Joanna Walsh: “Being a writer is all about being a reader”

The Goldsmiths Prize judge on the point of experimental fiction and who she’d give a retrospective award to.

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Joanna Walsh is the author of HotelVertigo and Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex – a topic on which she has also contributed to the New Statesman. Deborah Levy has said that she is “fast becoming one of our most important writers”. This year, Walsh is also on the Goldsmiths Prize judging panel. We asked her what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table.

What’s the value of the Goldsmiths Prize?

The value of the Goldsmiths Prize is £10,000 which – in this age of decreasing advances and writer incomes, as well, some might say, of publisher timidity in taking on unusual books – is more than it might look.

What does “innovative” or “experimental” writing allow you to do that more conventional form might not?

It’s difficult to draw boundaries around form, and even experimentalism has its own traditions, which can establish themselves very quickly. The decision to experiment is largely a question of intent, which is also a question of understanding, and taking a decision to work against, the prevailing literary culture. Deliberate innovation or “experimentation” can’t be done without context, so “experimentation” is perhaps a more conservative gesture than it can appear. However it’s difficult to become a writer without reading so there's no avoiding the decision to “innovate” or follow a tradition. 

How do you make the shift from being a writer to judging other people’s work?

Being a writer is all about being a reader, so there’s very little difference, except that, when judging, you’re not allowed to give up on a book you don’t like. I work as an editor, a reviewer, and occasionally teach creative writing so for me judging is part of the spectrum of understanding what writing is and what it could be.

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

I’d like to give the retrospective Goldsmiths Prize to Stewart Home's 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess (2002), which provides an alternative canon by alternating an expert primer on postwar innovative British literature with pages of badly-written porn. It was presumably written for 15-year-olds and should be on the school syllabus. 

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

If I weren’t a writer, I’d be a different person.

Read the rest of the Goldsmiths Prize interviews here.

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