Eimear McBride: “From a few male critics I heard the sound of petrified gonads retracting in distaste”

The Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted author of The Lesser Bohemians on writing sex (without soft lighting) and exorcising the ghost of James Joyce.

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When Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing emerged in 2014, it was a revelation. The New Yorker called it “blazingly original”. The Guardian, an “instant classic”.

I remember that summer as the first one where PhD students my age, normally ensconced in their scholarly pursuits, claiming not to have the time to dedicate to new writing, started talking about this amazing book that you really should read. For my part, I was so enamoured with A Girl that I skipped the afternoon of a modernist conference to finish it off on the grass outside the venue, only to find that Jacqueline Rose had given her keynote on McBride. (There's a lesson there.)

The launch of McBride's new book, The Lesser Bohemians, now shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize that A Girl won in 2014, caused no less feeling. I think I gasped when my review copy arrived, then ignored everything – e-mails, colleagues, partner, housemates – to read it. Unlike McBride’s first novel, The Lesser Bohemians resonated not with my sense of misery but of happiness, taking me back to the first few weeks away from home, the intense friendships you forge with the women you meet there, and how it feels to fall in love against your expectations (and, sometimes, against your better judgement).

The prose was heady. The change of narrator in the middle of the book – which some critics have taken issue with – barely registered until it ended, and I felt myself swimming up, as if from a dream, back to Éilís. The only good metaphor I can think of is the experience of leaving the cinema in the afternoon and being surprised to find it still light out. I was deliciously disoriented.

But pouncing on a review copy can be a lonely experience. I nagged colleagues to get to their copies, before demanding that my boyfriend read it so I’d have someone to talk to – only to become seethingly jealous that he was going through the unparalleled joy of reading it for the first time. 

It was a pleasure, then, to catch up with McBride ahead of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize announcement, to ask her about experimental writing, small publishing houses, and why she’d be a lunatic if she didn't write.

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What does the Goldsmiths Prize mean for today’s literary landscape?

Its arrival was the first significant sign of opposition to publishing’s fairly comprehensive dismissal of writing preoccupied with interrogating and expanding the possibilities of the form. Because of it those possibilities are now probabilities which is great news for the survival, and revival, of the novel and for a readership long starved of fresh innovation. This, in turn, is changing the whole landscape of publishing. New writers are not venturing out into as automatically hostile an environment as they were only a short time ago while neglected writers are seeing new audiences opening up for their work. The Goldsmiths Prize role in this renaissance shouldn’t be underestimated.

What does “innovative” or “experimental” writing allow you to do that more conventional form might not? How self-conscious is your use of form – do you pick it, or does it feel like you don’t have much choice?

For me experimental writing allows space for more humanity to creep through onto the page. From the start I knew that writing for me was trying to more completely capture the wholeness and immediacy of the moment. Forcing language to do what the mind and body take for granted. Grammatical sentence structure sets a false linear construction on the experience of life. Humanity is far more sophisticated than grammar. We can act, react, think and experience all at once and I’m keen to find ways of making language replicate that. If humanity was wiped off the face of the earth and aliens rebuilt us to process information in accordance with grammatical sentence structures, how slow evolution would become…

As far as choice of form goes, I pick and I do not pick. When I first began writing I knew I wanted to find a different narrative perspective to write from and with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing I think I achieved that. The Lesser Bohemians is an evolution of that style and it was interesting to see how it was affected by application to a very different kind of person. Then slapping it up against the nineteenth century first person monologue, to see how the two compare and interact was fascinating. But underneath all of that, I was just scrabbling around for truth and the best vehicle for it.

How does it feel to write after Joyce, or in dialogue with Joyce, but repurpose some of his methods for a woman's story?

I don’t think about Joyce much anymore and I’ve never thought of my writing as being in dialogue with his. Joyce’s primary importance to me was his role as gatekeeper. He told me all the land yonder was mine for the taking and I’ve been busying myself about that project ever since. There’s no denying he’s the shadow I live under in terms of critical appraisal however, which can be quite irritating. Some critics are rather blinded by his light and can therefore only see my work in terms not fulfilling his remit – which is missing the point  or else are too lazy to bother considering that an Irish writer with an interest in modernism and language might actually be using them to different ends, which I am.

Modernism is an excellent tool for laying the life of the mind over the life of the body then showing both in 3D. Multi-layered representations of the female experience are hugely important in the struggle for true equality so this is a useful weapon against the unceasing hum of disapprobation which forms the background muzak of most women’s lives.

It seems impossible now to ignore the power of small publishing houses. What advice would you give to readers – and editors – seeking to find innovative fiction?

Read widely and go buy your books from indie bookshops where the staff will invariably have something great from off the beaten track to show you.

Why do critics bang on so much about the fact Éilís has a sex life? Is it prudishness, titillation, or something more?

Well there is a lot of sex in The Lesser Bohemians so it’s natural it should come up in reviews. Most reviewers have been clever enough to notice it’s presence is about character development but there have been a few male reviewers of a, shall we say, more conservative bent who seem unable to cope with the notion of a woman having sexual agency and using it in ways that do not involve soft lighting, massage oils or a silky negligee.

At first I was quite bewildered by the creakingly puritanical tone emanating from these quarters but then I realised it was actually the sound of petrified gonads retracting in distaste at the thought of a young woman seeking out sex, all kinds of sex with all kinds of people, and either really enjoying or really not enjoying it but always being the one who chooses it for herself. Even worse is her not being punished for it either, not by society and not by me. Funny how no similar objections were raised to the graphic portrayal of a girl being abused and raped in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, except it’s not funny, is it?

Why is such a high proportion of the Goldsmiths shortlisted work by Irish writers?

Language I suppose. Something about the interesting shapes visible in the skin of English once it’s been stretched over the skeleton of Irish. Maybe that. Maybe chance. That we all have a Co. Mayo connection is weirder and that last year’s winner, Kevin Barry, lives in nearby Co. Sligo heavily suggests that the west of Ireland exerts a strong influence on the writing mind. It’s probably related to having to spend a lot of time indoors due to the rain.

Which past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

Night by Edna O’Brien. It’s a much underappreciated gem in her back catalogue and an utter delight of both language and form.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

A lunatic.

“The Lesser Bohemians” is published by Faber & Faber

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, announced on 9 November, will appear in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 26 November.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.