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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue