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Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2017: the New Statesman’s author Q&As

We spoke to the six authors shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, which rewards the most innovative fiction.

The winner of the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman, will be announced on November 15. Here are our Q&As with the six shortlisted authors.

Will Self: The nostalgia of the “heritage novel” leaves me reaching for my gun

“I think the 20th century saw tremendous advances in the novel form; in particular the suite of techniques – stream-of-consciousness, privileging the mimetic over the diegetic, the 'Uncle Charles' principle, the incorporation of film-editing techniques, the use of non-locatable allusion – that we characterise as 'modernism'. There has been a wholesale retreat from these innovations, in my view, into a kind of 'heritage novel', if you like, a Downton Abbey...”

Kevin Davey: “TS Eliot was far more than the sum of his prejudices”

“I haven’t been greatly impressed by attempts to appropriate Eliot as gay, or bisexual, or an ecological pioneer or New Age guru. He was a High Church Anglican cultural theorist. Recent developments [in Eliot scholarship] probably gave something to push back against.”

Gwendoline Riley: “Human beings are incorrigible. This is a source of humour and pain”

“A reader – unless they’re a real genre fiend – might find a novel more worthwhile if its language isn’t off the peg, if it doesn’t feel obliged to hit the same old beats, if it’s not ersatz. But who knows, all or any of that might just make said reader hostile!”

Nicola Barker: “I’m a niche writer and see no harm in it. I like niches”

“I never see my work as having any kind of shelf-life. I write for the moment and that’s it, really. I take my engagement with the work seriously but nothing else. It’s kind of like chewing on a toffee, ferociously, and then swallowing it and thinking, ‘Hmm. What next?’ Over the years I’ve lost all ambition.”

Sara Baume: “The only right way of writing is to follow your interests with conviction”

“Ray, my 57-year-old man, was a version of me, adapted from certain qualities and tendencies, exaggerated. Frankie is just another version, adapted from other qualities and tendencies, exaggerated.”

Jon McGregor: I wanted to show how we normalise male violence

“I know that when I'm reading one of the first things I look for is a sign that the writer cares about the reader's experience; and that often this care is demonstrated by an attention to form. 'Innovation' should be implicit in the act of writing, or at least in the process of rewriting; the writer should have something they want to share with the reader, in a way that feels fresh or new or special.”

Photos: Chris Close / Eamonn McCabe / Courtesy of the authors

Listen to The Back Half podcast’s special episode on the Goldsmiths Prize nominees, on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

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