Chair of Judges’ Speech 2017

Thank you all for coming this evening. My name’s Naomi Wood and I’m Chair of Judges for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize, a prize that celebrates ‘fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.’

First I would like to extend my thanks. Now at a statesman-like five years of age, the Goldsmiths Prize has gone from strength to strength. This is in large part due to Dr Tim Parnell, the Literary Director of the Prize, who we can credit for the Prize’s reach, its ambition and success. Goldsmiths has long championed invention in the arts, and I would like to thank both the College and Pat Loughrey for their belief in the Prize and continuing support. Thanks also go to our media partner, the New Statesman and especially its culture culture editor Tom Gatti; our administrator, Livia Franchini, and the Goldsmiths Comms team for their sterling work. Finally, I would like to offer thanks to my fellow judges, AL Kennedy, Kevin Barry, and Tracey Thorn, amongst whom was shared robust literary argument. And though during the judging meeting books were thrown, they were never directed at each other.

A few weeks ago Ali Smith gave a lecture at Goldsmiths on Why the Novel Matters. ‘We are lucky,’ she said, ‘to have a form that will tell us – won’t be able not to tell us – what the anything and the everything of living in a time of Trump and a time of Brexit are, and in a form that allows the time’s articulation to be layered, complex… [and] laced with the possibility of transformation’.

Each and every one of the books we read this summer were animated by this idea of transformation: in terms of voice or form, sentences or paragraphs, style or typography. Sometimes, the will toward transformation could feel cacophonous. At times, I can admit, I longed for someone to write: this happened, and because of this, then this happened. But transformation is so much more alive than the ossifying effect of a novel written within the received idea of how it should be done – since memory is asynchronous with our lives-in-time, thinking is muddy, history is a farce, and people resemble more chaos than characters. In this time of Trump, Brexit, post-truth, alternative facts, language gone crazy, we need more than ever new, layered and complex novels for the time.

As well as the will to transform, what we looked for in our six shortlisted books were novels that challenged and delighted in equal measure; books that let the wildness in. Before I announce the winner, I’d like to talk briefly about each novel on the shortlist.

Multi-coloured, pictorial, musical, typographically various and sometimes blank-paged, Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy is a marvel to hold in the mind and in the hands. Line by line, colour by colour, it’s an ingenious closed loop of mass-surveillance, technology, and personality-modifying psycho-pharmaceuticals.

Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking is a beautiful exploration of loss. Frankie, a central character who stubbornly refuses to ‘arc’, obsessively tests herself about pieces of art while collecting her own photographs of the dead animals she spots on her walks. Lovingly written, Baume’s clipped and delicate sentences refuse to augur either newness or change.

Written in film, in painting, in fictions, and a thousand other frames to boot, Kevin Davey’s polyphonic Playing Possum is a delightful work in conversation with TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. Where all history is concurrent, all time is collapsible, Playing Possum’s rich allusions keeps the reader constantly on their toes.

Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 does not collapse but carousels time, charting the life of a Yorkshire village for ten years after the disappearance of a young girl. Every few sentences the narrative moves to new people, new weather, new seasons, creating a lyrical book told from the perspective of the whole village.

Gwendoline Riley’s First Love eschews counterbalance. A portrait of a toxic relationship, its tonal distance and brutal descriptions of love-gone-sour asks the reader to look – and never to look away – at a relationship gone very bad. Riley’s sentences have such punch and snap, they are perfectly weighted to their scathing task.

Narrated via a vast, 600-page paragraph, and via four characters and their various appendages, Will Self’s Phone is a mesh of mind, memories and Modernisms. As these various streams-of consciousness collide, the clever and acrobatic language dazzles and delights.

Alas, our conundrum. Six brilliant books, and only one prize. In the end, we chose the novel that had best ‘expanded the possibilities of the novel form’, and therefore best embodied the spirit of the prize. And so the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize goes to Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy.

Naomi Wood