Ali Smith: Girl Meets Boy

Ali Smith is a writer who tends to polarise opinion. Her last novel, The Accidental, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, but I didn’t meet anyone else who liked it. I wasn’t sure I did myself to begin with, and part of my liking for it is probably a defensive reaction against violent criticism of what is, at the very least, an interesting and ambitious work that deserves credit for that. Her earlier novel Hotel World was no more conventional, a collection of stream-of-consciousness voices which angered one Amazon reader for not being a sufficiently accurate representation of life in a hotel; which is a little like the Victoria Wood character who didn’t like Fawlty Towers because it was supposed to be set in Torquay, but “could have been anywhere, frankly.”

Girl Meets Boy

For her next trick then, Smith has written Girl Meets Boy, a novella in the Canongate Myths series. The story she has chosen to update (or “remix” according to the blurb) is the story of Iphis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I haven’t read Ovid since school and I don’t think I got as far as Iphis in Ted Hughes’ celebrated interpretation of the tales, so fortunately Smith gives us a primer midway through, though a sneak preview – if that’s the word for a story written two thousand years ago – is available here.

It’s about what tabloids would once have called gender-bending, and so the title not only recalls classic love stories, but has another primary meaning in the character of Robin, who is neither and both: girl-meets-boy. The story is narrated by two sisters, Anthea and Imogen (‘Midge’). Anthea falls in love with Robin who is protesting against Pure, the water company she works for.

My head, something happened to its insides. It was as if a storm at sea happened, but only for a moment, and only on the inside of my head. My ribcage, something definitely happened there. It was as if it unknotted itself from itself, like the hull of a ship hitting rock, giving way, and the ship that I was opened wide inside me and in came the ocean.

He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

But he really looked like a girl.

She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

This leads Midge to worry, in a parenthetic stream of consciousness, that “(Oh my God my sister is a GAY.) (I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset.)” She has to field awkward questions from her unreconstructed friends, Norman and Dominic, two-dimensional homophobic lads. Not that this sets them apart from other elements of the book. Politically Smith seems to feel that every reader has the right not to be confused by shades of grey, and so we have the capitalist-bastard water company executive –

Small body of irate ethnics in one of our Indian sub-interests factioning against our planned filter-dam two-thirds completed and soon to power four Pure labs in the area. They say: our dam blocks their access to fresh water and ruins their crops. We say: they’re ethnic troublemakers who are trying to involve us in a despicable religious war. Use the word terrorism if necessary. Got it?

– and Robin herself is an anarchic ‘breath of fresh air’/’pain in the arse’ akin to Amber from The Accidental, addressing well-worn issues through spray-painting statistics about male-female inequality in public places. All this reminded me of the critic who accused Martin Amis of dealing in “banalities delivered with tremendous force,” which attack Amis sought to de-barb by adopting it as his own credo (“that’s fine by me”). Smith’s issues are not subtle, and little is left under the surface, but there is something nonetheless loving about the way she presents it.

She is at her best when returning from the political to the personal, and the descriptions of love and sex in Girl Meets Boy are poetic and invigorating, and the opening pages of the final section, incorporating literary nods and winks (“Ness I said Ness I will Ness”), humorous contemporary references (“A male-voice choir from the Inverness Police Force sang a beautiful arrangement of songs from Gilbert and Sullivan. Then the Inverness Constabulary female-voice choir sang an equally beautiful choral arrangement of Don’t Cha (Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me)”), and a litany of free-association –

…we got married. I mean we here came the bride. I mean we walked down the aisle. I mean we step we gailied, on we went, we Mendelssohned, we epithalamioned, we raised high the roofbeams, carpenters, for there was no other bride, o bridegroom, like her. We crowned each other with the garlands of flowers. We stamped on the wine-glasses wrapped in the linen. We jumped the broomsticks. We lit the candles. We crossed the sticks.

– that is sure to become a source for readings at weddings and partnership ceremonies in years to come.

Smith also wastes no opportunities to reflect her themes of sexuality and equality, and the motifs of the original myth, everywhere she can in her story, so the whole has a pleasing completeness to it. She even finds time to bring back the topic of myths themselves and the “responsibility” of creating a myth. It’s a story which revels in being light-hearted and serious-minded at the same time, and for the most part manages to pull it off by force of charm alone.


  1. And so I learn that the next three Myths are out – thanks for the tip off – but I think I’ll wait for the paperbacks. I like the sound of this – and always great to see how each author bends old myths to their own style.

