Ali Smith: "The novel is a revolutionary force". Image: Rex
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Ali Smith wins the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize for her novel “How To Be Both”

The £10,000 prize for experimental fiction has been awarded to the Scottish writer for her sixth novel which is “dizzyingly good and so clever that it makes you want to dance”.

Ali Smith has been awarded the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize for her sixth novel How To Be Both. The Scottish-born writer’s previous works include four collections of short stories, seven novels – that is if you include the genre-defying essay collection Artful, as last year’s Goldsmiths judges chose to do in drawing up their inaugural shortlist – a memoir, Shire, and two plays. Smith collected the £10,000 award at a ceremony this evening (12 November) at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London.

After being shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize (for Hotel World in 2001, The Accidental in 2005, and How To Be Both in 2014), twice for the Orange (now Baileys) Prize (Hotel World and The Accidental), it has taken a literary contest dedicated to “opening up new possibilities for the novel” to fully recognise Smith’s long-standing commitment to language and form. Like Eimear McBride, the debut novelist who won in 2013 with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Smith seeks to find a path out of modernism which resists being dry or remote. Perhaps most remarkable (and in contrast to Girl) is that even in dealing with grief, as she frequently does, Smith has found a way to make that path feel optimistic.

How To Be Both is a kind of diptych: published in two editions with its two halves rearranged, exploring themes of gender, art, bereavement and politics to create a reading experience which resembles a fresco – layered, composite, visible from a number of angles. One half of the book concerns a clever and pedantic 16-year-old, George, and the differences between her and her passionate, free-thinking mother who has recently died. The other imagines the life of a little-known Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, about whom nothing more is known than that “he” asked for a pay rise. Like the “Time Passes” section in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, or more recently, Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, the two halves are linked in a non-linear conversation informed by the reader’s interpretation of events.

In her review of the book, the critic Frances Wilson wrote: “How To Be Both is a novel of ideas in which the ideas break free and float like figures in the fresco. It’s dizzyingly good and so clever that it makes you want to dance.” The Chair of Judges, Francis Spufford, who was joined this year by Geoff Dyer, Kirsty Gunn and NS Culture Editor Tom Gatti, said of the panel’s decision: “We are proud to give this year’s Goldsmiths Prize to a book which confirms that formal innovation is completely compatible with pleasure – that it can be, in fact, a renewal of the writer’s compact with the reader to delight and to astonish.”

The Prize, run in association with the New Statesman, is now in its second year and will continue to assert its place among the expanding number of prizes attempting to fit the increasingly diverse publishing landscape. Following her victory in 2013, McBride’s novel went on to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (plus a number of others) and publication rights were sold to Faber & Faber. “The support that winning the Goldsmiths Prize gave A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing changed the entire life of the book and my own with it,” she said earlier today. “It afforded me the, previously impossible, opportunity to connect with an interested, engaged readership and I am incredibly proud to have been its first recipient.”

After a reading by the shortlisted authors Goldsmiths University last month, an audience member asked each writer to describe their novels stood for. Some declined to answer, but Smith didn’t hesitate: “Justice and injustice, on a larger scale than we’re used to thinking about. Borderless justice.” When asked about originality in her work, she explained that while it may be the case there is nothing new under the sun, “The novel is a revolutionary force. It can do all sorts of things and reveals to us the cycles in history and changes in the things that happen to us as human beings ... there is something live about the novel that makes it brand new every time you find a shape for it. Even if Tristram Shandy did it first.”

Click here to read Frances Wilson’s review of How To Be Both

Click here to read Tom Gatti's account of the judging

Eimear McBride and Ali Smith both appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 30 November

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.