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Kate Briggs: “I took a philosophical vocabulary and offered it to a baby”

The author of the Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted The Long Form on “patchwork” novels, and why childcare is a political act.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Kate Briggs grew up in Somerset and now lives in Rotterdam. She is the translator of two volumes of Roland Barthes’s lecture and seminar notes (The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live Together) and, with Roberto Nigro, of Michel Foucault’s Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology. Briggs explored the craft of translation in This Little Art, her 2017 book-length essay on the practice.

Her debut novel, The Long Form, follows the day-to-day life of Helen and her baby, Rose. Helen orders a copy of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, and begins to read, picking the book up and putting it down according to her moods and Rose’s needs. The Long Form, which is made up of short vignettes and graphic diagrams, merges the novel and literary theory, domesticating – and democratising – academic thought. It has been shortlisted for the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize.

Ellen Peirson-Hagger: Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you when writing this book.

Kate Briggs: A Whitney Houston track from the late Nineties. There were mornings when I’d listen to it more or less on repeat, though not for the lyrics! To be honest, I find them quite hard to believe in. But for the way it opens. It starts with a call and response. Then there’s this reassurance: “Clap your hands y’all/It’s alright.” Then there’s the refrain: “My love is your love and your love is my love.” It was this gesture of putting something forward only for it to be handed back with a slight variation that really spoke to me, along with all the differences that even the tiniest shift in emphasis can make. I’ve just looked it up and the rhetorical device is called “parallelism”: “A two-part construction wherein each phrase is equally important.” That feels highly relevant to what I hope is happening on the page between Helen and Rose.

There was a beautiful word I came across while working on The Long Form: enrhythment. I found it in a book called Rhythms: Form and Dispossession by Vincent Barletta, which is partly about the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey, whose ideas about involvement – aesthetic involvement, social involvement, and more generally the conditions under which people are enabled to get involved with each other as well as with works of art – were likewise very important to the book. For Dewey, it’s all a matter of rhythm. If there’s going to be a chance of anyone getting involved, of a reader feeling carried along by this novel that is so much about carrying then setting down then picking back up again, it’ll happen by way of enrhythment. I’d listen and re-listen to Whitney, to remind myself of this.

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[See also: Benjamin Myers: “Historical fiction is not all tabards and turnips”]

What most struck me about The Long Form is the positioning of literary theory within the domestic sphere. These conversations typically happen in the classroom or lecture hall. What does bringing them into the home do to the discussion?

In The Long Form a canonical novel gets delivered into the setting of the book – a home space, a living space. I wanted the book to explore how fictional housing situations relate, and perhaps even propose alternatives, to real ones, and how reading a novel, in this case Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, takes Helen both inward and outward – how reading changes, if only temporally, her felt relation to her own living room.

As for the larger questions of literary theory, or the even larger questions of philosophy and politics, my aim was more to show how they are also already in there with Helen and Rose, in their home. They are there, but phrased in a language and set of actions that still don’t tend to register as theoretical or political: the gestures of childcare. What I hoped this might do is collapse – or at least work a little bit further away at – the divisions so often reinforced between public/private spaces and the kinds of activities they support. This sense that it’s primarily outside of the home where the politics happens, the art happens, where the thinking and the most vital acts of the imagination take place. As if being at home, especially being at home with children, means opting out of all that. As if there were nothing else going on where children live than the reproduction of norms, the dominant social order. And as if a person’s day-to-day experience could have no real reach or relevance beyond their most immediate sphere.

I am deeply interested in literary questions and as a composition The Long Form is, too. But I’m even more interested in describing how ideas, along with people, enter and interact with the home, all kinds of homes, and how the thinking that happens at home actively enters and partakes of the world.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

Funnily enough, the image that comes most immediately to mind is a staff meeting. You know: the kind with a long-established protocol of who sits where, who speaks first, who takes who seriously, who takes the minutes, who makes the tea, and how long it all goes on for. Protocols that tend to work really well for some participants, but maybe not so much for the others. Then, one day, someone new comes in. Perhaps they have a strategic interest in messing with the formats of staff meetings. More likely they are just not accustomed to or trained in this way of doing things. Yet somehow, simply by being in the room, or asking a straightforward or naive-sounding question, they manage to make the obvious look unobvious: why put up with this strip lighting? Why do we always sit on these kinds of chairs when we could go outdoors?

That’s what’s valuable, I think: these moments in reading and writing when a long-established protocol gets registered all over again as a convention – reminding us that there are, of course and always, so many different ways of doing things. Translation provokes this, I think, with urgency and vital regularity. Translation is a way of repeatedly bringing innovation (by way of difference) in, even if what registers here as wholly novel might, in its original context, itself have operated like a convention.

[See also: Why we chose Benjamin Myers’s Cuddy as the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize winner]

I found the scenes written from the point of view of the protagonist’s baby, Rose, delightful. How did you inhabit that voice, and what do you hope it brings to the story?

I did print out some shapes and lie underneath them! (Rose spends quite a lot of time engaging with a black-and-white mobile.) I also reread passages from the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Colin Smith, in which he writes so beautifully about what it is to be in a sensing body in the world, responsive to light, to contrast, to small changes in temperature. I enjoyed repurposing a philosophical vocabulary and offering it to a baby. In terms of what Rose brings to the story, there were two main things: first, her presence as an active force, a protagonist in the novel. Then, I hope, her specificity. I wanted to write a portrait of mothering where – to go back to Whitney’s parallelism – both participants are equally important, and the baby is not simply anonymous, generic or interchangeable. Rose is Rose and Helen is Helen and the peculiar quality of the mothering and child-ing that unfolds between them depends – as I think it does in life – on the singular and important participation of them both.

The Long Form explores the ways in which reading affects our experience of the passing of time. Could you tell me more about that idea, and what it might teach us about the contemporary experience of reading “the long form”?

I became fascinated by what might sound obvious, but for me was like a revelation: that long forms, even the most continuous, deeply immersive, uninterrupted ones, are built from shorter, smaller parts. Then, by the related self-evidence that even the most continuous, flowing, ongoing reading experience, if it is of length, will have to at some point withstand and somehow accommodate interruption (I mean: the many moments when even the most engaged reader will have to put the book down). This led to a more general fascination with the differences between those relations or processes that seem to have a built-in duration, like a kettle which starts then after a few minutes comes to a stop, and those which, whether by chance or by necessity, need to carry on. I began describing The Long Form to myself as a novel about achieving length. Or, as a novel about how and when it is important to keep things going – which of course it’s not always. My question was: how to connect one small part to another, how to recover from a break or interruption and pick up a thread? How to renew the energy and the intention (from all sides) to carry on?

This was a major composition problem, but it also felt to me like a life problem: something to reckon with in our relations with other people – when and how to keep them going, when and how to cope with the fact that they can and do sometimes stop. But also with our environments: how to maintain them, keep coming back to them. There are of course many different long forms. Many different orders of durational relationship being maintained all the time – among humans and their environments, humans and non-humans, readers and novels, lovers, friends, the Earth and the weather. The relation between a mother and baby is just one among many, but it’s one where the stakes seemed to me to be very high. For this reason, I felt it had a chance of laying bare everything that’s also clearly at stake in our other long-form relations: the work of renewing interest, accommodating difference, staying in sync. Or regularly falling out but improvising ways of re-finding some kind of sync, which in The Long Form becomes a way of speaking about love.  

[See also: Richard Milward: “I use humour as a coping mechanism”]

The Long Form is your debut novel, following the non-fiction book This Little Art, in which you explore translation. Both books consider form and genre. How did The Long Form reveal itself to you as a novel?

There’s a section in the book on names and how they matter – the names we bestow on people, for obviously “Helen” and “Rose” are very particular names, loaded with all manner of social information. But also the names we give to bits or stretches of writing. Clearly, they matter too: call a book a work of non-fiction and it reads in a particular way, it invites a different attitude from the outset. As for The Long Form, I would tell myself (along with my editors): it’s a novel with essay parts. No, it’s an essay with novel parts.

I came to embrace this restlessness. It seemed to me to operate a bit like the mobile that features in the book. Again, I was interested in what changes (both for me as the writer and for a potential reader) with even the slightest shift in emphasis. For example, I’d stress the novel aspect and that would allow me to take time over descriptions of spaces and feelings; it would give me permission to make things up. I’d stress the essay aspect, which would authorise me to bring in other people’s ideas. But in the end, it was clear that we were calling it a novel. Mostly because of the novel’s tradition of hospitality, the way, as a form, it has always accommodated different kinds of writing. Also, because The Long Form is actively engaged with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones – a book which called itself a “history” but was renamed a novel. Fielding’s book, too, is a novel with essay parts (or the other way around).

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

There is a massive pressure on writers, especially emerging writers, to have a clear sense of what their work is doing, why it’s doing it, and how it sits alongside (but nevertheless differs from) other, recent “comparable” titles – and to know all this long before they’ve had a chance to write the book they most want to write. The Goldsmiths Prize holds open a space for the experimental in the strong sense of testing, risking for the sake of discovery (or rediscovery), and for writing invested in asking: is this possible? Can I make this work? What happens if I try? As both a writer and a reader, I’m deeply grateful for it.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

In keeping with The Long Form’s interest in 18th-century, English-language experimentation with the novel form, I nominate Jane Barker’s A Patchwork Screen for the Ladies, published in 1725, 20 or so years before Fielding’s Tom Jones and six years after Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It’s a frame-novel that holds all sorts of materials: overheard stories, found stories, recipes, poems, songs, bits of philosophy. In the preface, Barker points explicitly to what she could see Defoe was up to, with his focus on a single consciousness: one “main” character in a specific setting. She said: not that. She wanted a more unstructured, “patch’d” form for her own political as well as aesthetic reasons. When I first read Barker’s description of the intentions for her work, I felt I could hear a kind of call and response occurring between her project and Roland Barthes’s dream of writing a novel like a patchwork, formulated in the very different context of the Collège de France. I loved that. For that’s what writing a novel is like, I think. It’s entering into an unbounded space criss-crossed with calls and unlikely, untimely responses, with forms and approaches constantly being handed back and forth, and answering back.

Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here. The winner of the prize will be announced on 8 November.

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