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12 November 2014updated 28 Nov 2014 9:58am

Ali Smith wins the Goldsmiths Prize 2014: a judge’s view

By Tom Gatti

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.

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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