Even in an age accustomed to hyping first novels as instant classics, the commercial and critical success of Irvine Welsh has been remarkable. Indeed, Welsh was not only one of the most successful writers of the 1990’s but also among the most influential. Welsh did not singlehandedly bring about the Scottish literary renaissance; Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Iain Banks, and Janice Galloway had already laid the groundwork. However, Welsh focused the world’s attention on Scotland, demonstrating how multiform the nation and its literature are and making the publication of Scottish fiction outside Scotland more viable than it had been for decades. Equally important, Welsh ushered in a new kind of fiction directed at the kind of young readers who did not take their cues from the literary reviews and British broadsheets. In doing so, he helped bring about another change, in the way such books are packaged and marketed. What makes Welsh successful and the extent of his influence so remarkable is that it derives from a book he did not actually set out to write. Once it was written, he never thought it would be published, and, once it was published, he never thought it would be read, least of all by the kind of reader for which it was intended.
That reader is the kind of character that populates Trainspotting and Welsh’s other writing: disaffected, young, mainly male no-hopers, drunk or drugged, under-or unemployed, from Edinburgh (or rather from Leith, the docklands area where Welsh was born, or one of the postwar housing estates, such as Muirhouse, where he grew up). Welsh’s Edinburgh is not the city of tourism, with its Castle and Edinburgh Festival. It is the city with an underbelly of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), heroin, and casual violence.
Welsh’s fiction may not be overtly political, but it is nonetheless as connected to Scotland’s political and socioeconomic situation as it is to particular streets, neighborhoods, and pubs. It grows out of the national mood of angry impotence following the failure of the 1979 referendum that would have given Scotland a greater—but still very limited—measure of independence after nearly three hundred years of union with England and more than a decade of the...
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