‘A wonderful achievement’ – Artful by Ali Smith

Artful cannot be tied down to a simple description. After reading it, you will not be able to talk about it as solely a work of fiction or criticism. But you will be able to say that it’s a fantastic example of each of these disciplines. With Artful, Smith once again tests the boundaries of what we can do with writing, combining a lecture series she gave at Oxford University with a fictional narrative that is as involving and heart-wrenching as much of her best work. She proves that writing need have no boundaries; that fact and fiction can be combined effortlessly and that neither of them need come out on top. At least, that seems to be the case when your name is Ali Smith.

The fictional strand of Artful is narrated by a woman whose partner passed away a year before the narrative begins. Haunted by her lost lover, she finds herself intrigued by the unfinished lecture notes that this ghostly vision keeps returning to read. These talks, in reality, closely resemble those that Smith gave at Oxford. Everything ‘artful’ is discussed here, as we are led on a journey through Smith’s multitude of artistic interests, with considerations of fiction, poetry, film, and theatre coming to the forefront. All of this is presented in a prose style typical of Smith, and so resonant of the way she delivers her readings and lectures. Smith is so readable, so likable, witty, and difficult to put down, that it makes you wonder why more people don’t make use of her. She could make David Cameron interesting. She could bring an air of genius to the cast of Hollyoaks. She could create a fascinating tone amongst the ingredients on a box of Special K.

What is most impressive about Artful is the ease with which essay and fiction are made into one. The lectures and notes that the grieving protagonist reads through are linked to the lives that these two shared for so long. What her partner wrote is shown to have come directly from the discussions they had, the films they watched, and the books and writers they argued about. Smith manages to make a slightly adapted set of lectures tug on the heartstrings. As we read about the dead partner’s opinions on Oliver! the Musical, a film that has been integral to the narrator’s life, we feel how these opinions affect her, how they remind her of what she’s lost. This is a wonderful achievement. Through this method, Smith not only makes us consider her insights on form, time, and other elements of art, but she also represents just how integral art is to the emotional lives of so many of us. There’s something about the way she does this that makes Artful a uniquely accessible work of criticism at the same time as it’s a haunting fictional portrayal of grief, lost love, and the power of art.

Any Cop?: Smith possesses rare levels of genius. She deserves to be read and discussed by every single person who has an interest in literature today. Whether writing novels, short stories, or criticism, she excels. Artful should only further enhance her reputation.


  1. […] Artful stands out as the best book of 2012 because it is unique. Nowhere else will you find a book that so effortlessly mixes fiction, criticism, and general appreciation of the wonderful effect art has on its admirer’s lives. Artful presents incisive and original discussions of literature, film, theatre, painting, and sculpture, and it does all of this in the wonderfully readable prose of one of the UK’s best stylists. What really takes Artful to another level, though, is the fictional tale that Smith builds all these other discussions around. It is a tale of loss, grief, and recovery. It is a story that highlights the way we miss the things that often annoyed us about our loved ones, and a fantastic portrayal of the way that art forms an integral part of our most important relationships. The fiction in Artful would rival anything else I’ve read this year on its own. Artful really seems like a one-off. It’s difficult to imagine even Ali Smith being able to repeat a similar feat. In a year when the Man Booker Prize once again went to the most obvious candidate, we at Bookmunch should award our accolade to something unique and groundbreaking. Artful seems the perfect choice. […]

  2. I really like your review. If you’ve not read them, try The Accidental and There but for the … also great reads from Ali Smith

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