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Modernist masters and oddball challengers: the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist

A first novel about a fictionalised TS Eliot from a tiny press is up against Will Self and Nicola Barker for the 2017 prize. 

A debut novel published by a tiny independent press has made the shortlist for the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize. Playing Possum by Kevin Davey – praised by one of the judges, AL Kennedy, for its “mosaic plot and dark humour” – has a fictionalised TS Eliot, wanted for murder, pursued from London to Whitstable, 90 years after he spent a night there in 1922. It is up against books by the modernist heavyweights Nicola Barker and Will Self, as well as fifth novels by Jon McGregor and Gwendoline Riley. Sara Baume, who, aged 33 is the youngest shortlistee in the prize’s history, is nominated for her second novel. None have been previously shortlisted for the prize.

Here’s the list in full:

H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker, published by William Heinemann
A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, published by William Heinemann
Playing Possum by Kevin Davey, published by Aaaargh Press
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, published by 4th Estate
First Love by Gwendoline Riley, published by Granta Books
Phone by Will Self, published by Viking

The shortlist was announced by the chair of judges, Naomi Wood, at Goldsmiths University on the evening of 27 September, after the second annual New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize Lecture. The talk on the art of the novel was given by Ali Smith, who won the prize in 2014 for How to Be Both. (The first lecture was delivered by Howard Jacobson, who spoke in defence of the comic novel.) The judging panel for the 2017 prize included the writers Kevin Barry (who won in 2015) and AL Kennedy, and the author, singer-songwriter and NS columnist Tracey Thorn. 

The prize was co-founded by Goldsmiths and the New Statesman in 2013 to reward “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. In its four years it has launched new literary stars – Eimear McBride, who won the first prize – and changed the debate around what readers and publishers look for in a novel. Ali Smith has credited the prize with altering the publishing landscape: “The change it’s made is that publishers, who never take risks in anything, are taking risks on works which are much more experimental than they would’ve two years ago,” she told the Bookseller in 2015. “That, to me, is like a miracle.”

Naomi Wood, a novelist and a lecturer at Goldsmiths, said: “Our six shortlisted books offer resistance to the received idea of how a novel should be written. Variously, they break the rules on continuity, time, character arcs, perspective, voice, typographical conventions and structure. As such, there is a wildness to all of our shortlisted novels that provokes in the reader a joyful inquiry about just what a novel might be there to do.” 

In a striking echo of the language of the Goldsmiths Prize, earlier this month Lola, Baroness Young, the chair of the Man Booker judges, talked about the “intrepid” nature of the Booker-shortlisted novels, which she praised for pushing “against the borders of convention”. Unlike the Booker – which in 2014 changed its rules to allow all writers working in English, including Americans, to enter – Goldsmiths retains its focus on British and Irish fiction. Though Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this is the first year that there is no cross-over between the Booker and Goldsmiths shortlists.

The Goldsmiths Prize has a good track record in spotting interesting work from small publishers: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was published by the Norwich independent Galley Beggar Press and Mike McCormack’s 2016 winner Solar Bones was published by the Dublin-based publisher Tramp Press. (After winning the prize, both books were picked up by major publishers.) This year Aaaargh! Press will be hoping that their title Playing Possum will get a boost from the shortlisting. The imprint – run by the journalist and academic Paul Anderson and the Chinese-British poet Anna Chen, who describe themselves as “socialists of a countercultural, libertarian bent” – is a “shoestring operation” that produces “an e-book every couple of months and a paperback every year or so with a bit of luck”. 

So far, an English writer has not won the prize: Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack are Irish and Ali Smith is Scottish. With only one non-English writer on the shortlist this year (Sara Baume, who is Irish), there is a chance that the prize’s Celtic run may finally be broken. We’ll find out when the winner is announced at Foyles in central London on 15 November. (The winner will then be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday November 26.)

Here’s what the judges had to say about the books:

Kevin Barry on H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker:
“Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy is a work of vaulting ambition. It is deathly serious but played out with the lightest of touches. She takes the vapid discourse of social media blather, with all its ‘likes’ and ‘favourites’, and extrapolates madly to make a language for an utterly believable future world, a world enslaved by the blandness of its technology. Line by line, the novel carefully builds its music and teases out its crazed riffs. It’s very funny but there are pockets of great eeriness, and of savagery even. It’s a novel-as-object, too, with a typography employed as visual code, but its design always has a narrative purpose. Only a writer of uncanny ability could bring this novel to such memorable, pulsing life. It’s very moving.”

Tracey Thorn on A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume:
“In Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking, a young artist struggling with depression leaves the city and moves into a rural bungalow, the empty home of her dead grandmother, where, immersed in nature, she takes photographs of the dead creatures she finds in the surrounding fields. These very photos then appear throughout the novel, punctuating the text, in a way that serves to blur the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Frankie, the narrator, experiences and records the natural world in unstinting detail, turning aside from it repeatedly to make equally detailed notes on the artworks which she has studied and which inspire her. Testing herself. Stuck in a rut but looking for a way out. There is an obsessive quality to all this, in a novel which picks apart strands of loneliness, art, misery and family, trying to work out where we fit in the world, and what sadness means, and what on earth might help.”

AL Kennedy on Playing Possum by Kevin Davey:
Playing Possum is a vastly energetic and confident book, a narrative that races along, packed with references and cross references mingling literature, film, time travel and visual art. 90 years after the first publication of The Waste Land - and perhaps far too late – a modern day protagonist seeks proof of a murder and flight. A fictional investigator pursues a fictionalised – and murderous – TS Eliot from London towards a perhaps fictitious night spent at a hotel in Whitstable in 1922. The aftermath of his deed may have been immortalised in a suitably shocking painting by possible accomplice Otto Dix. Davey’s plot begins to tangle and gambol from the outset. The text – filled with dialogue, asides and allusions – is rich enough to repay rereading. Its time jumps and linguistic experimentation, its mosaic plot and dark humour is a joyful exploration of the novel’s boundaries as a form.”

AL Kennedy on Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor:
“Jon McGregor gives us a novel of quiet but profound resonance. The fulcrum of a young girl’s tragic disappearance is used to turn a small Peak District village through years of change, loss and the sheer passage of time. Lovers age, relationships crumble and begin, children grow, the old turn frail, chances are taken, experiments fail and heartbreak still rages and echoes long after headlines have perished. Time itself and its merciless progress are allowed to track across the book’s generous timescale and the title rings with ever-louder significance. The frail but generous life of the surrounding countryside is accurately and lyrically noted, a balancing source of renewal and tenderness – equally under pressure. This is a book which isn’t afraid of taking on life’s complexity or the communal life of people battling austerity and the wear and tear of simply existing. The passions and dramas of small people – often invisible in our culture – are allowed to shine in dignity.”

Kevin Barry on First Love by Gwendoline Riley:
“The measure of invention in Gwendoline Riley’s First Love is in the measure of its affront to the world. The novel is a forensic dissection of a notably demented relationship, displaying all of its barbs and poison darts, but showing its moments of odd tenderness, too, and its stumbles in the darkness of love. Riley’s sentences have such punch and snap to them, and they are perfectly weighted to their scathing task. She teases out the night-black, tormented comedy of her scenes to hysterical effect – this is an achingly funny book. Also, it is completely unrelenting, and focused, and it gets its hooks in the reader at once. It leaves scars.”

Naomi Wood on Phone by Will Self:
“Narrated via a sweeping 600-page paragraph, Will Self’s Phone is an extraordinary novel. Voiced by four different characters (and their various inner ghouls and outer appendages), Self presents the minds of its main characters marked by trauma, inexplicable memory, and sometimes joy. Very soon, the reader is seduced by each character’s ‘mind-language’ which, forcefully, and without signalling, then breaks into the next. In the novel’s web of minds and memories, the reader is kept close by Self’s artful turn of phrase and linguistic acrobatics. A fascinating next-stage in Self’s modernist trilogy.”

 

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.

 

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist