WILL Self gave me a new word the other day.

I was reading his book, aptly entitled Why Read: Selected Writings 2001-2021 and in an essay called The Printed Word in Peril, I hit on this: “A skeuomorph is the term for a once-functional object that has, due to technological change, been repurposed to be purely decorative.

“A good example of this is the crude pictogram of an old-fashioned telephone that constitutes the ‘phone’ icon on the screen of your handheld computer (also known, confusingly, as a smartphone).”

A skeuomorph: that’s a lovely word.

Isn’t it also applicable to what a canon is? A word for an idea of an image of an object which was once used but now is just a decorative historical shorthand notion for something subsumed in contemporary chaos?

Will Self (as usual, thankfully) has more to say, in another essay, What to Read? from the same book: The 21st century is notable for “the spiking of formerly big literary guns” he tells us, “and the dismantling of what used to be understood as the canon”.

If by “the canon” you mean “a collection of the texts the reading of which was deemed essential if you were to consider yourself cultured” then the canon was both a comparatively recent phenomenon “and never by any means the overbearing and fortified phenomenon its detractors love to hate and besiege”.

The phenomena that helped form it “were the democratising processes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the massive expansion of free education – not just to little white proto-patriarchs, but to girls, and children from diverse communities as well – together with the technological improvements in the replication and dissemination of literary texts”.

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This is true: think of HG Wells’s Short History of the World, first published by Cassell in 1922; or Everyman’s Library, conceived in 1905 by London publisher JM Dent, whose intention was to generate a 1000-volume library of world literature, affordable, appealing and accessible, intended for “everyman” which in those days meant “every human being” including students and the working classes, as well as the cultural elite.

Dent started publishing these books in 1906 and they’re still going strong. Then there were “Penguin Classics”, which began with EV Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey in 1946. These things have their own history.

As for the term “man” signifying “men and women”

I remember when I raised this question with a highly esteemed and indeed excellent professorial colleague, one of the major figures of literary, scholarly and cultural life on both sides of the Atlantic, a man of about three generations ago whom I knew in the 1980s and 90s.

His reply was, to him, a proverbial witticism: “Man embraces woman when he can.” It would be offensive to say that now but in his day, it was an accepted wisdom. Things change.

Will Self continues: “Following this, the canon arguably became most salient precisely at the point when its foundations were already beginning to crumble by reason of such tectonic movements and technological changes.

“Meanwhile, its ideological battlements were under assault by a curious alliance of feminists, structuralist and deconstructionist literary critics, together with the aggrieved intelligentsia of either minority groups, or newly independent nations that were formerly colonised by West Europeans.”

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So far so sweeping and not to be gainsaid. He goes on: “Put bluntly: the canon only really existed – in my view – as a genuinely cultural conditioning phenomenon for a few decades before it began to fire blanks.

“Prior to that there was an evolving literary culture that, by definition, was restricted to the literate. Its influence may have shaped general culture and values – but [it] scarcely affected the cultural mores of the unlettered.”

Here in Scotland, we’re so far behind the curve in our educational expectations – Scotland is such a strange country – that this democratising principle of establishing a canon to which educationalists and readers generally – the broad literate public (I am being optimistic) – might refer confidently, is, as we’ve seen over the last few weeks, not part of an established national culture at all.

Those who would lambast the canon’s baleful effects on inclusiveness might consider the tentative nature of its very existence in Scotland.

Of course the canon (in Self’s words): “Was trumpeted by those engaged in its formation, as simultaneously an expression of values peculiar to Western societies, and those viewed as somehow universal.

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"We can blame the Enlightenment for this: its luminaries believed first and foremost in civilisation’s ‘progress’ – as they understood it – and this necessitated all the world’s cultures being remade in their favoured image.

“The basic conflict between the West and the rest resonates down the centuries, and is recast in each successive generation: the current culture war between those who wish university literature departments to be far more diverse in the works and authors they teach, and those who cleave only to what they view as unshakeable tradition being only its latest iteration.”

Self dismisses both sides as “equally wrong”. Traditionalists replicate the hierarchies; revolutionists are counter-factual, blind to the past and ultimately just as prescriptive as the traditionalists. They fight in the cause of a more egalitarian society – well, “Good luck with that one.”

The current situation is no more nor less than “the precursor of a more general collapse”. Happy days.

In the preface to his book Scottish Literature Since 1707 (1996), Marshall Walker wrote this: “A literary canon implies ‘Great Books’, but great books are not the only books, and who pronounces them great anyway?

After all, even Shakespeare’s inclusion in the canon has not always been secure. In 1814 Byron wrote to James Hogg, ‘Shakespeare’s name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too high and will go down’. Yet the canon that was still is, albeit with its pores open to receive new and newly discovered works.”

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Walker quotes and qualifies George Steiner: “‘Democracy is, fundamentally, at war with the canonic’, yet canonic re-assertions are inevitable when standards are invoked or a culture looked at whole.”

For Will Self: “The canon itself requires redundancy as well as posterity.” But there’s another problem. These days, he finds, his students simply don’t read enough in bulk. Quantity, as Stalin wisely said, has a quality of its own.

“To understand influence, or the relation of literary genres to one another, you need to have absorbed sufficient quantities of text to make intuitive comparisons – while in order to lose yourself in a given work, you need to be able to get far enough into it in the first place.

