New Writing Scotland at 40

The timing could not have been better. The very first volume of New Writing Scotland in 1983, the purple one with the pale blue thistle on the front scattering white seeds of new writing, included my first professionally published literary writing: two poems and a short story. I was twenty-nine and over the moon at my first acceptance and at seeing my name and my writing in print, in such a distinctive publication! I had wanted to be a real writer for a long time and this was joyous validation. 

I even got paid and, at that time, you were paid more for the first page of any contribution, in order not to disadvantage poets. Perhaps having the poets Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Iain Crichton Smith on the advisory board contributed to this felicitous financial weighting. 

There is no introduction in New Writing Scotland 1983 but the Notes on Contributors at the back reveal just how new some of the writers are. Iain Banks’s first novel, The Wasp Factory, is to be published the following February. Robert Crawford is still a postgraduate student, although he has published poetry in Akros and Poetry Review. David Kinloch is also still a postgraduate student and cites no previous publications. My previous publications are listed as a journalistic article on cockroaches, and another article on lost property. Esther Woolfson also lists no publications and I remember my particular pleasure in meeting her at the launch, my first launch, of New Writing Scotland on Friday 25 November at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. I had even been given the afternoon off school-teaching to go to the ball, much to my (late) head of department’s annoyance. I noted in my diary that I ‘met lots of literary people’ and that we went to Henderson’s for a drink afterwards. Heady days!

New Writing Scotland 2 appeared the following year, its designation hinting at annual continuity. In the Introduction, editors Alexander Scott and James Aitchison revealed that the intention behind the first volume of New Writing Scotland had been to attract new and good writing, but that much of this was also coming from new and virtually unpublished writers, offering ‘reassurance for the future of Scottish writing’. The aim remained to showcase good writing from both new and established writers: Kathleen Jamie, with a poem in New Writing Scotland 2, has just had her first collection published, while Ian Rankin, with a short story, is looking for a publisher for his first novel. (While not everyone who is published in New Writing Scotland will eventually receive a knighthood or damehood, it is encouraging to see that the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2022, in her Platinum Jubilee year, have given a knighthood to Ian Rankin!)

In 1985, New Writing Scotland 3 acknowledged good writing yet again from new writers and also observed that a growing number of experienced writers ‘see the anthology as an important outlet for their new work’. In other words, New Writing Scotland quickly established itself as a prestigious publication and, by New Writing Scotland 3, Ian Rankin had found a publisher (Polygon Books) for his first novel, The Flood. I was proud to acknowledge publication in New Writing Scotland 1 and 2, and to add a story in Streets of Stone, poems in Lines Review and another article, on hallmarking.

By the time that New Writing Scotland appeared for the fifth time, it was an honour to find myself rubbing shoulders with other contributing writers of awesome stature like Naomi Mitchison, Maurice Lindsay, Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig. Word of this annual anthology was clearly spreading and the editors received almost three thousand manuscripts from over five hundred writers and, yet again, this edition was bigger than any previous one and was also having a wider impact as a showcase: ‘the writer of a collection of stories being published this year was approached by the publisher who first saw his work on these pages’.

However, the editors also regret the lack of other outlets, and say that they are having to return otherwise acceptable work to regular contributors in order to ‘offer equal opportunity to other new writers’.

It is not easy being a literary publisher. New Writing Scotland 8: The Day I Met the Queen Mother (1990) apologises for being slimmer as a result of insecure financial backing. This is also the first year with titles as well as numbers for the anthology. The following year, the editors note that ‘for a brief worrying moment’ New Writing Scotland 9: Scream, If You Want To Go Faster (1991) might not have appeared. Not only did funding issues (a perennial problem) beset them, but also one or two members of the ASL ‘did not appreciate the value of such an anthology’. However, the editors were also happy to note that the ASL has now ‘reaffirmed its avowed aim of promoting the writing, as well as the study, of Scottish Literature’. 

In this same New Writing Scotland 9, one Irvine Welsh, with a story featuring a character called Sick Boy, notes somewhat tongue-in-cheek that he is ‘currently completing a brightly optimistic novel full of sympathetic, generously spirited characters’. Two years later, in 1993, Trainspotting is published. 

In both Trainspotting and The Acid House, Irvine Welsh acknowledges his appearance in New Writing Scotland. The editors of volume 9 were Janice Galloway and Hamish Whyte, who remembers going through the submissions in Janice’s kitchen and coming across ‘this dog’s breakfast of a manuscript, badly typed on scruffy paper’. They were not impressed by such poor presentation and could scarcely believe that what had been submitted was serious writing, but they took a chance on it, and the rest is history.

Three years after Trainspotting appeared, in New Writing Scotland 14: Full Strength Angels (1996), there is a complaint: ‘Both editors quickly tired of the many contributors who offered sub-Welshian wanderings through an unfocused urban drug scene’. However, they still ‘found enough good work to fill a volume twice this size’. 

By New Writing Scotland 16: The Glory Signs (1998), there is editorial assurance that the anthology is ‘the annual finger-on-the-pulse of the literary nation’. 

Until New Writing Scotland 19, contributors were clearly identified on their submissions. However, New Writing Scotland 19, enigmatically titled all in lower case on the road home it was suddenly (2002), was the first to be judged ‘blind’. Nonetheless, many familiar names still appeared, and I was heartened to be included on merit, as the editors say, ‘without prejudice, unfair bias, favouritism or cronyism’. This excellent practice lasted for the following decade and was much appreciated by several editors. After a few subsequent years of attributed submissions, anonymity has once again been reinstated.

I had the pleasure and honour of co-editing New Writing Scotland 20 and the following three editions. New Writing Scotland 22: Bringing Back Some Brightness (2004) celebrated twenty years of this anthology and was edited by Hamish and myself. We acknowledge that New Writing Scotland is a firm fixture on the Scottish literary scene. 

Being a co-editor of New Writing Scotland was both challenging and fun. In the early years, submissions were measured in their thousands but when I was editing, twenty years later, twenty years ago, each editor would receive half of the numbered submissions in a couple of wine boxes, delivered to their door by taxi. After hours and days of reading, we’d each have piles of yes, no, and maybes all around the room. We’d list our selections, pack them all up again, and swap boxes (more taxis) and complete our choices. 

Joint editorial meetings were fun, involving cakes and coffee, and it was a lovely feeling to find that your co-editor had also chosen the same works. This didn’t always happen, and sometimes we’d enjoy vigorous debate and some trading. But the process was always amicable, and we would send off our final selection to the Managing Editor, Duncan Jones, who himself surprised us once when we selected his anonymous submission of talented surreal writing.

Our final editorial meeting was always a real treat, not just because of more cakes and coffee, but because this was when we opened together the sealed envelope from Duncan, like Oscar results (although it was not a gold envelope), correlating the numbers with the names. It was always surprising and delightful to see which well-known or unknown writers we had chosen, and, sometimes with regret, those we had rejected. 

I was especially pleased if we’d chosen new writers from my workshops. I was always encouraging them to submit their work not just to New Writing Scotland but to any of the various national and international literary publications. I’ve seen at first hand the delight and pride in both pupils and students of mine who have dared to submit and been successful with their first publication. 

Sadly, there is always much more good writing than there is room for in New Writing Scotland. Currently, it receives between twelve hundred and fourteen hundred contributions each year, but can only publish between forty and fifty, so this means a rejection rate of around 95%. The days of taxis and wine boxes are over as contributions are all now electronic, and between six hundred and seven hundred writers submit each year. 

I am acutely aware of how painful rejections are. When I was first starting out in the early 1980s, I inevitably collected a pile of rejection slips. I remember vividly being rejected by the now late Anthony Thwaite who was editing Encounter magazine. He returned my poems with a tiny compliment slip on which he had scribbled and triple-underlined, ‘I don’t want these!!!’. That memorably rude put-down from him was seconded only by the (also late) Philip Hobsbaum’s crushing rejection of my work, saying that he didn’t believe decent lyric poetry could be written by anyone over the age of thirty. 

I learned my lesson: never to humiliate or discourage anyone who is laying their heart and soul on the line, who is tentative and vulnerable and yet bold enough to submit their work. As an editor, I asked for the New Writing Scotland rejection note to be as encouraging and kind as possible.

Finding an outlet for new writing has never been easy. In New Writing Scotland 26: Bucket of Frogs (2008), the editors assert that this ASL anthology ‘is still often the first important point of publication for a new writer’. In New Writing Scotland 28: Stone Going Home Again (2010), the editors celebrate the live literature scene in Scotland but ‘actual publication opportunities have dried up. Literary magazines are dying … Mainstream publishers have stopped producing anthologies. The supermarkets and High Street chains, whose stock is controlled by the south of England, are pulping Scottish literature.’ In this sad climate, New Writing Scotland became more important than ever. 

