Jonathan Cape publisher Robin Robertson has taken the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize for his "convention-defying novel in verse" The Long Take (Pan Macmillan), more than 20 years after his first book was published by its imprint Picador.
The noir narrative, also published by Picador, follows a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and was described by judges as "technically accomplished, formally resourceful and emotionally unsparing" with a "universal story" and "undeniable beauty".
The Scottish poet’s first novel was revealed as the winner at the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art in south London on Wednesday (14th November) and is the first verse novel to win the award, almost a month after missing out on the Man Booker Prize to Anna Burns’ Milkman (Faber) - and was the first novel in verse, with photographs, to be shortlisted. His win comes more than two decades after his debut collection, the first poetry collection ever published by Picador in 1997, went on to scoop the Forward Prize in the same year.
Picador publisher Paul Baggaley told The Bookseller: "I can’t think of a more deserving winner for a prize that rewards a book that ‘opens up new possibilities of the novel form’. When [Picador poetry editor] Don Paterson and I first read Robin’s work we were both stunned by its ambition and achievement, it was like nothing else we had encountered, which led to lengthy discussions of what to call it. What we now know is that the best description of it is ‘a masterpiece’, and it has been such a pleasure to see this recognised by the judges of the most original and exciting of prizes."
He added: "Next year’s mass market paperback edition will give us the perfect opportunity to bring this extraordinary book to the widest readership."
Robertson told The Bookseller that he sometimes found it difficult to juggle the dual role of publisher and poet. "I work in a pressure-cooker system where I hope that I can store up all the thoughts and lines and phrases and when I do finally get away to some retreat somewhere I can uncork the bottle in a satisfying way, to release tension, and something will be there. It’s easier with poetry because you can approach it that way, novels are much longer-haul and you need a longer trajectory,” he said.
“I’ve worked there for nearly half a lifetime, I’m afraid. But you don’t leave a place like Cape because there’s nowhere better to be as a publisher."
Previously Cape’s deputy publishing director, Robertson took on the role of associate publisher, alongside Dan Franklin, in January 2016. He works across Cape’s fiction and poetry lists with authors such as Irvine Welsh, James Wood, Anne Enright and Ocean Vuong.
On the importance of literary prizes, Robertson told The Bookseller: "It’s an external validation, we all like to have our work approved of in some way. The money is very welcome of course but it’s more the judgement of your peers and fellow writers, it’s very satisfying… rather peculiar to me that I understand it to be a long narrative poem and it’s been on two fiction awards' shortlists, and now to win a prize for experimental fiction when you’ve written a long poem is slightly confusing - but I’ll take that confusion."
He said he planned to spend the £10,000 winnings on a “wonderful piece of art so I can remember the prize whenever I look at it".
The Long Take was sold in Germany, France and Italy right before the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF), a spokesperson for Rogers, Coleridge and White told The Bookseller. "German rights were pre-empted by Hanser, there was a three publisher French auction won by Éditions de L'Olivier and Italian rights were bought by Guanda,” they said. “This is a really wonderful group we are delighted with."
The Goldsmith Prize organisers described the book as "a convention-defying novel in verse exploring post-war America and shot-through with film noir imagery”. "Though narrative in verse is as old as Homer, Robertson creates a hybrid form of his own in The Long Take," they said. “Free verse is mixed with typographical borrowings from street signs and text snatched from notebooks and journals, and interrupted by vivid prose flashbacks to the horrors of war."
Adam Mars-Jones, judge and research professor of Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, said: "The judges are proud to salute Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, a film noir verse novel full of blinding sunlight and lingering shadows, technically accomplished, formally resourceful and emotionally unsparing.”
Fellow judge and author Elif Shafak described it as a “book with a big heart”. She said: “The beauty of the language will seduce the reader from the very start… By taking this long journey west - across New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles - Robin Robertson tells a universal story. With its undeniable beauty; quiet, modest but strong pull, this book will shift something in your soul. By the time you have finished reading it, you won't quite be the same.”
The 256-page title fended off competition from longtime Goldsmiths nominee Rachel Cusk for Kudos (Faber), Crudo by Olivia Laing (Picador), Murmur by Will Eaves (CB Editions), In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (Tinder Press), and The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet).
Born in Perthshire, Robertson has published five collections of poetry and received various accolades including the E M Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and all three Forward Prizes. Since being published in February, The Long Take has sold 3,475 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan.