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14 October 2020

Veteran science fiction writer makes the 2020 Goldsmiths shortlist

M John Harrison is one of two septuagenarian authors nominated for the prize for “literature at its most novel”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The 75-year-old science fiction author M John Harrison, who has written more than 25 books, is among the six writers shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize. The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is a realist fantasy which takes place on the banks of the Thames and the Severn in an unsettling world where certainty is collapsing. It follows the Viriconium series and Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, which, among his many other works, have gained Harrison recognition as one of the major stylists of modern fantasy.

The Goldsmiths Prize is a £10,000 award that is run in association with the New Statesman and celebrates fiction that “breaks the mould and extends the possibilities of the novel form”. The shortlist was announced online on 14 October.

The shortlisted novels are:
Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)
A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto & Windus)
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M John Harrison (Gollancz)
Meanwhile in Dopamine City by DBC Pierre (Faber)
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)
Bina by Anakana Schofield (Fleet)

In sharp contrast to this year’s debut-heavy Booker shortlist, the Goldsmiths list rewards experience, featuring authors who are advanced in their writing careers. Like Harrison, the British music critic, novelist and librettist Paul Griffiths is in his seventies. Mr. Beethoven, which reimagines the life of the composer, taking him to Boston in the 1830s, is his seventh work of fiction. 

The British-Chinese novelist, memoirist and film-maker Xiaolu Guo, is, in her forties, the youngest shortlisted author. A Lover’s Discourse, which takes its name from and speaks to the close study of the language of love in Roland Barthes’ 1977 book, is her tenth book.

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[See also: Bernardine Evaristo’s New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize lecture]

Together, the shortlisted books interrogate identity, politics and mortality. This year’s chair of judges, the biographer and critic Frances Wilson, said the six titles, which resonate with today’s “fragile and fractured times”, are “concerned with characters in extremis and loss of moorings”.

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One such character is Bina, who gives her name to the third novel by the Irish-Canadian author Anakana Schofield, whose second novel Martin John was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Bina is a darkly funny book following a septuagenarian who is part of an underground group that helps people die on their own terms in a country where assisted death is not yet legal.

Another is Aycayia in The Mermaid of Black Conch by the Trinidadian-born British writer Monique Roffey. Cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid, Aycayia has been left alone to swim in the Caribbean sea for centuries, until she becomes entranced by a local fisherman.

The fractured reality of the characters in the Australian novelist and former Booker winner DBC Pierre’s Meanwhile in Dopamine City is eeriest of all – for they exist in an imminent future, not at all far from ours. A widower watches as his daughter becomes addicted to her smartphone, while he wars with millennials, vloggers, memes and likes.

Along with Wilson, this year’s judging panel includes the author Sarah Ladipo Manyika (who was shortlisted for the prize in 2016), the short story writer and regular New Statesman critic Chris Power, and the novelist and poet Will Eaves (who has twice been shortlisted for the prize). 

The shortlist announcement follows Bernardine Evaristo’s New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize lecture, “The longform patriarchs, and their accomplices”. Previous winners of the prize include Lucy Ellmann, for Ducks, Newburyport, Eimear McBride, for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Ali Smith, for How To Be Both.

The shortlisted authors have been invited to present online readings, hosted by the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre, on 28 October. The winning author will be announced in an online ceremony on 11 November and will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 21 November.

[See also: Anna Leszkiewicz on why Lucy Ellmann’s “Ducks, Newburyport” won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize