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.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

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