Ali Smith is one of the most outstanding Scottish contemporary writers, named by Sebastian Barry as "Scotland’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting" (Barry 2016). She was born in Inverness in 1962; her parents were working class and she grew up in a large family with five siblings. Smith describes her childhood as "happy and secure" (Denes 2003) and remembers her "sheer joy" and "immense delight" in writing one of her first poems around the age of seven or eight (qtd. in Young 2015, 134). The discovery of her talent for rhyme sparked her interest in literature at an early age and her determination to be a poet.
Her success on the literary scene is illustrated by the numerous literary prizes she has received and the importance of her work is sustained by an increasing academic interest and extensive critical acclaim. Her work is versatile: though currently she is most famous for her novels and short stories, she started out by experimenting with poetry. While studying English language and literature at University of Aberdeen, she received her first award, the Bobby Aitken Memorial Prize (1984), for poetry. Her poetry was published in student magazines, periodicals and The Scotsman. At Aberdeen, as a new writer, she sent her poetry and a story to Iain Crichton Smith for feedback who advised her to choose prose over poetry. It would take some time for her to fully accept his advice. She continued her studies at University of Cambridge, where she enrolled on a doctoral thesis examining the theme of "modernism and joy in Irish and American literature" (Germanà and Horton 2013, 3). Smith’s academic career was short lived as she abandoned her PhD project and, later, left her lecturer position at University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, due to chronic fatigue syndrome. After recovering from this illness, Smith fully concentrated on her writing and returned to Cambridge where she still lives together with her partner, the film maker Sarah Wood. During the years at Newham College (1982-1990), instead of focusing on academic research, she engaged in the writing and the production of several plays, including Stalemate (1986), The Dance (1988), Trace of Arc (1989) and Comic (1990), all unpublished and produced at Edinburgh Fringe. In 1990, she also wrote the play Amazons for the renowned Cambridge Footlights sketch group. Her other two plays, The Seer (2001) and Just (2005), were performed throughout Scotland.
Her breakthrough was the collection of short stories Free Love and Other Stories (1995), which received both the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book Award. Besides Free Love, Smith published another three collections: Other Stories and Other Stories (1999), The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003), and The First Person and Other Stories (2008). Her novels, receiving accolades from reviewers and her peers such as Jeanette Winterson, Kate Atkinson and Sebastian Barry, have won literary prizes and been published internationally in several languages, catapulting Smith to the forefront of contemporary British literature. An exploration in word play, her first novel Like (1997) was published to critical acclaim and established a thread that runs throughout Smith’s fiction: the potentials of playful experimentation with language, form and syntax. The next novel, Hotel World (2001), received a bouquet of awards: the Scottish Arts Council Book Award, the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. The book was also short listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Booker Prize for Fiction. Similarly The Accidental (2004) was shortlisted for several literary prizes, but in the end won the Whitbread Novel Award. Most of her novels either reached a shortlist or won a literary prize: Girl Meets Boy (2007), shortlisted for the Clare Maclean Prize in 2008; There But For The (2011), shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Literature; Artful (2013) shortlisted for the inaugural Goldsmith's Prize; How to Be Both (2014) was in the run for the Booker Prize and won the Goldsmith's Prize; and Autumn (2016) was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Besides poetry, plays, short stories and novels, Smith has also published several works that defy generic boundaries. The collection of essays Artful (2012), for example, is based on a series of four lectures delivered by Smith at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and is a combination of literary treaties on form and storytelling: it is a ghost story in which the narrator is haunted by her dead lover. The book Shire (2013), merging Smith’s writing with Sarah Wood's images, "seamlessly fuses fiction, myth, biography and poetry – in which language is a cord that links writers across generations and pays tribute to them" (Guest 2013). The Story of Antigone (2016), marketed as a children’s book, presents the ancient Greek myth from the perspective of a rather sarcastic crow who at the end of the book interviews the author Ali Smith in order to ask why she selected this particular story to tell. In the anthology The Book Lover (2008) she pays tribute to her favourite writers such as Sylvia Plath, Muriel Spark, Grace Paley, Margaret Atwood, Joseph Roth, Clarice Lispector and many more, by creating a personal, intimate anthology of her beloved readings. This collection offers a possibility to discover the authors who have informed and influenced Smith’s writing. Her articles are featured regularly in newspapers and magazines, for example, in The Guardian, The Scotsman, The Times and Harper’s Bazaar. Besides receiving numerous literary prizes, Smith was nominated to Honorary Fellow by Goldsmiths, University of London; awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of East Anglia; elected to Fellow of the Royal Society and Literature; and appointed CBE for services in literature.
Smith's work, particularly her prose, has received increased academic acclaim. In September 2013 researchers focusing on contemporary literature gathered to discuss her writing at a conference dedicated solely to her work. At the same event, the conference organizers, Monica Germanà and Emily Horton, presented their edited collection, Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. As the call for papers for this conference indicates, Smith’s work explores numerous topics such as "questions of time and temporality; language and linguistic play; intertextuality; translation; myth; gender and sexuality; Scottish identity; the Gothic; affective ethics; and Modernist invention" https://alismith21cf.wordpress.com/). This enumeration delineates the most important issues currently forming her critical reception that can be clustered into two main topics: her unique style and narrative modes and her recurring themes. Interpretations tend to focus on one of these topics or explore the interconnections deriving from them. For example, several critics (Evans 2016; Tancke 2013; Germaná 2013 and O’Donnell 2013) examine the trope of "the intrusion of a stranger" in Hotel World, The Accidental and There but for the. Other critics delve into the analysis of her "creative use of word play and syntax" (Blyth 2013, 23) or her "insights into the philosophy of grammar and the grammar of philosophy" (Currie 2013, 48) that shape the intriguing narrative structures of her novels.
One of the outcomes of critical reception is placing a writer's work within a larger cultural context and defining its heritage. Known for its formal experimentation, Smith's writing is considered to be an amalgam of "modernism, postmodernism and contemporary" (https://alismith21cf.wordpress.com/). Besides the critics, the modernist element is supported by the author's recognition of a particularly strong Modernist influence upon her work. Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield emerge as Smith's main predecessors when she plays homage to them in Artful. As one of the members of a radio panel discussing modernist art, she coyly admits that she is "kind of married to modernism" (Marr 2012). She fully embraces its versatility; its idea of playfulness, its experimentations with voice, genre and narrative; its desire to push the limits of art and to create dialogues. However, in her work the modernist aspect is connected not only to language and narrative experimentations. In her interpretation of Hotel World, Mary Horgan explores Smith's modernism from an economic and political angle. Analysing how cash money "arises as a potential alternative language" (2016, 156) undermining the dominant commercial narrative, Horgan argues that Smith creates a "numismatic modernism", that is "a model of modernism that constructs a creative, critical response to capitalist modernity by closely engaging with its materials and contexts, carving out an alternative to the marketplace from within it" (2016, 156). Thus Smith views modernism not only as a stylistic project, but also considers its social aspects, its "unique political dynamism" (Horgan 2016, 167). Contemplating all its various aspects, Horgan defines Smith's modernism as an "ethical, committed modernism" (2016, 167). Ethics is also at the centre of Emma E. Smith's reading of Hotel World. The novel becomes a "deeply ethical book" (Smith 2010, 97) due to its narrative strategies such as the diffusion of narrative authority and the formation of polyvocality.
While the author embraces the discussions around the modernist aspects of her writing, she is, like many of her contemporaries – Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith, Jackie Kay and Arundhati Roy, for instance – cautious about supporting readings rooted in autobiographical elements that would have a reductionist effect, pigeonholing her work based on ethnicity and/or sexuality. The unease of labelling, however, persists even in the case of modernism. When asked if she considers herself a modernist, she maintained "I’m never just an ist" (Inventing). Similarly, she is never just a Scottish or a lesbian writer, or a Scottish lesbian writer. The heritage of Scottish literature and culture has offered her "a gift of the natural and the supernatural coexisting, of the gothic and the comic coexisting, of form which can take any shape it likes, of a sense of the strength of the outsider" (qtd. in Young 2015, 136). Aligning Smith's work with several Scottish women writers such as A.L. Kennedy, Emma Tennant, Muriel Spark, Alice Thompson and Margaret Elphinstone, Monica Germaná (2010) examines the reverberations of these gifts as she unveils the influence of the Scottish fantasy and supernatural tradition in two novels, The Accidental and Hotel World. Girl Meets Boy (2007), a modern reinterpretation of the Iphis’ myth by Ovid, is celebrated as a queer novel that refuses to subscribe to the negativity of current queer theory (Mitchell 2013). Instead, through the presentation of the transformative powers of desire and the playfulness of gender fluidity, it celebrates queer metamorphoses and navigates us towards a happier future of queer fiction. In her interview with the author, Torry Young (2015) points out how Smith creates stories in which the "'you' often does, completely avoid the markers of gender and sexuality" (139). Thus, the reader has the freedom to fill in the gaps, to gender or sexualise this “you” according to her/his desires; or just simply enjoy the lack of gender signs by "focusing on the emotions of love and intimacy" (140).
