First Brexit, now Trump. This is the second day this year when we’ve woken up to a reality as implausible as the worst kind of fantasy novel: poorly structured, populated by absurdly larger-than-life characters, and with a denouement no sane person could credit. The Goldsmiths Prize seems slightly fantastical too, but in happier ways. When my colleague Tim Parnell first talked about setting up a new literary prize, I thought yes, great, but it’s not going to happen. Yes, Goldsmiths has long had a reputation for supporting innovation – the YBAs and all that – but a £10,000 prize for experimental fiction? With all the costs involved? Really? As to finding a media partner, I remember trooping along with Tim to a back door of the New Statesman, after hours, knowing we’d precious little hope of success. But here we are, four years on, with the college on board, the New Statesman on board, and publishers, agents and authors delighted that the prize exists.
The prize has been a success because it’s found a niche and met a need. Other prizes celebrate the best. This one celebrates the new.
What is newness? It’s tricky to find the right word. ‘Experimental’ is a term that even authors to whom it’s attached tend to disavow, because of the associations with difficulty, impenetrability, art more to be endured than enjoyed. ‘Novelty’ won’t do, either – proverbially, novelty soon wears off, and its associations are with trifles and cheap knick-knacks. ‘Innovation’ is better, though when you hear it on the lips of politicians and business leaders it loses its lustre.
I prefer Laurence Sterne when he talked of the new being something ‘quite out of the beaten track’.
Of course you can’t go off piste without knowing what it is you’re getting away from; doing something new means understanding the old. One of the pleasures of this year’s shortlist – and call me biased but I think it’s the strongest shortlist we’ve had so far – is seeing how skilfully these six novelists negotiate between an indebtedness to precedent and a need to be uniquely themselves.
Eimear McBride is the first to acknowledge a debt to Joyce but the linguistic adventures, disrupted syntax and typographical tricks of The Lesser Bohemians are different to the wordplay of Finnegans Wake, just as the sex in the novel (and there’s a lot of it) is very different from the sex in Ulysses.
Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones also invites comparisons with Joyce: like the Molly Bloom monologue in Ulysses, it refrains from using a single full stop. But would Joyce (or any other novelist, come to that) have so persuasively inhabited the mind of a middle-aged engineer? Or honoured an ordinary working life so beautifully, in a prose that’s lyrical yet firmly rooted in the domestic.
Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk has been described as a novelistic rewriting of Hélène Cixous’s feminist call-to-arms The Laugh of the Medusa, which argues that ‘woman must write her self’. Medusas do feature in Hot Milk, in the form of jellyfish, and by the end the initially lost and stifled female protagonist, Sofia, has a fuller sense of herself, not least physically. But the world described in Hot Milk - Almeria, the beach of the dead, a mother who for mysterious reasons can’t or won’t walk – is Deborah Levy’s and hers alone.
Like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk straddles the border between fiction and non-fiction. Her writing feels autobiographical, even confessional, but the ‘I’ in Transit isn’t quite her and, for all the seeming candour of the prose, she doesn’t give a lot away; it’s other people’s stories she hears and narrates, not her own. This tension between intimacy and impersonality is compelling; here’s another novelist now writing at the height of her powers.
These novels may have debts of influence but they’re their own freshly created universes. I can’t think of any novelists, let alone British novelists, who have taken a seventy-something African woman living in San Francisco as their subject matter. Along with its technical accomplishments Sarah Lapido Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun fills that gap. Anakana Schofield’s Martin John is bolder still, inhabiting the mind of a sexually disturbed young Irishman living in London. Few writers would dare to go there; fewer still dare to risk humour. The circling rhythms create a sense of entrapment but, despite Anakana’s resistance to ‘story’, things do move on.
Her novel, like two others here, comes from a small press. And the role played by small publishers in encouraging new fiction is one obvious story of the Goldsmiths Prize: without Tramp Press, Lilliput, And Other Stories, Cassava Republic, Galley Beggar and Unbound our literary landscape would be much the poorer. The predominance of Irish novelists is another story: two out of three previous winners of the Goldsmiths Prize; three out of six on this year’s shortlist. But the headline story is that there really is an appetite, and an audience, for novels that come at reality in new and surprising ways. Post-Brexit and now post-Trump, reality is no longer realistic, and fiction has to reflect that.
Before I announce the winner, I need to say a few thank yous. To the New Statesman, and in particular its literary editor Tom Gatti, whose commitment has been amazing; to Kerstin Feurle, who has been the administrator since 2013 – she has now moved on to greater things but without her hard work we’d not be here; to the Goldsmiths Comms team, for all they’ve done on behalf of the prize; to the warden of Goldsmiths, Pat Loughrey, for his support of creative writing in general and this prize in particular; above all thanks to my fellow judges, Bernardine Evaristo, Erica Wagner and Joanna Walsh – for their critical intelligence, excellent company and preference for salads over sandwiches.
Now comes the hard bit – the point at which I want to say that all of these books are winners, that to be on the shortlist at all is a major achievement given that we had 111 entries, that re-reading these novels in order to make our final decision only increased my admiration for them. I’d love to be able to split the Prize. But we had to be tough and award one novel. The winner of the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize is Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones.