The Goldsmiths Prize: A rizing star
by TOBY LICHTIG
It is often tempting to carp about the hype of literary awards. I’ve done as much myself. But there was something genuinely exciting about Wednesday night’s Goldsmiths Prize.
The award was set up earlier this year to “celebrate fiction that breaks the mould and opens up new possibilities for the novel form”, and its four judges – Jonathan Derbyshire, Gabriel Josipovici, Nicola Barker and Tim Parnell (who chaired) – selected a genuinely intriguing shortlist, bursting with innovation, individuality and fresh ideas about the possibilities for fiction.
Jim Crace may have spent a career forging a now-familiar style, but in nominating Harvest, the judges reminded us that the author’s approach to writing novels is both stylistically and thematically radical, from his distinctive, rhythmic, iambic prose to his use of history to reflect on contemporary politics: both aspects combining in an ethics of fabular storytelling.
Lars Iyer, who was nominated for Exodus – the third instalment in his comic trilogy of anti-philistine novels – has been redefining the existential anti-hero for several years now, combining fiction and philosophy with great wit and invention. Ali Smith is one of Britain’s most interesting novelists and Artful is another blend of forms, merging fiction with literary criticism (the book grew out of a series of lectures Smith delivered at St Anne’s College, Oxford). Not everyone is even sure that it’s a “proper” novel – which probably makes it the perfect candidate for the award.
What I liked most about the shortlist was that its books tend to divide opinion. In different ways, they are all challenging, sometimes awkward, not always “easy” to read. Artful troubled some critics and didn't receive unanimous praise. I personally found Red or Dead by David Peace (an author I much admire and whose previous novels I’d enjoyed) almost insultingly rebarbative. Some agreed with me; others loved it. What I do acknowledge, however, is that it is admirably defiant. Peace has always tried to do new things with his fiction, and in Red or Dead he stretches his ethics of repetition to its elastic limit (snapping it, in my opinion). One critic I know described it to me as “a kind of anti-novel”, which I think is true. Whatever the case, it’s impossible to feel lukewarm about it.
But the best thing about this inaugural award was the choice of winner. (I should at this point confess to having missed Philip Terry’s Tapestry; at least its nomination for the Goldsmiths has prompted me to order it from my local bookstore.) A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride is by the far the most exciting novel I’ve read this year. Its urgent, wholly unique voice transforms what is in some ways a relatively conventional story – the linear narrative from birth to early adulthood of a girl growing up in small-town Ireland – into a head-long plunge into another person’s life and chaotic emotional development. It is bruising, breathtaking, entirely compelling, extremely sad and often very funny. I’m not the only person I know who has already read it twice. I’m also not the only person who was reduced on both readings to streams of tears. McBride’s novel shows us, as do all the nominated books, in their different ways, that form must be the perfect complement to content: a point that Tim Parnell made when announcing the award.
The Goldsmiths Prize is fantastic news for an author who took eight years to get her book published in the first place (the tale of the novel’s gestation is a drama in itself). It’s fantastic news for Galley Beggar Press – an excellent, small outfit run from Norwich on a tiny budget (look out, in particular, for Jonathan Gibbs’s debut novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape – out next year – which, if a recent reading is anything to go by, should be excellent). It’s fantastic news for literature as a whole. And – dare I say it? – it’s fantastic news for “prize culture”. The Goldsmiths Prize may not “replace” the newly expanded Man Booker, as some critics have rather cheekily been suggesting, but if this first year is anything to go by it is already fulfilling a need: for the recognition of genuinely novel novels.
The only downer on the night was the missing “p” on McBride’s rather handsome expressionist trophy, which broke off not long after the presentation (we were assured she’d kept the piece in her handbag for future gluing). This left her the winner of the “Goldsmiths Rize”: a sign, if nothing else, of the author’s – and the award’s – ascendancy.