I’m supposed to be writing about the books that I read in October, but the award last night of the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing has diverted my train of thought. It’s not entirely unconnected: after all, the book I was reading at the beginning of October was Jim Crace’s Harvest, the only book to be on both the Goldsmiths and Man Booker shortlists.
This is, to put it mildly, a crossroads year for literary prizes in the UK. The 2013 Man Booker was the last prize to keep to its original remit of British/Irish/Commonwealth writers, before widening to any book written in English and published in the UK – which has been generally seen as a shift towards the US, and thus the end of an era. The Goldsmiths Prize is attempting to stake out a territory for experimental fiction, doing what some say the Booker should be doing by rewarding courage and risk-taking. And then we have the Folio Prize, set up in the wake of the ‘Rimington Booker’ of 2011, when it was seen as dumbing down, but which now, despite a rigorous and forward-thinking academy structure, seems rather lost in the wake of the Booker changes. After all, nobody could accuse The Luminaries of being a dumb book.
All this you know.
We also know that the Goldsmiths shortlist was a brilliant setting out of its stall, diverse and eye-catching in all sorts of ways: established vs unknown publishers, old vs new names, humour vs tragedy, dense vs aphoristic texts. I haven’t read enough of the shortlist to say whether I agree with the judges, but I’ve read Eimear’s book, and I can say it’s an utterly worthy winner: the best word I can think of to describe it is gobsmacking.
Certainly, anyone who picks it up and looks at the first page can see that something exciting and exalted is being done here with language (I’ve given extracts of it to Creative Writing students, just to say: Look, you can do this; this can be done), but persevere with the book – as you have to do: this is a demanding read – and it becomes clear that the characters in it are as strong as the language, and the scene-building as strong as the characters, and the story, in the end, as affecting as all of it.
(Note in passing/full disclosure: Galley Beggar Press is going to be publishing my debut novel next year, so obviously I feel unearned pride and excitement on their behalf, and obviously anything that raises their profile potentially helps me, so feel free to dismiss anything I have to say about it as meritless logrolling: here’s what I wrote about AGIAHFT on this blog earlier this year.)
The judges couldn’t have picked a better book to hold up to the Man Booker prize and say, You are too scared to honour writing like this. You are content to award the Booker prize to ‘Booker prize books’. Which is not, perhaps, an entirely damning sentence to pass. I’m not anti-Booker, or anti-‘Booker book’. Any prize that can list The Line of Beauty, The Sea, The Sea (and The Sea), The English Patient, Disgrace (Disgrace!), and In A Free State among its winners is doing something right. (Also, as a writer, much of what I come up with is more in the (potential, obviously) Booker zone than the Goldsmiths. I don’t have a problem with the ‘literary fiction sweet spot’, I just don’t want it to become institutionalised.)
The literary world is not a mansion of many, walled-off and insulated compartments; it is a world of shifting cloud-continents. The prizes (if prizes there must be) should not all cover the same ground, and nor should they be mutually exclusive, guarding and maintaining arbitrary and artificial boundaries. They should overlap, in part. It’s the overlaps that make it interesting.
The map of the ‘year in prizes’ should look like a Venn diagram.
Which is why I was glad to see Harvest on both lists. For the first half of it, it was my favourite book on the Booker shortlist. Its prose, while less experimental than McBride’s, is as bold and sure of itself and interesting. The novel is set in the time of the Acts of Enclosure (18th-19th Century) in a remote English agrarian community, and the language seems to inhabit that time in a way that makes sense today (which is not what I got from, say, The Luminaries [which I wrote about here], or Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast [here]). It was at once utterly historical (historified?) and utterly modern. Here’s an excerpt:
He’s keen for me to name the plants. He makes a note of them and sometimes plucks a leaf or flower for pressing in his book, his personal ‘Natural History’. It seems that listing them is his way of knowing them. I can easily put a name to all the herbs we discover on our way: the herbs for medicines, the herbs intended only for our beasts, the killing herbs, the devil’s herbs, the herbs reserved for those already dead, the drunkard’s herbs, the herbs with magic properties. I even name some of the weeds for him, though sometimes I invent the words. There ought to be a plant called purgatory. And another one called fletch. I point out prickly cringes, whose roots, he ought to know, can be prepared into a love potion. I show him burdock leaves, for wrapping butter in. And almond leaves for keeping moths away from clothes. He thinks I am the wisest man.
Is that a representative sample? Maybe not. Maybe I just love it for the line “There ought to be a plant called purgatory” – which almost, almost, could be a line from a Lars Iyer book.
Harvest felt, for the first half, like a book in a bubble, a case apart, not working according to accepted principles of plot or character – like a book, in fact, written in a time before Balzac, before Tolstoy, or out of hearing of them, at any rate – but I’m afraid to say that, as it progressed, it fell into a patterns that became increasingly recognisable. I wanted it to end as weirdly and otherworldy as it started.
Apart from the Crace and McBride I haven’t read any of the other Goldsmiths shortlist in full. I started Ali Smith’s Artful and, though I do want to finish it, my response to it is really the same as mine to her writing in general: admiration, but no love. I appreciate her romance with language, her candour, her immediacy, and I am hugely interested in anyone breaking down or disrupting the barriers between essay and fiction, between lived self and written self, but there is something so plain about what she does. She is like a magician who works in slow motion, you can see she has nothing up either sleeve, and the trick confounds you, but really it’s a simple trick, and seeing it in slow motion would seem to add to it a sense of grace and elegance that is not really there, is just there in the slow frame rate. (Like an action sequence in a film can be ‘beautiful’ just because it is slowed down, or a work of art can be impressive solely for its scale.)
Lars Iyer: I’ve read the other two books in the trilogy, and I will buy this one and look forward to reading it. It’s funny, and touching, and clever, but I think I need to read them all again to see if there is an attempt – sly, unnoticed, perhaps only visible to me, who so clearly wants it – to do some of the things that traditional novels do, but in a radical way, on top of what it is obviously trying to do: honour the fragmentary and the marginal, satirise the academic world, find philosophy in anti-philosophy, dredge self-help from the lives of those themselves beyond help.
David Peace: Well, again, it’s brilliant. But what I’ve read of him has never made me want to pick up another book by him. He surely deserves to win something, and I would have quite happy for the Goldsmiths judges to give him their prize – it is, after all, as bold and risk-taking as McBride, or rather, he is, he has been, long may he continue… but I can’t say that if he’d won, I’d have rushed out to buy it. I guess my mind is made up.
Finally, I’ll say this about the Booker. It’s not the globalisation I mind, or the fact that it’s going to be overrun by the Yanks. It’s the selection process, brought in so that the idea of the judges actually reading all the books can be preserved – and, make no mistake, this is absolutely fucking essential.
So now, under the new rules (in fact, not new rules, as has been pointed out to me), previously shortlisted authors get automatic submission; and as for other publishers, the more books they’ve previously had shortlisted, the more books they can submit this time around. Which, again, makes a kind of pragmatic sense, but clearly works against small, independent, risk-taking publishers, and therefore against the kinds of books they publish. (Not that they won, much, anyway.) Then there’s the gossip or rumour or grumbling that some big name authors are going to/are already having ‘automatic Booker submission’ clauses written into their contracts. Which is only going to exacerbate things. The Booker is going to become more ‘Booker’, more locked into its tasteful literary fiction ghetto.
And, as a side-effect to this, the next few years could see UK publishers that publish US authors (who, obviously, have never been eligible before) being strong-armed by those big-name authors into using up their however many slots to submit them. To the direct detriment of British, Irish and Commonwealth authors who haven’t been shortlisted before.
(One thought: are the Man Booker judges going to remain primarily British? Just asking.)
BUT. Something had to change.What was this ‘Commonwealth’ thing anyway? In what other part of my life does the idea of the Commonwealth have any meaning to me? None. It is the sad rump of a dead and largely despicable historical process that, thank god, is over, closed. What are we, the British, doing claiming Arundhati Roy, Michael Ondaatje, and JM Coetzee as somehow ‘ours’? It makes no sense, and I don’t like it.
I’m not for insularisation. I’m for Venn diagrams.
But I’m not for Venn diagrams with circles labelled ‘More of the same’ or ‘Round up the usual suspects’.
I want inclusion in the Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction to be counted as highly as shortlisting on the Booker.
I want the longlist for these prizes to be as heart-quickening, and eye-opening, and wallet-reaching-for as the longlist for the Impac. (Now there’s a prize: its very structure seems to move it beyond questions of fairness and unfairness. It shines a light on as many good books as it can, then it places a gilded crown on one head. You lot are all great, but you, my friend, this year you are king!)
And Man Booker, and Folio, we’re going to be watching you very closely…
(Oh yes, what else did I read in October. I read Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan, Dumitru Tsepeneag’s brilliant Vain Art of the Fugue [which I wrote about here], and Joanna Walsh’s Fractals, which I do want to write about very much – I read it commuting, on my phone, and it fitted that experience perfectly – perhaps better than anything else I’ve read under similiar circumstances. Did I read other stuff, too? Perhaps. Time’s up.)