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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear