The Poetry Society also has an award which looks as though it is designed to foster innovation, the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry which says that it is looking for the poet who has made "the most exciting contribution to poetry this year". In the words of one of this year's judges, Kei Miller:
"It’s hard to say what I would look for in terms of ‘innovation’. A lot of things are conventionally innovative – a bit of multimedia, a bit of hyperlinks thrown in. Perhaps then I’m just looking to be surprised, in a good way, and by something that accentuates the poetry rather than detracting from it. So much is available to us today – not just technology, but everything in the material world. The truly innovative poet will know how to choose carefully. That’s I’m looking for – careful choices, surprising choices, smart choices."I must say I like the relaxed tone of this, its recognition that innovation comes in all shapes and sizes. Another judge, Julia Copus, says she is looking for work that "leaves me more keen-sighted, able to see the world newly and distinctly". But isn't that what most of us thought any work of art in any medium was trying to do?
In a broadly sympathetic review of McBride's novel in the New York Review of Books Fintan O'Toole observed that: "The originality of this method has been greatly overstated – a mark perhaps of how far the mainstream of fiction has drifted from the modernist aesthetic." He seems to be saying that most current fiction is "conventional" so any attempt to dislocate the form starts to look bold and dangerous. He goes on to say that: "McBride's gamble with the reader is that we will form meaning even when she does not quite give it to us." This accurately describes my experience in reading the book. I confess that the method nearly made me stop reading but I was eventually hooked by the compelling power of the story and 'got used to' the formal innovation which perhaps wasn't quite how it should have been. The story (of childhood rape, a life of casual self-hating sexual encounters on waste ground, the dysfunctional family) was of course just the sort of underclass fable the metropolitan literati loves to read, innovation or no innovation.
I have forgotten who it was who said of experimental writing that the experiment should be over by the time we are invited to read it but I have some sympathy with that idea. Words like 'experimental', 'avant-garde', 'left-field' are often tendered in a spirit of self-satisfied defiance. Too many suburban Rimbauds are too quickly pleased with their ground-breaking attempts. Too many currently vaunted 'modernist' novels simply cannot be weighed in the same scale as Joyce. The assumption that writing that does not proclaim its innovatory qualities is conservative, traditional, conventional etc etc in my view doesn't follow. Such limp writing does exist and I am not advocating it but equally the innovation-lite works don't always strike me as an improvement on the jejeune traditionalists.
Which brings me back to the comment of Julia Copus about new work that "leaves me more keen-sighted, able to see the world newly and distinctly". That seems to me the real 'innovation' that formal experiments are there to enact. Any artist, in words, music, paint, film, is trying to produce something creative and original which is literally innovative because it makes something new that was not there before. It makes us see, feel, hear in fresh ways. There should be no prizes for innovation; there should simply be genuinely new work.