Portrait of an Man with a Ring by Francesco del Cossa. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala, Florence
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Ali Smith wins the Goldsmiths Prize 2014: a judge’s view

Most prizes for fiction narrow the playing field somehow: women writers, first novels, young authors. But the Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman, goes one step further and applies some critical criteria: its winner must display “creative daring” and open up “new possibilities for the novel form”. Only fiction “at its most novel” need apply.

The prize is in its second year, following Eimear McBride’s win in 2013 for her debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. It took McBride nine years to find a publisher for it. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style and harrowing in its subject matter, it is a stunning book but not an easy one. After taking the £10,000 prize, it went on to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and publication rights were bought by Faber & Faber.

When I sat down with my fellow judges – the authors Kirsty Gunn, Geoff Dyer and Francis Spufford – over institutional coffee and cling-film-wrapped custard creams at Goldsmiths, University of London, in New Cross, it became clear that pinning the tail on the donkey of “creative daring” was not going to be easy.

Was it most present in the dense, allusive narrative of Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know or the Old English “shadow tongue” of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake? In Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist, novels full of different voices but whose narrators are missing or barely there? Or in Howard Jacobson’s shape-shifting J? We agreed that we couldn’t reward writers simply for novelty: these books also had to have a life and truth of their own.

On 12 November, at Foyles on the Charing Cross Road, we announced our winner: Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. It is a book of two halves. One, set in the present day, follows George, a teenage girl who is trying to cope with the death of her mother. The other is narrated by a fresco painter in Renaissance Italy. Half the copies are printed in one order, half in the reverse – so you might meet George first, then Francesco, or vice versa.

It’s a brilliant trick, allowing Smith to tell two stories simultaneously, layered like versions of a fresco on a wall. The novel leaps between past, present and future tenses and interior and exterior states with a joyous fleet-footedness. This is not a book “about” gender or grief or art, though it illuminates all of those themes. At an event last month, the shortlisted writers were asked what their novels stood for. Some declined to answer but Smith did not hesitate: “Justice and injustice, on a larger scale than we’re used to thinking about. Borderless justice.”

Over her 19-year career, Smith has not won any of the big UK prizes: the Booker, the Baileys/Orange, the Costa/Whitbread book of the year. Her work constantly plays with language and form but its likeability and optimism have, perhaps, perversely counted against her. In his recent guest edit of this magazine, Grayson Perry complained about the “branding of seriousness” and the assumption that good art must tackle the “tortured agonies of existence”. In How to Be Both, Francesco learns from another painter the “serious nature of lightness”. It’s a lesson Ali Smith teaches with every sentence. 

Tom Gatti is the culture editor of the New Statesman

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

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt