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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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war