When I look back on the list of magazines and anthologies that accepted my work in the 1980s and 1990s, many of them were
transient or one-offs: the Scottish Arts Council produced a series,
Scottish Short Stories, in the 1970s and 1980s; the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday short story competition led to four annual volumes of short stories from the contestants; and Polygon produced four Original Prints volumes of writing by women. Magazines with the vision, passion and commitment of their publishers provided outlets for poetry as well as fiction: Graffiti (Colin Kerr), Lines Review (Tessa Ransford), Cencrastus (Raymond Ross), The Glasgow Magazine (Hamish Whyte et al.), West Coast Magazine (Joe Murray, Brian Whittingham, Kenny MacKenzie) and Poetry Scotland (Sally Evans) to name but a few. Only New Writing Scotland, along with the magazine Chapman (Joy Hendry) which started in 1970, have survived for many decades.

For me, as a new young writer, I was extremely grateful for all these opportunities, and for the acceptances that I was fortunate enough to amass. I had writing published in thirteen of the first twenty New Writing Scotlands, which was instrumental in my credibility as a writer. This helped me to receive the Scottish Arts Council Grant which enabled me to escape permanently from the classroom to concentrate on writing. These regular publications in New Writing Scotland (and elsewhere) also helped to establish that my writing was of ‘literary merit’, a criterion for work with the Royal Literary Fund. My first Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellowship was in 2001 and led to further fellowships and work with the Royal Literary Fund spanning fifteen years. 

New Writing Scotland has also been important in several other ways in my writing career. A record of publication, including many in New Writing Scotland, led to my first collection of poems. And I drew on New Writing Scotland for examples of good Scottish writing to include, when working on my first creative writing textbook in the mid 1990s. This, in turn, led to further payment for these writers. 

I also drew heavily upon New Writing Scotland for writing to inspire my students when I was leading creative writing workshops. By the time that I was putting together my second and third creative writing textbooks, I was proud to include excellent work from students who had been in my writing classes: not only had they been inspired by New Writing Scotland, but these were also classes that I would not have been able to teach without my credibility as a writer, thanks largely to my being published in New Writing Scotland, along with all the other magazines and anthologies. 

There is no doubt that emerging writers need annual anthologies like New Writing Scotland, as well as literary magazines, in which to establish a reputation which will open doors to agents, to wider publication and to writing-based work. For example, on his website, Liam Murray Bell (now Dr Bell, senior lecturer specialising in creative writing at Stirling University) notes that his first two publications were in New Writing Scotland, in 2004 and 2008. 

I first came across Liam some twenty years ago, as an unpublished sixth year English pupil at Hyndland Secondary School where I’d been invited to lead a CSYS creative writing class. His work was clearly outstanding, of publishable quality even at that time. I told him so with absolute conviction and encouraged him to submit to New Writing Scotland. I was delighted when he did, anonymously, and was accepted. In due course, his first novel was launched at the Glasgow Art Club in 2012, and I was touched to be invited to share in his celebration.

New Writing Scotland has a unique position. First, it is a book with a proper spine and an ISBN, rather than a journal or magazine. Second, it is published by the ASL which gives it a venerable authority and a quiet air of self-confidence. Third, its pairs of co-editors, who serve for three overlapping years, are all established writers, and have included, over the years, Edwin Morgan, A L Kennedy and Janice Galloway. There is often one female and one male editor, for gender balance, plus a Gaelic advisor, for linguistic balance. The writing they choose is always new, good and a pleasure to read.

To hear the complimentary contributor’s copy dropping through the letterbox is immensely satisfying, whether it’s the delicate thump of 123 pages of New Writing Scotland 28: Stone Going Home Again (2010) or the whopping whump of 314 pages of New Writing Scotland 31: Black Middens (2013). There is also much imagination and talent that has gone into the many distinctive cover designs over the years. The volumes all look good on the bookshelf: an expanding related family of great writing.

At the end of the Introduction to New Writing Scotland 22, celebrating the first twenty years, Hamish and I wrote, ‘Here’s to the next twenty volumes, and beyond!’ 

Well, having now achieved this, for which many congratulations, all I can finish with is, ‘Here’s to the next forty volumes, and beyond!’

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Valerie Thornton

Valerie Thornton is a poet and short story writer, a creative writing tutor and an editor. She has worked in creative education for 30 years and has held two Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellowships at the University of Glasgow.

More articles by Valerie Thornton

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