The logo we chose for the Goldsmiths Prize [awarded on 12th November to Ali Smith's How to Be Both] is the line that Corporal Trim’s stick makes in the air in Tristram Shandy, often taken as a kind of pictogram of the free, winding course of Sterne’s novel itself.
We picked it, not just because we’d like to give the prize to Tristram Shandy if we could, but to draw attention to how ridiculously new the novel still is, as a literary form. 1759 [the date of Tristram Shandy's original publication] is yesterday, in historical terms. Compared to songs and plays and poems and essays and chronicles and epics – the things human beings have been writing for about as long as we’ve had writing – it sprouted up out of the ground five minutes ago. It’s flourished so mightily since, in so many languages and so many different cultural ecosystems, that it’s hard sometimes to remember what an upstart it is, what a recent and shocking development, everywhere it goes feeding an appetite for the new.
And it thrives as it does because it is so radically open to whatever writers and readers bring to it. To write one, you do not need to be an insider in your culture’s elite, you do not need to reproduce some ancient formula perfectly. Consequently, the great ones often come from the disreputable edges of the cultural map, written by journalists, women, other low types. The novel’s basic device – the everyday experience of recognisable individuals, intimately represented in what feels like real time – can be applied by anyone, to any purpose. As George Eliot said: "There is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements. Like crystalline masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful." Any form.
Of course, the novel by now has traditions, it has conventions. In a kind of analogy to the repertoire of Good Tricks that evolution has built up for organisms, a body of technique has grown for prose fiction which gives novelists in the 21st century a huge known repertoire of choices for the business of representing experience.
Yet every time a novel is begun, the whole world of possibilities opens back up, and the novel becomes again, at least potentially, what its name suggests: new. For the most part, writers content themselves with the quite-sufficiently-difficult task of embodying new perceptions, new characters, new settings, new understandings. But every now and then the new story to be told requires a new form for the telling as well, not always spectacular or overtly experimental, but one that involves genuinely new approaches to the basic task of representing; one that carries a new type of mirror up the crowded street.
Such books are the reason the Goldsmiths Prize exists.
Francis Spufford is senior lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths and was chair of this year's Goldsmiths Prize judging panel. The blog is an edited extract from Spufford's speech at the prize giving, held at Foyles Charing Cross Road.