“The multiple mediated distractions that now howl to us from our handheld computers militate against this level of engagement, as does the anxiety induced by events in the wider world, such as the coronavirus pandemic.”

To which we might add the chthonic depths of incompetence, inadequacy and self-righteous ignorance blatantly paraded by almost all our politicians in Edinburgh, London and all over the world.

Perhaps Self’s conclusion might be on school and university uniform T-shirts freely supplied with breakfasts and lunches (without milk): “Read what you want – but be conscious that, in this area of life as so many others, you are what you eat, and if your diet is solely pulp, you’ll very likely become rather … pulpy.

"And if you read books that almost certainly won’t last, you’ll power on through life with a view of cultural history as radically foreshortened as the bonnet of a bubble car.”

Which is pretty much where we are in Scotland, as almost everywhere else, in the worlds of literature, the arts and education, or as Self puts it, “cultural history”. Welcome to the world. And back to the loose canon.

What seems self-evident is easily missed.

The good work of literature knows no end, road-testing the language, catching the eye, making things pertinent, changing priorities. What never changes is: things change. Prediction is never secure, but speculation is a given, humanly intrinsic.

My book Scottish Literature: An Introduction was mainly concerned with retrieving and renewing, history brought into the present, the dead returned to the living. I didn’t say much in it about what’s contemporaneous and now and little enough about what the future might bring. Of course, it’s futile to do so and false to promise assurance.

And the book above all is a personal introduction. Its investment has been quite a lot of my life. It rests on a formidable quantity of scholarship, but it’s written with immediate attention to primary texts, and with relatively little reference to secondary critical material.

Scottish literature has over long eras been neglected or deliberately obscured, so securing its place in the firmament is a kind of redress, a reclamation. To paraphrase a fictional character of diabolical intent: “Revenge is sweet, mine extends over centuries, and time is in my side.” And all poets, as we know, are of the devil’s party.

The Italian scholar Professor Carla Sassi concludes her book Why Scottish Literature Matters (2005) by affirming that Scottish literature does matter: “This is beyond doubt – but it will have to be explained in other languages and to other cultures in order to survive.”

Why has it not been explained as comprehensively and confidently as other literatures – American, Irish, English, Australian or New Zealand literatures, say? Or French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Russian?

A great deal of work has been done, especially since the 1980s, but there remains a great deal more to do. The subject still needs to be more widely known and discussed with more confidence and more curiosity.

Anecdotes are not evidence but some of the stories I heard relating to the decision in 2012 to make a Scottish literature question compulsory in English examinations in Scottish schools were truly appalling. Allegedly, at one meeting of head teachers, the verdict was that there were no teachable plays by Scottish authors.

At another meeting, I heard, the opinion was that no Scottish literature was of any quality at all, compared to English, Irish or American literature.

These comments go well beyond, “What is Scottish literature?” or “Let’s keep our options open.” If these comments represent anyone’s true opinions, then or now, their judgements are clearly based on ignorance, prejudice and political hostility – not only to me and the subject I profess but to every generation of schoolchildren that comes under their care.

I fear there may still be some currency for fatuous opinions like these. Thankfully, since 2012, we’ve come some way to redressing them, and making more widely available teaching resources, not least through the ASL, the Association for Scottish Literature (ASLS as was).

Since the 1990s at least, two things seem to have conditioned the context of Scottish literature, and what it is, generally and deeply: one is the rise of online technology, the other the awareness of ecological catastrophe.

One offers opportunities for quick communication and liabilities of limiting sympathetic understanding. It gets information out fast but it’s normally one-sided. Yet it also allows a global provenance for immediate communication as never before.

The other conditions prevalent attitudes toward the whole earth and political power within economic systems defined by the opposed priorities of exploitation or replenishment. Within these contexts, questions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language, class, literary form, public communication platforms and exchanges, ego and vanity, education and self-effacement, all find forms of enquiry, expression, denigration and celebration.

Foreclosures of opportunity, the ending or limiting of print publications, the cutting of educational resources of all kinds, the increasing scarcity of public intellectual engagement, whether through press, media, theatre, public hall or open lecture: all these go on incrementally, while new generations find values apt for their own time and era.

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The problem there is, you usually don’t miss what you’ve never had, so if you take something valuable away from people, the next generation might not even know what it was they’re being denied.

That applies to cultural wealth as much as to oil or renewables, to all of our languages as well as our encompassing, accommodating nationality. The relation between national cultural distinctions and the global reality is constantly under revision.

In plays, poetry and fiction, the prospects of extending expression through the unprecedented international reach of online technology, the re-alignment of traditional genres and forms, the reassessment of linguistic efficacy and legitimacy, are everywhere evident.

Such extension brings into question meanings we might normally take as given, what we assume are the “facts” of national identity, or even of what literature is.

And yet the premises that inform any manifestation of culture remain perennially present, as long as we care enough for the earth to sustain them: the gifts of being alive, physically, mentally, the gifts of geography and language (or geographies and languages), and ultimately of our apprehension of human potential.

These are the realities, and they don’t go away. They can be taken from us but their value is not subtractable.

As far as the contemporary and the future can be spoken of meaningfully, the purpose is always assured: the extension – through time and over all terrain, seas and oceans – of consciousness, of the confidence of dream, of the sensitisation of the world.