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.

G
Show Hide image

Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge