Ahead of chairing the Invernesian’s event, Stuart Kelly considers Smith’s place in the literary pantheon
The plaudits and prizes just keep on rolling in for Ali Smith. Her most recent novel, the dual perspective How to Be Both, was shortlisted for the Booker and won the Goldsmiths Prize, a Costa Award and, most recently, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. And she only went and got herself a CBE in the New Year Honours list. It’s quite a delicious thought that a copy of Hotel World might lurk on HRH’s bedside table.
As she prepares to arrive in Edinburgh for two EIBF appearances, Stuart Kelly, literary critic and chair of her 16 August event, has been pondering just what makes her writing so special. ‘Ali Smith is a mercurial writer, and I mean that in all the aspects of the Roman God,’ he states. ‘She's about messages, gain and loss, trickery and the passage of souls to the beyond. Over her career, I think the most significant change is a kind of emerging elegiac and a decline of whimsy: some of her early work was thrillingly “look what I can do”; now it seems more like “observe what I must say”.’
While Smith has excelled in her novels, she is also the acclaimed creator of deeply memorable short story collections (such as The First Person and Other Stories and Free Love and Other Stories), her work helping give that much-maligned form more respect. ‘It's interesting that Ali, like Janice Galloway and Alison Kennedy and even Jackie Kay, all work in both forms,’ says Kelly. ‘Comparing short stories and novels is like comparing kettles and coconuts: the novel is about change, the short story about realisation. She does both pretty well to my mind.’
Now a published writer for 20 years, Smith clearly has plenty more books in the tank yet. But how does Kelly see her legacy being shaped? ‘I'll let posterity decide that, but what I would say is that in the present, she has already forged a formidable oeuvre, which has gladdened and saddened and maddened me in equal measure.’
Ali Smith, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 16 Aug, 11.45am, £10 (£8); Smith also delivers the PEN / HG Wells Lecture, 15 Aug, 2.15pm, £10 (£8).