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

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.