The Goldsmiths Prize 2014

Good evening. My name is Francis Spufford; I’m a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, and Chair of Judges for the 2014 Prize. This is only the second year of the prize: that it has bedded down so fast is a tribute to the hard work of those who brought the prize into existence, and now sustain it with their goodwill and commitment. Before we go on any further, I’d like to thank our two excellent administrators at Goldsmiths, Kerstin Feurle and Beth Guilding, who made the handling of 714 hardbacks this year remarkably smooth. I’d like to thank our media partners in the prize, The New Statesman, for their continuing, intelligent and enthusiastic support. I’d like to thank my fellow judges, Tom Gatti, Geoff Dyer and Kirsty Gunn, for making our inevitable arguments cheerful, constructive and enjoyable. Above all, I’d like to thank Tim Parnell, who was Chair of Judges last year and has a good right to be thought of as the founder of the feast. The Prize was substantially his vision, and he has remained supportive and involved at every stage this time around. Thank you, Tim.

The logo we chose for the Goldsmiths Prize is the line that Corporal Trim’s stick makes in the air in Tristram Shandy, often taken as a kind of pictogram of the free, winding course of Sterne’s novel itself. We picked it, not just because we’d like to give the prize to Tristram Shandy if we could, but to draw attention to how ridiculously new the novel still is, as a literary form. 1759 is yesterday, in historical terms. Compared to songs and plays and poems and essays and chronicles and epics – the things human beings have been writing for about as long as we’ve had writing – it sprouted up out of the ground five minutes ago. It’s flourished so mightily since, in so many languages and so many different cultural ecosystems, that it’s hard sometimes to remember what an upstart it is, what a recent and shocking development, everywhere it goes feeding an appetite for the new.

And it thrives as it does because it is so radically open to whatever writers and readers bring to it. To write one, you do not need to be an insider in your culture’s elite, you do not need to reproduce some ancient formula perfectly. Consequently, the great ones often come from the disreputable edges of the cultural map, written by journalists, women, other low types. The novel’s basic device – the everyday experience of recognisable individuals, intimately represented in what feels like real time – can be applied by anyone, to any purpose. As George Eliot said, ‘there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements. Like crystalline masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful’. Any form.

Of course, the novel by now has traditions, it has conventions. In a kind of analogy to the repertoire of Good Tricks that evolution has built up for organisms, a body of technique has grown for prose fiction which gives novelists in the 21st century a huge known repertoire of choices for the business of representing experience.

Yet every time a novel is begun, the whole world of possibilities opens back up, and the novel becomes again, at least potentially, what its name suggests: new. For the most part, writers content themselves with the quite-sufficiently-difficult task of embodying new perceptions, new characters, new settings, new understandings. But every now and then the new story to be told requires a new form for the telling as well, not always spectacular or overtly experimental, but one that involves genuinely new approaches to the basic task of representing; one that carries a new type of mirror up the crowded street.

Such books are the reason the Goldsmiths Prize exists. We have six of them on our shortlist. Let me take them in the alphabetical order of their authors.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a work of formal restraint, even of abnegation. An unnamed narrator flies to Greece to teach and is the recipient of confidences from a long unspooling string of strangers; very diverse strangers, but what they tell her is rendered indirectly, in an elegant and slightly stylised palette of limited tones. Yet these speeches somehow create, as if in silhouette, the pattern of the narrator’s invisible self. Coolly wise and coolly witty, this is not an ingratiating book. But then, novels don’t have to be.

Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist is polyphonic in an entirely different way. It has no explicit narrator or dominating narrative voice at all: the reader must infer the design from a collection of brief, jostling first-person monologues, organised along a definite arc of mood, but from page to page – from line to line even – offering wild unpredictable jumps between the wistful, the tragic, the perverse, the mundane, until, by the book’s end, Eaves has populated a crowd: and tacitly created a beautiful meditation on speech and identity.

Howard Jacobson’s J – I feel a traitor to the book not covering my lips with two fingers when I say its name – is a sly, disturbing, self-knowing exercise in dread; a dystopia, set in an unspecified future time and place, after a moral catastrophe has left a nation blandly hate-soaked. But this future is hideously playful, as well being plain hideous; satirical, without letting us dismiss it simply as satire. Here a writer of deep comic gifts continues to twist the novel into new forms of seriousness.

Paul Kingsnorth’s Wake is already on the way to being famous for its ‘shadow tongue’, its invented fusion of modern English with Anglo-Saxon, which stands comparison with such feats of language-making as the Nadsat of Clockwork Orange or the abraded gabble of Riddley Walker. But as much as for the virtuosity with which he uses it to embody his dark story of doomed resistance after the Norman Conquest, we admired the rigour of imagination involved: the determination to avoid the usual compromises of historical fiction, and to let the reader feel, in every sentence, the heft and otherness of the past.

Zia Hayder Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know is a grand synthesis of a book, which gains ironic force by also being devoted to scepticism about the very possibility of fitting ‘what we know’ cohesively together. Its extraordinary tour of Bengali history, recent geopolitics, and intricate high finance is conducted under the sign of Godel’s incompleteness theorem. There is always more to know in this book, but our knowledge is doomed to be irreconcilable. Henry James and W G Sebald are influences on, respectively, the book’s finesse and its non-fictional appetite for the world, but its voice is all its own.

Lastly, Ali Smith’s How to be Both. Published in two unmarked versions, this is a novel that juggles exquisitely with a dual form, in order to create a humane depth that is only possible by the super-imposition of its two layers. Depending which way you chance to read it, you will inevitably give imaginative precedence either to the story of a distressed contemporary teenager gazing without full comprehension at a Renaissance fresco; or, to the story of a disembodied fresco artist gazing without full comprehension at a sorrowing sixteen-year-old of the present day. Figure and ground are held in lovely not-quite symmetry, and the book arrives at an elusive vision of integration.

You see our problem. Six utterly incompatible successes. There should be six prizes to give. But there aren’t. And since we had to come up with a criterion, in the end we were guided by a notion which also goes back to the 18th century roots of the novel. In the spirit of Tristram Shandy, we asked ourselves in which of these six books a radical shape gives most delight, in which of them formal innovation most directly and copiously serves the reader’s pleasure. And so the 2014 Goldmiths Prize goes to Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.