    I’ve read her other books and I’m still wavering about them, I like her writing, but there are moments when I cant help but worry its not just intelligent chick-lit.

  2. Ho ho ho! I want to wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. I’ve been traveling through Southeast Asia and am now arriving in Hong Kong to be with my family. I haven’t kept up with reading blogs. But I’ll take a peek whenever I have a chance. I have read 3 books by Maugham and have completed the Armchair Traveler Challenge. Yay!

    By the way, I’m glad to find and have purchased the entire Love series of Penguin UK! Yes!

  3. Oh excellent Matt – and a happy Christmas to you too! I have read a couple of the Great Loves series – see under Tolstoy and Turgenev – and have Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Nabokov’s Mary still to go. I’ve resisted buying them all for reasons of shelf space, but they are beautiful volumes.

  4. Thanks for your charming comments chez moi. Your blog is essential reading as well for the wide range of books you review and your very perceptive and amusing comments on them. More, maestro, please!

  5. Thanks for your reassurances regarding Auster over at my place. Its been great finding you this year – always super to have a new voice of recommendation to listen to. Have a wonderful christmas time – I hope you find many pleasingly square, flat, firm parcels under your tree!

  6. I’m so pleased to find a positive review of this! I’ve been desperate to read it, but was put off by criticism. Which is stupid, because I loved The Accidental and that got a mauling by some too.

  7. I am bringing up this old post to report on an Ali Smith controversy in her role as a judge for Canada’s 2010 Giller Prize.

    Apparently, Ali, after reading Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists before the longlist was announced, alerted her international agent to the author and book — which led to Skibsrud acquiring an agent.

    I have no problem with that, had Smit acknowledged her conflict of interest — which is obvious — and recused herself from future jury duties. Not only did she not do that, all indications are that she was an avid (some say bullying) promoter of the book that she had tipped to her agent.

    This is the kind of behavior that contaminates all prize juries, most without reason. I think it is inexcusable — and will be holding Ali Smith responsible for some time for such a gross abuse of her role.

    She should be shunned and I will be shunning her.

  8. Very interesting, Kevin, and I see more coverage of this story here.

    I must admit I cannot entirely see the conflict of interest. Smith has not, so far as we are aware, received any pecuniary advantage from the referral of Skibsrud to her agent, and nor has her agent (indeed quite the opposite, as she sold the book to Heinemann in the UK before it won: she would have got more for it if she’d waited until it won, but that would have been reprehensible, a sort of literary insider trading).

    To my mind Smith has acted perhaps naively but not inexcusably or with “gross abuse of her role.” Clearly she felt passionately about The Sentimentalists and wanted to get it as wide a readership as possible, both by pushing it for the prize and by setting it on the road to getting published elsewhere. It may indeed be that she was an avid or bullying promoter of the book within the jury, though I think it unlikely that Michael Enright or Claire Messud would be unable or unwilling to stand up for their own choices. If there are two things we know about prize juries, it’s that those who argue for their book most vociferously tend to win the day, and that nobody ever seems to change their mind.

    I think Smith is a talented and interesting writer, even if her books rarely appeal to me without qualification, and I won’t be shunning her (particularly as her new novel There But For The is out next Spring and I am looking forward to it).

  9. I don’t see any problem with it either. It’s entirely likely that a judge will already have a reviewed a book before the submissions have even taken place. Booker submissions begin in the Spring, but books are eligible for some months before that.

  10. I might add that Ali Smith does seem an unlikely candidate for having anything but the best intentions here. This is surely no more than brimful enthusiasm spillage?

  11. I tend to agree, Lee. There’s been some discussion of this on Twitter this morning (hard to find all the tweets; perhaps I should have started a hashtag: #Gillergate?). Suffice it to say that Dovegreyreader takes the same view as Kevin, arguing that judges in any prize should, in the interests of confidentiality, not go trumpeting their favourite among the entrants to anyone else while the judging process is going on, and that the “agent and publisher have been handed a gift from an insider” as a result. Two other commenters, both in the book trade, don’t see the problem.

  12. Hi all – I work in the publishing house for The Sentimentalists. This is however my personal opinion, and not that of my company in any official way (which, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t have a view on this matter at all yet).

    Boringly I can only agree with John, in that I’m not sure what Smith has done wrong. She recommended a book she loved to her agent, and also fought its corner to a prize committee. She wouldn’t have gained financially from the recommendation, nor would she have been able to guarantee to her agent at the time that the book was going to win anything. However hard she fought for the book, there were other judges on that committee, and no one could predict who would have won in the end – not Smith, much less her agent. This is supported by the fact that Smith’s agent sold the book to us before it won anything. If the agent was so sure it would win, if, in other words, she’d been tipped off, then as John says they would have waited, and had more publishers bidding off against it. This didn’t happen; there is no conspiracy.

    The Sentimentalists is rather brilliant by the way, and to have attention drawn to an original, quiet, literary book from a small press is one of the best things that prizes can do.

  13. Thanks for your contribution, Harvey. I am sure Kevin will have a response to these comments, by the way, but he is no doubt currently asleep.

    I should say, on the related issue of The Sentimentalists as a book, that when I read Kevin and Trevor’s views on it on their blogs, I thought it sounded more like the sort of thing I like to read than any of the other titles on the shortlist. I am pretty firmly of the view that literary prizes should do their best to bring to wider attention books which would be otherwise overlooked, and even books which divert from the normal track of literary fiction. I look forward to reading it when it’s published in the UK.

  14. ‘The Sentimentalists is rather brilliant by the way, and to have attention drawn to an original, quiet, literary book from a small press is one of the best things that prizes can do.’


  15. I’m going to qualify my above comment, where I should have said, ‘I’m not sure what Smith has done that’s *so* wrong.’ Clearly it wasn’t ideal behaviour on her part, but I don’t think we can call it malicious. An overbrimming of enthusiasm indeed!

  16. John was quite right, I was asleep and only now can check in. Some thoughts:

    1. I think John’s original assessment is quite accurate and avoids the emotionalism that was part of my statement. Certainly, from an international perspective, Smith did Skibsrud a favor in alerting the non-Canadian world to a good book.
    2. On the other hand, I would like to believe that literary prize judges accept that they enter a “bubble” when they accept the assignment. They need to restrict themselve to judging, not promoting, however good titles may be. Once the decision is announced, they are certainly free to return to broader activities.
    3. As someone who is interested in seeing Canadian authors get more international attention, I can hardly complain about the result — and certainly don’t want any comment to reflect negatively on Heinemann’s decision to publish the book, which is wonderful. Indeed, if Gaspereau Press doesn’t sort out their issues soon, the UK volume through the Book Depository may be the easiest way for even Canadians to acquire this book.

    “An overbrimming of enthusiasm indeed!” May well be the best assessment (and I accept the implied criticism). While I think that Skibsrud was undoubtedly well-served by that, I am not sure the interests of the other four authors on the shortlist were. Certainly, anyone who watched the Giller telecast when the judges were called to the stage had to conclude that Ali had “won” some obscure contest — she bounced up, the other two rather trudged.

    And I would have to observe that while the Giller winner is normally a one day story, this aspect — even more Gaspereau’s insistence on producing further copies at the rate of 1,000 a week rather than a mass-market printing — has turned it into a four or five day event. In that sense, the rather empty controversy has undoubtedly had a positive result.

  17. I just don’t see how the interests of the other authors were affected. Ali Smith can’t force them to give the prize to the author of their choice, she can only out-argue them. By getting her author a UK deal, the other authors remain unaffected. Unless they didn’t get deals as a result of this which seems unlikely.

    1. Linda: While I agree with the “out-arguing” premise, I do see a conflict of interest when a judge is actively promoting a book outside of the contest, for whatever reason. It is probably naive on my part, but I would like to think that judges judge, rather than promote. For me, it is a literary version of insider trading in the literary market — it does not mean any personal benefit, but it is an abuse of restricted information. And, yes, whether it is right or wrong, it will probably lead to more, rather than less, attention to the other books.

      All of which means that I should abandon my original premise — whatever the appropriateness of what Ali Smith did, it has led to more attention to all of the finalists.

      Just as a matter of interest, what is your view of the Gaspereau publishers who want to retain control of the book (and their own printing standards) rather than sending it off to a much broader audience? I will admit that I can understand both sides of the argument and don’t really have a firm opinion. I own a copy of the original and it is wonderful — and Gaspereau did publish her two volumes of poetry. Should Skibsrud stay with her original publishers and their commitment to craft, or opt for bigger sales?

  18. Just a small addition. While The Sentimentalists was published in Oct. 2009 in an edition of either 600 or 800 (depending on which source you believe) it was virtually unreviewed until it made the longlist.

    And I have to admit I respect Ali Smith enough as an author, that I can’t shun her. Naive or misguided or whatever, I’d suggest she abandon judging in the future.

  19. I cannot see who has been negatively affected by Ali Smith’s actions. How is it an abuse of insider information? She did not know she was going to win the prize, all she did was say that she liked the the book and helped get it a UK agent. I would be happy to do the same.

  20. Linda: In the business world, if you have insider information and then use that, you are definitely guilty of an abuse of privilege — which is exactly what happened here. It does not matter whether that led to profit or not, it is an abuse of trust, which is I would think important to any artist. The issue is not who benefited — if indeed, anybody did or did not –, the issue is that someone who had power (a judge) used that power inappropriately. In the defamation world, with which I am quite a bit more familiar, damages are assumed — they don’t have to be proven — once the libel has been published. The behavior, not the outcome, is what is at stake.

    I would refer you to JS’s quote on the current review: “You killed my Jew, I killed yours”. That is an abuse of power, so in its own way (and certainly much less importantly) is this. Anyone who has access to insider information and hence power (and all judges do) must respect the honorable contract not to use that information and power, for whatever purpose. After all, other agents besides Smith’s had no knowledge of this, so they were definitely put at a disadvantage because she abused her insider data. Whether one, two or three judges knew this novel was headed for a win does not matter — it is definitely an abuse to share that information when it is not available to all. If the other two were aware of this and chose not to share it, what does that make them — honorable suckers?

  21. What is the insider information that Ali Smith had? What did she know, that no-one else, apart from the other judges, knew, at the time she informed her agent about the book?

  22. Ah, but the other judges, bound by the rule that you don’t discuss the books, chose not to share that information.

    Ali shared it with her agent,, giving that agent an advantage. Which makes it a business decision, based on an abuse of trust, originated by her.

    If an American banker knew that bailouts were being considered — but did not know they were certain — and shared that information with those who could use it, would we excuse him? I don’t think so.

  23. But that’s not how getting an agent works. You don’t send out submissions to all the agents on an equal basis. Acquiring an agent is usually a matter of personal recommendation.

  24. Agreed. My point would be that a Prize judge alerting an agent to a potentially hot property is a conflict of interest — given that “we need to drive home a little more forcefully that the jury should be absolutely discreet in sharing any information about the books they’re reading for the Giller with anyone” is a guideline from the Giller judges. What other agents had access to this data, personnal recommendation or not? And given Ali’s behavior at the gala, I am willing to believe she followed up with other pressures. When last year’s winner heads off to write a letter of complaint to Jack Rabinovitch immediately after the gala about the process, I think there is a serious credibility issue at stake.

    As you pointed out, this novel might well have been worth more today than it was a week ago (I think we would both agree that it is not — any deal is a good deal).

    The issue is that a judge chose to share information outside the circle. That is clearly not appropriate. When you agree to be a judge, you enter a “protected” space — you don’t share deliberations outside that space.

  25. I am not sure she did share “deliberations”, if that means the discussions between the judges, or even Smith’s own thoughts expressed to the other judges. My understanding is that she recommended the book to her agent before it had been longlisted, which suggests that it was before she had discussed the book with the other judges. So yes, she shared information which she only gained as a result of her judging position (and I think she was unwise to do that), but I don’t think she shared ‘inside information’ or deliberations.

    Incidentally, we can watch a video of the award announcement on the Giller Prize website (it’s clip 6 of 6), and so examine the judges’ body language to try to determine whether undue pressure was placed by the feisty little Scot on her fellow judges.

  26. Thanks for finding that clip, John. I do have to say that many months ago, when the jury was announced, I was fairly sure “the feisty little Scot” would probably be leading the discussions. On any jury someone has to do that and you only have to look at the critical personalities of the three to make a guess who would take the role. From my point of view, that led to a very strong long list — the short list may have been somewhat idiosyncratic.

    And I should also acknowledge that a lot of this discussion is being fed by publishers of non-winning titles, who have not chosen to attach their names to their observations, which means that I probably should be ignoring them. Then again, what is a literary prize if it does not generate some discussion?

    I promise to read Ms Smith’s new novel with an open mind.

  27. I don’t think there is any doubt that, as a judge, Ali Smith did the wrong thing. Even if her recommendation was prior to the longlist, she then saw it moving onto the longlist, shortlist, and eventually the winner. That must have been exciting for her, having spotted it within the mass of original books. I understand fully Kevin’s point, that the outcome is not what is in question here. Even if the book didn’t make the longlist, she did the wrong thing. (But we wouldn’t know about it).

    I won’t hold it against her as an author, but I’d be shocked if she were ever asked to judge a prize again.

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