Laureation address – Ali Smith

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Ali Smith, Louise Richardson and Kevin Dunion

Ali Smith FRSL
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

Laureation by Professor John Burnside
School of English
Wednesday 30 November 2011

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Ali Smith for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

When Ali Smith’s first book of short fiction, Free Love and Other Stories, appeared in 1995, it was clear that a startling new talent had emerged – so much so that it was hard to believe that this mature and formally accomplished collection was a debut work. The book justly carried off the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Prize and a Scottish Arts Council Award; but then, just as the critics were advising us that a singular new short story writer had burst on to the scene, Ali Smith published, first Like, a wonderful, subtle and profoundly moving novel about enduring friendship, and then, in 2001, the technically brilliant Hotel World, which won an Encore Award as well as the inaugural Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year; it was also shortlisted for the Orange and the Booker Prizes. Her next novel, The Accidental, won the 2005 Whitbread Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and, once again, the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. In 2007, Girl Meets Boy was the Sundial / Scottish Arts Council’s Novel of the Year and was voted Book of the Year by the readers of Diva magazine – and, as glittering and numerous as these prizes are, it has to be said that this is only the highlights reel of an extraordinary and singularly successful novelistic career.

Yet Ali Smith did not turn her back on the shorter form and, while the novels were garnering pretty well all of the major awards on offer, collections like Other Stories and Other Stories, (in 1999), The Whole Story and Other Stories, (2003), The First Person and Other Stories, (2008), showcase her dizzying ability to create a rich and diverse corpus of short fiction that reshapes the genre and shows us what strange and unsettling miracles can be accomplished in this most difficult and challenging of forms. On a personal note, I have to say that I have lost count of the number of creative writing students who tell me that it was Ali Smith’s work that inspired them to challenge what they falsely thought, or perhaps had been led to believe, were the limits of the form. The hallmark of Ali’s work is intellectual and technical ambition – and yet, at the same time, it is full of the pleasure and play to be found in language, and in the strange workings not only of the human heart, but also of the entire nervous system and out to the field of our shared imaginings.

Ali Smith has said that “stories can change lives if we’re not careful. They will come in and take the shirts off our backs. Tell the right stories and we live better lives.” In philosophical and moral, as much as in literary terms, this is a bold claim and, in a world where we are more inclined to think that literature changes nothing than to have political and moral ambitions for our books – a world where, (with apologies to W.H. Auden), the shaped word merely survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want, or even feel the need, to tamper, this remarks throws out both a playful boast and a serious challenge. It may be that we are now growing tired, at last, of a literature that sets out to do no more than divert and entertain and, if we are, it is work like Ali Smith’s as much as anyone’s that has helped to create that change of climate. For the best writers, the work is always urgent: if a story changes nothing, then it is not living up to its ambitions or its traditions. This is not to suggest that one story can end a war, reverse long-held prejudices, or bring down a corrupt institution, but it is possible for a story to set its seed in our hearts, or our minds, or our nervous system, and grow into a force for truth. Ali Smith’s writing has many qualities: she is funny, she takes astonishing technical and narrative risks and makes them look easy, she is a true innovator and, perhaps most important of all, she renews and rediscovers the rich possibilities of the language. Yet it could be argued that, even when she possesses all of these all-too-rare gifts, it is the moral force of a writer’s work that makes a difference – and Ali Smith’s work always has moral force, she always tells the right stories, and it truly can be argued that they help us to live better – stronger, better-told, more philosophically and emotionally ambitious lives. And this, I would argue, is the rarest and most valuable gift of all.

From the brief and by no means all-inclusive list of her awards and publications already noted, it will be clear that Ali Smith has achieved an enormous amount in a relatively short space of time, in both the story and the novel form, but it is also very clear from her most recent work that there are still wonderful things to come. Though her early writing showed all the hallmarks of a confident, clear and formally accomplished writer, her continuing career to date has demonstrated a growing depth and a technical brilliance that, in the opinion of many critics, is unsurpassed in these islands and beyond.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to the field of writing, I invite you to confer on Ali Smith the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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