He sells millions of books by writing about human degradation in a Scottish phonetic vernacular. Is this Britain's strangest literary phenomenon?by Alexander Linklater / May 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
In his new collection of essays and criticism, The War Against Clich?, Martin Amis has a section called “Popularity Contest” in which he chews over the qualities of writers who dwarf his own sales. Dissecting Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, Amis first makes witty sport with dinosaur lore in order to display verbal powers to which Crichton himself could never aspire. Then Amis signs off with the scrupulous superiority of a literary author who nevertheless can’t quite waft away the rude pong of another writer’s popularity. “Like all good bad stuff,” he writes, “it is conjured with eagerness and passion.”
Irvine Welsh makes a very peculiar kind of stink. Since his first book, Trainspotting, was published in 1993, he has sold well over 2m books in Britain alone. And Welsh is capable of writing not just good bad stuff, but bad bad stuff. He once described Ecstasy, the work which launched a thousand articles about Britain’s chemical generation, as “the crappest book I’ve written yet.” On a sunny day in north London, when I asked Welsh what he meant by the word “yet,” he laughed softly, as if at ease with the prospect of failure. “I’m sure I’ll be able to write a worse one.” He is not being entirely serious. Ecstacy, published in 1997, represents for Welsh a benchmark of ineptitude beneath which he intends never to descend again. “I still beat myself up about it,” he adds. “But it was the first paperback original to be a number one bestseller, so you have to look at these crass commercial considerations and say, ‘well it was worth it.'” Ecstasy has now sold 345,000 copies, and you can almost smell it. Some bad novels will sell even when written with neither eagerness nor passion.
So maybe Welsh’s popularity, still buoyant eight years on from Trainspotting, just boils down to notoriety. It’s now almost funny to think that Martin Amis was once considered the bad boy of British fiction. Welsh tends to have made news for being arrested at a football match in Glasgow, or for distressing passengers on a train to Exeter, rather than sacking his literary agent or falling out with Julian Barnes. More importantly, though, the controversies that have dogged this lanky, shaven-headed Hibernian supporter involve a fictional treatment of underworld substance abuse, sexual depravity and recidivism that makes the armchair macabre once practiced by Amis and Ian McEwan seem a mere brand of nastiness-lite. Welsh’s personal habits have long been a good target for the tabloids. But it was the huge success of the 1996 film of Trainspotting, and the peculiar interconnective alchemy of cinema, media and publishing worlds, that have made Welsh the most infamous writer in Britain.