I am delighted that the award-winning writer, Neil Griffiths, has agreed to be interviewed here. Griffiths has just set up the Republic of Consciousness Prize for small literary presses and their authors and, as a small press author myself, I want to say many thanks to him for that. I am sure that authors with small presses, the presses themselves and readers too will all benefit from the creation of a prize, the intention of which is to shed light on some of the wonderfully exciting work that readers often don’t know about and on the presses which writers may not know they may approach.
But why don’t they?
Why don’t more people know about books from Calisi, or Mother’s Milk, or Patrician Press, or Galley Beggar or Fitzcarraldo, Comma or Linen Press?
Because small presses don’t have the hefty budgets behind them to shift their books into the spotlight. Books from small presses may win major awards – I mention the truly striking A Girl is a Half-formed Thing‘ by Eimear McBride which was published by Galley Beggar Press and went on to win the Goldsmith’s prize and the Bailey’s among others – but this is very unusual. Small presses may operate at a loss or break even/make a small profit; to run them, their originators may re-mortgage their home or work several jobs to make it happen because they think it is important that it does. But they don’t have big budgets for publicity and their books may not be widely stocked. Yet I want to say that of my five or so favourite books of the past year, four were published by independent (I tend to use the term ‘independent press’ interchangeably with ‘small press’) presses (the fifth was Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri, if you want to know) and I admit I also read some BIG selling books that many raved about and which fell flat for me, one of which actually made me cry because I was so disappointed. (It would be churlish to name those, so I won’t.) When Griffiths began to read titles from small presses, something he admits he took a while to do, he was astounded by their quality and wondered what to do. The result was the prize and you can see an account of this in ‘The Guardian’ here
As I said, I am myself published by a small press, Patrician Press, (www.patricianpress.com) and can tell you that I have learned much from being a part of such. I am a debut novelist and I was put through my paces by a firm and talented editor called Patricia Borlenghi, who is also the founder of the press and is its heart and its everything. Her husband, the artist, Charlie Johnson, designed the cover of my book, she keeps an eye on me, inspires me and chides me as necessary (definitely necessary) and I am blessed to have met her and to be part of the Patrician cohort. She took on my strange little book when I had heard bigger publishers deride ‘misery memoirs’ or even scoff at ‘yet another’ book about mental health or books which did not fit neatly into genre. I am lucky in that I only had two agent rejections, (the other three never replied, which I have written about a bit saucily elsewhere) before I found Patrician. Before I did, I was told by a literary consultancy that I had to be able to go into a bookshop and see straight away which shelf my text would sit on and that, realistically, customers (readers) go into a shop and need to know that they are getting Heinz baked beans and not some ersatz brand or, God forbid, a tin of corned beef.
Obviously, there is some good advice in there; I am not arrogant and I am definitely a rookie. I understand, from the many conversations I’ve had about my book, that I’ve written something which a number of readers describe as ‘difficult’. I knew someone would have to take a chance on my book because it was a bit experimental and didn’t sit so tidily in a genre. I am not sure the next one will either! I don’t know yet what will happen with that (it’s called A Life of Almost – oh, you can tell it’s going to be another strange one if you take a little look at the beginning of my research board here: https://uk.pinterest.com/annacvaught/a-life-of-almost/ ) but suspect I will be sending it to small presses when submissions windows are open – for even small presses receive many manuscripts.
I have loved being with a small press, learning to think laterally, make links, offer to write in all kinds of places for free, do talks, rock up at book groups, put on a very jolly book launch, reply to anyone who asks me about the book (as readers have done), crazily fitting it all in around other little publications (I’m also with www.theemmapress.com later this year), my day job, volunteer posts and three young kids, and to contribute work to those movements which aim to change things – hence an article, called ‘A Small Press State of Mind’, I have just done for https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/ which will be up at the end of the month. They will also feature Griffiths and his prize very soon, so publication of this interview is a little taster for that.
I suppose I feel that I have a home. I’m an outlier. But hey, I’ve probably always been that. I just didn’t think there was a place for me as an author, but I underestimated what a wealth of presses and readers were out there! Noli timere if I sound like you. Get out there. May you find a home for your book, too. And homes for you as a reader. With bookshelves of titles which stretch and tantalise you; which make you re-read books to find new subtleties and ideas. I wonder if Proust would be stuffed without the indies – the small presses – if he popped up now. And who would take on Faulkner?
But back to Neil Griffiths. Betrayal in Naples won The Author’s Club First Novel Award; his second book, Saving Caravaggio (which I am reading at the moment) was shortlisted for Best Novel in the Costa Book Awards. Both were published by Penguin. But things are a little different now and his new book, The Family of Love, will be placed with an independent press.’We need small presses: they are good at spotting the literary outliers,’ he writes on his site here http://www.republicofconsciousness.com/2016/02/a-broadside-against-mainstream-publishing/ ‘Their radar is calibrated differently from agents, or mainstream publishers. Small presses don’t ask how many copies will this sell, but how good is this – what is its value as literature? Quality is the only criterion.’
And here is the YouTube launch film for the prize:
SO, AN INTERVIEW WITH NEIL GRIFFITHS ABOUT THE LAUNCH OF THE REPUBLIC OF CONSCIOUSNESS LITERARY PRIZE
Could you tell me why it took you, by your own admission, so long to notice small presses?
I wonder that myself. Possibly bookstore exposure is lacking. Certainly they don’t get the kind of exposure in the book sections of most newspapers. It needs a novel to have already ‘broken out’ for it to be featured. But it’s not all their fault. When something is not on your radar – it gets missed. If I look over my bookshelves there are small presses there, but I guess I didn’t think to wonder about them as having a particular mission – in the sense I didn’t at that point think of any publisher being like that these days. Small presses are a culture, not one particular book – we have to be aware of that culture to notice what it’s doing.
And what about the books you read, for example those by writers at Fitzcarraldo or Galley Beggar Press? How was it they impressed you so much?
The first book I read was Zone by Mathias Enard (Fitzcarraldo), which stunned me. As if I’ve said before, I think it’s the most serious novel ever written. It deals with post-1st World War conflict in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East from the centre of the consciousness of one man as he tries to wrestle with his own actions. It might be about the darkest points in recent history, but it’s a deeply human novel. And formally interesting – one sentence over its 500+ pages. A work of genius. There is also Playthings by Alex Pheby, from Galley Beggar – based on a true story, it’s a novel about the lived experience of a 19th century German judge as he descends into madness. Writing of the highest order – it has more control than any novel I think I’ve read, given it’s dealing with vagaries of a shifting phenomenology. More recently Martin John by Anakana Schofeld, from And Other Stories. Any novel that’s about public sexual exposure and manages to be formally exciting and sympathetic deserves attention.
You mentioned in ‘The Guardian’ that your third book would be placed with a small press? Could you tell me why and how the process has been different from that with a big publisher? (Griffiths’s previous two novels were published by Penguin.)
It’s different only in that the people are different. In the end an editor has to read your novel and love it – that’s the same. But my experience of mainstream literary people is that they are mostly risk averse and professionally competitive in a way that disadvantages the writer. All the people I’ve met from small presses seem genuinely in love with great writing, interesting novels, and promoting difficult writers. It’s a mind-set that I suspect most people in publishing once shared, but lost because of the need to keep their job. Someone last week told me that at a large literary agency, each agent had to be bringing in £200k a year in advances just to support their employment. It’s a disincentive to take on a difficult book that will unlikely get a big advance and may only sell 2000 copies (initially).
Another way small presses differ is access. I’ve just placed my new novel with Dodo Ink, to be published Autumn 2017. I met Sam Mills, author and MD, at The Small Presses Fair in Peckham. We talked books, and I pitched her Family of Love, and she wanted to read it.
What do you hope to achieve with the new Republic of Consciousness Prize?
Humble objectives – increase exposure for small presses and their novels so a few hundred, maybe a thousand, more copies are sold.
Have you had a good deal of interest in the prize? I have been reading a number of truly supportive comments on the prize website and on your youtube channel, for example. Conversely, have you received any negative criticism? As a side note, I read the myriad reviews of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing on Goodreads and Amazon and was fascinated by how divided they were; how a relatively high number of reviewers baulked at its difficulty. How confused, startled or cross readers had been. How others felt it was a work of brilliance and daring. I was thinking, then, of folk sitting, perplexed, in front of Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, until Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan received it warmly and with fascination and the tide turned. I am naturally enchanted by such a polarity in reception; it would make me want to read the book, frankly. I am digressing. Interest in and support for the prize?
Huge support from writers and presses. Now it’s about getting some people with money to support it. I want the prize fund to be large enough to give something to the shortlisted presses as well as the winner. As I’ve said, I’m going to write to the ‘richer’ end of literary novels for donations.
Can you tell me how you went about selecting the judges, the details of whom are now on the prize site?
I needed help, so Nicci Praca – a PR consultant for small presses – recommended some; and Lisa Campbell from The Bookseller also did the same.
Are you able to tell me just a little about the books you have already received?
What I will say is that the covers have been variable. And production quality perhaps not quite what I expected after the beautiful work of Fitzcarraldo and Galley Beggar – the bible black of Galley Beggar’s first runs are my favourite. And the reason this needs mentioning is that book stores won’t take books that aren’t well produced. Small presses are already at a disadvantage. Make your books beautiful and it will make a difference.
Have you had support from any of the bigger publisher or agents? Has the ‘guilt trip’ notion of getting some other authors with bigger publishers to chip in been successful?
How might we writers from small presses floor you with our brilliance, then?
The prize is for risk-taking literary fiction – in the sense that doubles the jeopardy for a small press. But in the end, beautifully crafted sentences full of insight into what it means to be human will do it.
I know it’s early days, but might you tell me about any future hopes and dreams for the prize?
Given my new novel is out next year, I want to win my own prize. That’s a joke, obviously. I hope it runs for a few years, and the prize fund is such that it makes a tangible – and that means financial – difference to small presses’ continued existence.
Thank you so much.
Very happy to do it – thank you.