Not the Goldsmiths Prize?
By MICHAEL CAINES
The Goldsmiths Prize is, many people seem to agree, a very good thing. It seems to put the whole dubious mechanism of modern literary prize culture to critically serious use; it has brought about what Ali Smith has called the "miracle" of encouraging publishers to take risks on relatively experimental works of fiction.
Feel free to reply: "Well, she would say that, wouldn't she?" For Ali Smith won last year's prize, with How To Be Both; before her, there was Eimear McBride, who won the inaugural prize in 2013, for A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Both women seemed to be favourites to win. This year, however, all that can be said with certainty is that the Goldsmiths winner will be male. . . .
That's because this year's shortlisted books are all by men – there was a "low number of eligible entries by women", according to McBride, who is one of this year's judges. Given the Goldsmiths prize's "previously unblemished record", she writes, "hopefully" (ahem) this will turn out to be an anomaly – a "blip".
For the obvious reasons (in this day and age . . . and all that jazz), I share that hope. Just for the critical hell of it, though, with respect to the Goldsmiths judges, and more in tribute-to than competition-with them, here is an alternative, all-female list: fiction published this year that "breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form" (and happens to be written by women).
Every year, the Guardian runs an enjoyable sideshow to the Man Booker Prize: the Not the Booker prize, in which the process of choosing the best novel of the year is thrown democratically open. This year, for example, out of a long list of seventy books, a shortlist of six has emerged and almost 1,000 votes were cast. Let's hope the voters have voted for books they've read – "I seem to be the only person on the planet who has read all the entries on the shortlist. Or even, possibly, more than two of them", Sam Jordison, the Not the Booker's Ion Trewin, wrote a few years ago (is there no end to the vitiating mishaps of the judging process?).
No, I don't think the Goldsmiths Prize is in need of a similar annual sideshow. And we're not in the prize-giving business. For this year only, though, maybe an alternative shortlist would be a good idea. There'll be no voting, no money changing hands; these six choices are based on nothing more than asking around, some idle Twittering and some recommendations from the TLS's fiction editors. No publishers should slap "Shortlisted for the Not the Goldsmiths Prize" stickers on their stock – as if they would.
In fact, most significantly, we've veered away almost entirely from the Goldsmiths concentration on novels – so this is "Not the Goldsmiths" in more senses than one. You could see this as conceding the point about "eligible" titles – or perhaps we could say that veering is what "new possibilities" is all about, and much of the interesting work is happening around the borderland between short story collections and "fully fledged" novels.
Further recommended veerings are welcome. What are the books that, in the words of the Goldsmiths website, evince a "spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best"?
The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize will be announced on November 11.
1 Pond – Claire-Louise Bennett. "Unified and hallucinogenic" stories, the critic John Self told me the other day – a short story collection but narrated by a single narrator. In the (temporary) absence of a TLS review, why not read his? Or Ruth Gilligan's?
2 Don't Try This at Home – Angela Readman. Already the winner of various awards. Described by its own publisher as quirky (hmm). Reminiscent of Angela Carter and Katherine Dunn, says For Books' Sake. That's more like it.
3 An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It – Jessie Greengrass. One story here begins: "Sometimes I dream that there is still the internet". It begins with the title story and proceeds – via "On Time Travel", "Winter 2058" and "The Politics of Minor Resistance" – to "Scropton, Sudbury, Marchington, Uttoxeter". What, you need to know more?
4 The Measure of Reality – Maija Timonen. Stories, in some cases just single paragraphs, described on the back cover as "Funny, mordantly sexy, witty, true". I'm not sure about the "sexy" part. There's a bleak wind of loneliness blowing through the life of Timonen's female, city-dwelling protagonist. And there's absurdity, too: the obsession that grows out of smelling a neighbour's aftershave; the way "I'm OK" sounds less convincing the more it is repeated ("I'm OK. I'm OK. I'm OK. I'm OK . . ."); panicking when trying to find a reference in book and thus making it more difficult to find the reference.
5 Devotion – Ros Barber. Every reviewer of this book is honour-bound to point out that her first, The Marlowe Papers, wasn't in prose. This automatically, undeniably makes Devotion a departure – "not quite as profound as I had anticipated", the Independent's reviewer wrote, but a near-future "page-turner", nonetheless, about science and religion. The Financial Times found it "challenging and at times a little confusing", but was impressed by Barber's precise language, as was the TLS's Catherine Higgins Moore, who quotes one character's observation that "Unconsciously we are casting spells on ourselves . . . . Language is how we create the reality we live in".
6 spill simmer falter wither – Sara Baume. One Irishman and his rescue dog. Described by David Collard in the TLS as "engaging, intriguing and brightly original first novel may mark a comparably significant debut", although the "nameless protagonist never fully convinces . . . because the author seems deliberately to avoid settling on a persuasive voice".