James Kelman on His Early Days As a Writer

In the Guardian:

“Nice to be Nice” was my earliest attempt at the literary or phonetic transcription of a speaking voice. It so happens that the voice belongs to a working-class man from Glasgow. The story is told in the “I-voice”, a first-person narrative. It was difficult to do. I spent ages working on it but learned much from the process.


It was one of the stories I later sent to Mary Gray Hughes. She commented on my early stories, and it was important to me, even if I disagreed with some of it. She advised caution in my use of “dialect”, and warned me of the risk of alienating the reader. Mary Gray Hughes recommended I look at the work of Flannery O’Connor and Emily Brontë’s use of dialect in Wuthering Heights. Of course I had my own opinions about “dialect” and I sent her “Nice to be Nice”. She replied, “Forget all I said about dialect . . . you obviously know what you are doing better than anyone.” I never bothered about alienating readers, neither then nor now. The priority was to write the story properly. The readers could take care of themselves.

My original intention in “Nice to be Nice” was to use the phonetic transcription only for the narrative. I thought to apply Standard English form for the dialogue. It was an attempt to turn the traditional elitist assumption on its head. I was irritated by so-called working-class writers who wrote third-party narratives in Standard English then applied conventional ideas of phonetics whenever a working-class character was called upon to say a few words. When a middle-class character entered the dialogue all attempts at “phonetics” disappeared; his or her lines were transcribed in standard form, leading to the extraordinary presumption that Standard English Literary Form is a literal transcription of Upper-Class Orature.