The Goldsmiths Prize: Where the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction cede to creativity

After the Booker Prize's announcement that it will accept English-language across the globe, the Goldsmiths Prize occupies a unique position. Its debut shortlist was revealed this morning.

Blake Morrison, lecturer in poetry at Goldsmiths University, has written that the presiding genius of the new Goldsmiths Prize will be that of Laurence Sterne: the novelist and priest whose genre-bending masterpiece Tristram Shandy continues to subvert readers’ expectations 300 years after it was first published. But really, judging by the shortlist announced this morning, it seems the spectre that will haunt the prize is that of W G Sebald.

Some of the most satisfying new novels of the last two years have taken Sebald’s ambulatory blend of fiction and fact, and made of them something funny and new, which speaks to our historical moment. Now that the Booker has entered into the same broad territory as its newest rival the Folio Prize – both with much larger prize funds than the Goldsmiths’ – the Goldsmiths Prize occupies a unique position. Not only is it the last large prize with the capacity to raise obscure and interesting British authors to international prominence (along with their publishers), it is the only prize which focuses on innovation first and foremost.

Jim Crace’s atmospheric Harvest, which looks likely to triumph at this year’s Booker Prize, tells the story of the widowed Walter Thirsk, who recalls the cataclysmic harvest week in which a wandering family arrives, uprooted by enclosure, signalling an end of collective rural values. Nicola Barker, one of the prize judges, has called David Peace’s Red or Dead “a broken heart and a nervous breakdown.” It is a cumulative, repetitive statement of might-have-beens centred on the life of former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. Just as Sebald’s opus Austerlitz blends history, biography and fiction, Peace’s book is written out of a deep, personal preoccupation with its protagonist, rather than a desire to please. Similarly Ali Smith’s Artful. In selecting this short book the panel of judges have made a bold statement about their interest in books that are novel, rather than novels. Artful takes the form of an essay selection, or a series of lectures. It invites the reader into the home of its bereaved narrator, who uses her memories as a counterpoint to draw conclusions on the world art of and literature.

Three smaller publishers have made it onto the list alongside the more established houses Picador, Penguin and Faber. Melville House, founded in 2001 and operating out of London and New York, Galley Beggar Press, founded in 2011 and based in Norwich, and Reality Street, based in Hastings. Lars Iyer, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Newcastle, has been shortlisted for his funny, sad “tour of the ruins of the humanities”. Exodus is fiction as argument, written in the dialectical tradition, about everything in British culture that is priceless and irreplaceable. A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing by Irish/British novelist Eimear McBride took nine years to find a publisher (a similar story to the recent “industry success story” A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava), while the background to Philip Terry’s Tapestry seems placed as if to taunt the Booker Prize board by focusing on the creation of a symbol of Britain's creation mythology: the sewing of the Bayeux tapestry.

One thing these books all share is the threat of the dread label “experimental fiction”. They may seem needlessly difficult, or opaque to some, but to their admirers they are refusing to compromise their vision, even as the wheels fall off the publishing machine. Now more than ever literature must expand its horizons. Where the “anti-novel jihadist” David Shields recommended a swift death for large, sprawling novels in Reality Hunger, the Goldsmiths Prize encourages innovation, while refusing to give up on creation ex nihilo. It will encourage young writers to write boldly, to remain faithful to their instincts, and to be formally inventive. It will provide a breakwater against the common fear of a culture in which artists are dogged by the constant fear of Amazon reviews. At least, I hope it will.

The winner of the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize will be announced on 13 November 2013

From top-left to right: Philip Terry, Eimear McBride, Lars Iyer, Ali Smith, Jim Crace and David Peace. Images: Naoya Sanuki, Andrew Bainbridge and Sarah Wood.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue