (often patronizing or sensationalist) treatment of working-class language and experience from a detached, superior perspective: as “other” to a normative bourgeois viewpoint identified with standard English. Kelman’s distinctive narrative style evades and reverses this effect, granting normative authority to working-class language and experience, and has been followed by a long list of younger Scottish writers including Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, and Alan Warner. (His influence is such that postwar Scottish fiction divides itself neatly into pre- and post-Kelman periods; his radicalism has now become a highly respected literary and critical orthodoxy, though without attracting mainstream commercial success.) He was born in Glasgow in 1946 and left school at the earliest opportunity, training as an apprentice compositor (typesetter) aged fifteen, before his family briefly emigrated to California in 1963–1964. On returning to Britain, he worked in a variety of factory and laboring jobs and began writing at age twenty-two. The everyday struggles and mental adventures of working-class men are central to Kelman’s award-winning fiction, which is much funnier than his hard-bitten media image would suggest (an image cemented by the extraordinarily hostile response to Kelman winning the 1994 Booker Prize). His political writing and activism include campaigns against racial injustice and the cruel treatment of victims of industrial disease. For Kelman, “genuine creativity is by its nature subversive; good art can scarcely be anything other than dissident.” Dates and details of individual novels and story collections are listed separately in the first few sections of this article.

Introductions and Overviews

Kelman’s fiction can be challenging on first contact, but there are a number of helpful guides to assist the reader. Concise and reliable introductions to Kelman’s writing can be found in Carruthers 1997, Klaus 1994 and (at greater length) Bernstein 2000. Milne 1992 is the best single essay on Kelman’s modernist realism, and Craig 1993 remains the most influential account of Kelman’s place in Scottish writing. The commissioned essays of Hames 2010 aim to introduce and contextualize Kelman’s work, as well as the critical debates it has stimulated. These debates were sharpened and developed by various essays in the Jackson and Maley 2002 collection, published as a part issue of Edinburgh Review. The accessible book-length studies of Klaus 2004 and Kövesi 2007 enrich and sometimes challenge Kelman’s initial scholarly reception; together they consolidated the critical field.

  • Bernstein, Stephen. “James Kelman.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 20.3 (2000): 42–80.

    Comprehensive and detailed introduction to Kelman’s fiction and publishing career, closer to a short book in its scope and depth. Includes sustained readings of the novels and a wide range of stories.

  • Carruthers, Gerard. “James Kelman.” Post-War Literatures in English 18 (March 1997): 1–14.

    Full and rounded survey, with valuable insights on Kelman’s drama of the mundane and partial affinities with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Still relevant and useful.

  • Craig, Cairns. “Resisting Arrest: James Kelman.” In The Scottish Novel Since the Seventies: New Visions, Old Dreams. Edited by Gavin Wallace and Randall Stevenson, 99–114. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

    Incisive presentation of Kelman’s vocal innovations, existentialism, and treatment of working-class life. Highlights a clash between Kelman’s revolutionary politics and the apparent absence of socialist hope in his fiction: the “ideal of community” sought by his alienated characters “is unenvisagable ahead of them: it is already lost and defeated in the past.”

  • Hames, Scott, ed. Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

    Collection of eleven commissioned essays aimed at students and teachers, ranging across Kelman’s fiction and drama and exploring critical debates on Kelman and language, politics, narrative, masculinity, existentialism, and the Booker Prize controversy. Each of the individual chapters are cited in other sections of this bibliography.

  • Jackson, Ellen-Raïssa, and Willy Maley, eds. “Kelman and Commitment.” Edinburgh Review 108 (2002): 21–122.

    Special issue collecting eight essays on Kelman, noting that almost three decades into his publishing career (and after the award of a Booker Prize), he “has yet to receive the sustained and demanding critical attention that his achievements deserve.” Each of the individual essays are cited in other sections of this bibliography.

  • Klaus, H. Gustav. “Kelman for Beginners.” Journal of the Short Story in English 22 (1994): 127–135.

    Proposes Kelman as a major artist of the short story, noting his American and European models, the technique of the “speaker-narrator,” and the place of “the enigmatic and the strange” in his tales of the unspectacular. Partly based on Klaus 1989 (cited under Class, Realism, and Representation).

  • Klaus, H. Gustav. James Kelman. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House, 2004.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv5rf51d

    Concise and accessible guide to Kelman’s writing (including dramatic works), keeping close to the literary texts, which are handled with economy and insight. Usefully situates Kelman in broad literary contexts and debates and includes an annotated bibliography of Kelman criticism.

  • Kövesi, Simon. James Kelman. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719070969.001.0001

    Engaging book-length study of Kelman’s novels, which productively questions various claims and assumptions in earlier scholarship (and indeed the “colonising” relation between critic and text, as Kelman sees it). Enriches close readings with archival research and literary comparison (Albert Camus, George Orwell), treating Kelman’s writing as a site of debate and contested power.

  • Milne, Drew. “James Kelman: Dialectics of Urbanity.” Swansea Review 13 (1992): 393–407.

    Compelling survey of Kelman’s affinities with Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Roland Barthes, and T.W. Adorno, arguing that “Kelman’s distinctive prose style and politics indicate a critical distance from Scottish nationalisms” and that his writing participates in a “modernist poetics of realism.” Along with Craig 1993, this is one of the richest single essays on Kelman’s writing and politics.

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