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The Literary Art of Ali Smith

All We Are is Eyes

by Ema Jelínková (Volume editor) Rachael Sumner (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 166 Pages

Summary

The articles in this volume represent a wide range of perspectives on the literary art of Ali Smith; one of the most significant figures in the field of contemporary British literature. Focussing on concepts of visual and linguistic representation, these papers reflect Smith's own preoccupations with narrative and language; time and myth; gender and identity. The Literary Art of Ali Smith reflects the inherent complexities in Smith's literary output, as well as the compassion and subversion inherent in her work. The volume offers new insights and analysis into some of Smith's most prominent novels, novellas, short stories and essays.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Time, Knowledge and Metafiction in Ali Smith’s Autumn
  • 2 ‘Small Lives, Easily Lost in Foreign Droughts’: A. L. Kennedy’s and Ali Smith’s Short Stories of Human Interest
  • 3 ‘Over the Edge’: Orpheus and Eurydice, Myth and Solace in Ali Smith’s Artful
  • 4 New Ways of Seeing and the Role of the Critical Spectator in Ali Smith’s The Accidental
  • 5 ‘Look into My Eyes’: (In-)Visibility in Ali Smith’s Autumn, Winter and Spring
  • 6 Omniscient Narrative Revisited by Ali Smith and Kate Atkinson
  • 7 Pythagorean Tradition and Its Modern Echoes in Ali Smith’s ‘Common’
  • 8 Authenticating Women: Ali Smith and Denise Mina
  • 9 The Art of Memory in Autumn by Ali Smith
  • 10 ‘I Want to Go to Collage’: On Ali Smith and John Berger

Ema Jelínková

Introduction

The turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a highly favourable time for the growth of Scottish literature in general and Scottish women’s writing in particular. Scottish writing has a history of thriving on tumultuous political, social and economic changes, which increasingly accelerated over the last few decades not only on a local scale in Scotland but also more generally throughout the United Kingdom and on the global stage. Scotland was strongly affected by the outcome of the 1979 devolution referendum, which may have preserved the political status quo but also simultaneously propelled an unprecedented rise in Scottish creative writing. This flourishing of literature was further fuelled by the historical milestone represented by the passing of the second devolution referendum in 1997 and the opening of a devolved Scottish parliament two years later. A gap of eighteen years separated the first referendum from the second one. This, incidentally, was almost the same amount of time which passed before Scotland’s next great venture, the 2014 independence referendum. Following the nation's decision to remain a part of the United Kingdom, talks about a second independence referendum commenced immediately; overshadowed most recently only by the blow of the 2016 Brexit referendum decision. Coupled with these locally specific events, is the underlying pressure of globally experienced challenges such as the immigration crisis, the impact of modern communication technologies on social relations, and the blurring of boundaries between fact and fabrication.

Whether explicitly addressed or merely subtly implied, all of the above mentioned issues find their various forms of expression in contemporary Scottish writing. What makes the traditional canon of Scottish literature especially idiosyncratic is the suspicious blank where women writers and inherently female concerns should have been represented. While the omission of women’s perspectives is by no means unique to Scottish letters, Scotland’s cultural heritage is particularly strongly masculinised, so that women’s writing was a rare exception rather than an organic part of the nation’s literature until as late as the 1980s. Among the pioneering female authors to explore specifically women’s subject matters as well as universal human themes were, to name but a few, Kate Atkinson (b. 1951), Janice Galloway (b. 1955), A. L. Kennedy (b. 1965), the crime writer Denise Mina (b. 1966) and, of course, the protean Ali Smith (b. 1962). ←7 | 8→Each of these writers ˗ whose output is predominantly fiction ˗ approaches her theme in her own distinct style; yet there are interesting affinities and points of convergence, as well as oppositions and contrasting points of view among them, which will be discussed in depth in several of the following chapters in this volume.

Born and bred in Scotland, Ali Smith grew up in Inverness, graduating with a degree in English language and literature from the University of Aberdeen, and went on to pursue a doctoral degree in modernism at the University of Cambridge, before abandoning her studies in favour of creative writing. At this stage in her life, her literary output mostly comprised unpublished plays performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Following a brief period as a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde between 1990 and 1992, she settled permanently in Cambridge and embarked on a career as a freelance writer and fiction reviewer, notably for the Scotsman. In her first mature efforts, she turned her attention to polishing the art of the short story, resulting in the publication of her debut collection, Free Love and Other Stories (1995), which earned her immediate critical acclaim and won both the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book Award. Her first novel, Like, appeared in 1997, and a steady flow of further short story collections and novels followed. She is the winner of numerous prestigious literary awards, including the Encore Award for Hotel World (2001), the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award for The Accidental (2005) and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for How to Be Both (2014). All three books, as well as the novel Autumn (2016) from her seasonal quartet, have also been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

It is a critical commonplace to approach authors who happen to fall into the neat category of a so-called minority from the specific perspective of that minority. While this approach is not without merit, it would be a gross simplification to limit the extraordinary richness of Ali Smith’s oeuvre to the preset labels of nationality, gender and sexual preference. Smith’s Scottishness, femaleness and lesbianism indeed inform her work, but so do many other influences, if perhaps to a less conspicuous degree. The author’s formal education in literature, and particularly her interest in modernism, are unmistakably apparent in her texts, which weave together a rich tapestry of allusions to sources as diverse as classic mythology, the condition-of-England novel and modernist poetry. These references are as often as not playfully reimagined rather than presented at face value, and juxtaposed with Smith’s original material, resulting in a quirky mixture of an inherited tradition and strikingly (post)modern techniques, topics and sensibilities.

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Smith is fascinated with the voice, and with silence as a lack of voice, and is preoccupied with telling and retelling the stories of those whom she feels do not get their fair share of space when it comes to being heard and seen. Her interests are not sweeping grand narratives and larger-than-life figures; quite the contrary, she favours almost painfully ordinary characters with dull everyday lives and down-to-earth concerns. At the same time, she draws on the Scottish literary tradition, which is rooted in the concept of Caledonian antisyzygy, turning on the idea of reconciling seemingly conflicting opposites and involving the gothic tropes of doppelgangers, ghosts and haunting. More broadly, Smith’s indebtedness to Caledonian antisyzygy finds its expression in her characteristic combination of chillingly cruel stories and startlingly black humour, occasionally bordering on the grotesque and the farcical. Nevertheless, underlying all of her work is a deeply human ethos, which emerges in her trademark carefully poised endings on a note of tentative reconciliation and qualified hope for the future. Ultimately, for all her challenging formal experiments and focus on dark subject matters, Smith is committed to telling a universal story which underlines the fact that, when stripped of all particulars, human experience is universally shared after all.

Biographical notes

Ema Jelínková (Volume editor) Rachael Sumner (Volume editor)

Ema Jelínková is a research assistant at Palacký University, Olomouc, Czech Republic. Her research interests include Scottish literature, women’s writing and satire. She is the author of the survey British Literary Satire in Historical Perspective (2010) and the Czech-language monograph Ambivalence v románech Muriel Sparkové (2006). She has co-authored a series of collective monographs on aspects of Scottish fiction, including Scottish Gothic Fiction (2012) and Scottish Women Writers of Hybrid Identity (2014). She has published dozens of articles in peer-reviewed journals and presented numerous papers at international conferences. Rachael Sumner studied English and European literatures at the University of Essex before completing an MA in twentieth century British and American literature at the University of York. She has lived in Poland since 2003 and lectures on British and American culture at the University of Applied Sciences in Racibórz. Rachael's fields of academic interest include postcolonial theory and contemporary British literature.

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