Discussing the eternal question of style versus content, Smith defines style as “what happens when voice and form meet and fuse into something more than both” (Smith 2012). When looking at her work, she combines these two elements, voice and form, in such a way that they create a unique captivating style, opening up fictional worlds to be enjoyed by many readers. Her experimental writing is driven by an ethical desire as she considers the novel to be a "revolutionary form" that reflects on and pushes social changes. She has been classified in various ways: a contemporary modernist, a Scottish (woman) writer, a political writer or a queer writer. She embodies, but at the same time eludes, these categories.
Barry, Stephen. “Best Books of 2016.” The Guardian, 27
Nov 2016. Available at
Blyth, Ian. “Simile and Similarity in Ali Smith’s Like.” Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Eds Monica Germanà and Emily Horton. London: Bloomsbury. 2013. 23-35.
Currie, Mark. “Ali Smith and the Philosophy of Grammar.” Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Eds Monica Germanà and Emily Horton. London: Bloomsbury. 2013. 48-61.
Denes, Mellisa. “A Babel of Voices.” The Guardian, 19 April 2003. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/apr/19/fiction.shopping
Evans, Joel. “Ali Smith’s Necessary Contingent or Navigating the Global,” Textual Practice. 2016. 1-20.
Germanà, Monica. Scottish Women’s Gothic and Fantastic Writing: Fiction since 1978. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2010.
Germanà, Monica. “‘The Uncanny Can Happen”: Desire and Belief in The Seer.” Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Eds Monica Germanà and Emily Horton. London: Bloomsbury. 2013. 115-130.
Germanà, Monica, and Emily Horton, eds. Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, London: Bloomsbury. 2013.
Germanà, Monica, and Emily Horton. “Introduction.” Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Eds Monica Germanà and Emily Horton. London: Bloomsbury. 2013. 1-8.
Guest, Kathy. “Review: Shire by Ali Smith, with Images by Sarah Wood.” Independent, 29 June 2013. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/review-shire-by-ali-smith-with-images-by-sarah-wood-8679825.html
Horgan, Mary. “About Change: Ali Smith’s Numismatic Modernism,” Contemporary Women’s Writing, 10.2 (2016). 155-174.
Inventing the Modern Novel: Ali Smith and Vesna Goldsworthy in Conversation with Lara Feigel. 9 Dec 2015. Lecture, King’s College London.
Marr, Andrew. “Start the Week: Modernism with Ali Smith and Kevin Jackson.” BBC Radio 4. 2012. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ng2qq
Mitchell, Kaye. “Queer Metamorphoses: Girl Meets Boy and the Future of Queer Fiction.” Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Eds Monica Germanà and Emily Horton. London: Bloomsbury. 2013. 61-75.
O’Donnell, Patrick. “‘The Space That Wrecks Our Abode’: The Stranger in Ali Smith’s Hotel World and The Accidental.” Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Eds Monica Germanà and Emily Horton. London: Bloomsbury. 2013. 89-101.
Tancke, Ulrike. “Narrating Intrusion: Deceptive Storytelling and Frustrated Desires in The Accidental and There but for th.e” Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Eds Monica Germanà and Emily Horton. London: Bloomsbury. 2013. 75-89.
Smith, Ali. “Style vs Content? Novelists Should Approach their Art with and Eye to what the Story Asks.” The Guardian, 18 Aug 2012. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/18/ali-smith-novelists-approach-art.
Smith, Emma E. “‘A Democracy of Voice?”: Narrating Community in Ali Smith’s Hotel World,” Contemporary Women’s Writing, 4.2 (2010), 81- 99.
Young, Tory. “Love and the Imagination are not Gendered Things: Interview with Ali Smith,” Contemporary Women’s Writing, 9:1 (2015). 131- 148.
Citation: Farkas, Zita. "Ali Smith". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 23 September 2017 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5821, accessed 30 September 2023.]