SIMPLE question, really: if Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize for Literature, why not James Kelman?

Now, before the dark glasses come off and it’s harmonicas at dawn, I am in no way denigrating Mr Zimmerman’s award. Let me defer to the great Ian Bell, late of this parish – and (by general acclaim) Dylan’s most vibrant biographer – who actually devotes a few pages to Bob’s Nobel prospects, in his 2014 volume Time Out Of Mind.

It turns out that Dylan’s been nominated every year since 1997. The 1999 pitch letter (from Gordon Ball, a US academic) makes a strong case from precedent. Is he only a song-and-dance man? The playwright Dario Fo was awarded in 1997, so the Swedish Academy had already recognised “an artist whose work depends on performance for its realisation”.

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Are songs literature anyway? Another major awardee, W B Yeats, had used song-forms throughout his work. More of a musician? Rabindranath Tagore was as great a musician as a poet. Historians, philosophers, even Winston Churchill have received the medal. Why not this dark, capering jester?

Bell was downbeat about his prospects. “No one else in Dylan’s ‘field’ – which would be? – could even merit consideration as a candidate. In this game he is too big, or just too old, to be contained within mere popular music – yet simultaneously insufficiently literary to stand alongside others who pattern words obsessively.”

The Academy clearly came to its senses this year: Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, went their citation. I hope Bell’s atoms are vibrating contentedly somewhere.

But as soon as I heard the news – which at least opens up the field of “literary” forms that might qualify for the prize – I had to revive one of my tireless hobbyhorses. Which is that of all living writers in Scotland, the only one who could truly justify the world’s greatest literary prize is James Kelman.

You may already be arguing over the term “world’s greatest literary prize”. Let’s bracket off Mr Nobel’s military-industrial endowment for the moment (though I doubt Jim Kelman would).

I like to think of it as the award that recognised the worth of Andre Gide, T S Eliot, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Toni Morrison – but I can’t deny that it also managed to miss James Joyce, Virginia Wolff, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Graham Greene, Robert Musil… Nobody said Swedish academics were perfect.

Yet Kelman’s existing garlands might give the Nobel committee some reassurance. He not only won the Booker in 1994 for How Late It Was, How Late, but has been nominated twice for the International Man Booker award, as well as the Scottish Arts Council’s Book of the Year in 2009. (Disclosure: I was one of the judges, and pushed as hard as I could for his Kieran Smith, Boy to win).

Indeed, Kieran Smith, Boy is as relevant a work as any of Kelman’s to begin to make the literary case for his Nobel. It’s an almost perfect fit with its declared principles.

A cheeky article in the Paris Review went through all of the one-line judges’ citations that have accompanied the award since 1901. “Idealism” is the most regular term: this comes from Alfred Nobel’s own will, stipulating that the writer should have produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

What Nobel meant by “ideal” has been pulled this way and that by critics – sometimes it’s read as a bias for moralising, or for high formalism. But of all the writers I know, none is as committed to a literary “ideal” as Kelman.

Reading Kieran Smith, Boy (and you can say this for the vast majority of his work) is to have an experience of being as close as possible to the voice, the verbal and mental life, of its central character – who is a working-class Glasgow boy, from toddler level to early teens.

Over the years, Kelman has done this by minimising, as much as possible, the third-person narrator (“She wondered”, “He doubted”, etc). In his reading of the tradition of a largely middle-class-dominated English literature, Kelman sees the third-person narrator as an instrument that turns working-class experience, or indeed any voice from below, into stereotypes and cliches.

Like the great literary experimentalists of Kafka, Woolf and Beckett – who he constantly cites – Kelman is a “modernist”, “existentialist” writer. This means that his writing style must take risks, as it tries to render the flow of experience in an accurate and sensitive way.

Stylistically, this is a tough road (for the writer, and perhaps also for readers too). This is why Kelman is such an inspiration to generations of subsequent Scottish writers like Ali Smith, Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh and Alan Bissett. Not to mention a generation of Scots readers over the last 40 years, who have hungered to hear what Cairns Craig once called the “Scottish Voice” in their literature.

Kelman is technically relentless in his commitment to rendering his characters’ voices, in a way that shows their irrepressible desire for self-determination (even if they are not often remotely in control of their social circumstances).

During a brilliant review in the London Review of Books, the Scots writer James Meek notes that Kieran, like most Kelman characters, fights in two directions: “He faces down the accumulated hierarchies bequeathed by epochs of racial, class, religious, gender and generational conflict. In the other direction, he confronts the solitude and uncertainty of existence itself, an uncertainty which renders these hierarchies trivial”.

And if that doesn’t drink deeply enough from the murky wellsprings of the human condition for the Nobel judges, then they should know that Kelman’s literary “ideal” stems from more than a writer’s raw intuition. A philosophy graduate, Jim is informed directly by the language theories of Noam Chomsky. The MIT professor claims that all humans have a “universal grammar” inside them – an in-built, creative capacity to produce language, before any cultural conditioning brings it forth.

It should be obvious how deeply this drives Kelman’s literary decisions – and why his work is so necessarily demanding.

We have had a novelist among us who has taken on the ultimate cultural question – that is, how humans struggle to command their own language and self-expression. Especially as they face a world of power-elites which reduce and crudify that language, for the sake of control or exploitation.

The other word that recurs throughout the Nobel citations over the years is “tradition”, usually of a national nature. James Kelman is very far from being any kind of Scottish cultural nationalist – his Yes vote in 2014 was about as abstract a commitment you could imagine.

However, it’s easy to see him as part of a profoundly “existentialist” tradition of Scottish literature: from James Hogg and R L Stevenson, all the way to Muriel Spark and Alexander Trocchi.

The man himself, of course, would feel more part of a “world” literature – Kelman has aligned himself with anti-colonialist writers at many times over the years. What, Scottish working-class experience as something comparable to “the colonized”? Let the attack keyboards rattle away.

We shouldn’t expect our greatest writers to comfort and console us. On another day, I might have made a Nobel case for Alasdair Gray.

He is as exuberant as Kelman is austere, and could justify a whole other set of arguments about literary form (maybe closer to Dylan’s own carnivalesque talents).

But on balance, for me, Jim’s the man. He’s 70 this year, and we will be celebrating him at a symposium next month in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. Anyone reading this who is one of the Nobel nominators should come along (anonymously of course) and listen in.

In an interview at this year’s Edinburgh Books Festival, Kelman said he had “12 projects on the go”. To twist Dylan’s famous lyric from It’s Alright Ma, as a writer Jim’s still busy being born.

And he would look dapper with a gold medal.

Jim Kelman at 70: A Celebration, is on Saturday, November 19, Jeffrey Room, Mitchell Library, Glasgow.