Mark Tonderai and his production company Shona Films have acquired movie rights for historical novel The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden. The novel, published last year (2016) by Jacaranda Books in the UK and Akashic Books in the US, follows the life of Harlan, a travelling musician from Georgia during the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, who is taken hostage in Paris when the city comes under Nazi occupation during the Second World War.
Tonderai is the director of psychological thriller Hush (2008) and House at the End of the Street (2012) which starred Hollywood’s Jennifer Lawrence. He is adapting The Book of Harlan, and will direct the movie himself, with McFadden assisting in production.
The Book of Harlan has received several accolades since publication, winning the NAACP Award earlier this year, and the American Book Award. It’s powerful prose, evocative of time and place, and its success in highlighting a poorly documented group of victims of the Nazi regime, has already garnered it outstanding praise. McFadden says of the novel “I realized that while much had been written about the Jewish victims, the fate of Africans and African Americans at the hands of the Nazis was less well documented. I was fascinated by this discovery and set about writing a story that would illuminate this hidden verity.”
New stories from Christopher Priest, David Hutchinson, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe, Jeff Noon, Anne Charnock and more.
As the events of 2017 reveal an ever more complex relationship between people and their governments, classic dystopian literature is proving its relevance once again. But as readers turn to classics, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, writers are also looking to our future, and what may lie there.
Unsung Stories have gathered eleven leading science fiction writers who have looked ahead to 2084, as Orwell did in 1948, for a new anthology – writers such as David Hutchinson, Christopher Priest, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe, Jeff Noon and Anne Charnock, who are already famous for their visions of the near future.
Speaking about the anthology, George Sandison, Managing Editor at Unsung Stories, said, “We knew when we first started work on the anthology that the idea was timely, but the start of 2017 has really hammered home how important writing like this is.
“Dystopian fiction gives us a space in which to explore today’s fears, and the nightmares of society. For many people the events of the last eighteen months have brought those dark futures much closer, so it’s inevitable that we turn to literature to help us understand why.
“The ideas at work in 2084 range from the familiar to the fantastic, but all are bound by a current and relevant sense of what we could lose, what’s at stake. As with Orwell’s work, decades from now, we will be looking back to our stories, to better understand today.”
2084 will be published by Unsung Stories in July 2017 and features leading writers, including Christopher Priest, David Hutchinson, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe, Anne Charnock and Jeff Noon.
In 1948 Orwell saw a world in flux, at risk of losing liberty so recently won. In response he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, a prophetic book. Now, in 2017,the themes are still with us.
This anthology of new short stories draws together leading science fiction writers – famous for their visions of our near future – and asks them to look into our future, to the year 2084.
Put humanity on trial as the oceans rise. Slip over borders in a Balkanised Europe. Tread the bizarre streets of cities ruled by memes. See the world through the eyes of drones. Say goodbye to your body as humanity merges with technology.
Warnings or prophesies? The path to Paradise or destruction? Will we be proud of what we have achieved, in 2084?
Anne Charnock (Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind and A Calculated Life)
Ian Hocking (Deja Vu)
Dave Hutchinson (The Fractured Europe Sequence)
Cassandra Khaw (Hammers on Bone)
Oliver Langmead (Dark Star and Metronome)
Jeff Noon (Vurt, Automated Alice, Pollen and more)
Christopher Priest (The Prestige, The Dream Archipelago, The Gradual and many more)
James Smythe (The Australia Trilogy, The Echo, The Explorer and more)
Lavie Tidhar (A Man Lies Dreaming, Osama and Central Station)
Aliya Whiteley (The Beauty and The Arrival Of Missives)
About the Publisher:
Unsung Stories publish literary and ambitious speculative fiction that defies expectation. Publishing stories from the varied worlds of genre fiction – science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and all the areas in-between.
If you’re in Birmingham this Friday head over to Ikon Gallery in Brindleyplace for the opening of three new exhibitions, including the literary-inspired For The Man Who Wouldn’t Get Up – Hommage to David Lodge by Philippine Hamen.
Philippine Hamen, For The Man Who Wouldn’t Get Up – Hommage to David Lodge (2015). Laminated beech, steel, upholstered foam.
French design student Philippine Hamen presents a new hybrid piece of furniture in Ikon’s Tower Room. It is inspired by David Lodge’s short story, The Man Who Wouldn’t Get Up (first published in 1966), about a man who is tired of getting up every morning to live the same joyless life, day after day, until one morning he decides to stay where he is.
In reality, he didn’t love life anymore. The thought pierced him with a kind of thrill of despair. I no longer love life. There is nothing in life that gives me pleasure any more. Except this: lying in bed. And the pleasure of this is spoiled because I know I have to get up. Well, then, why don’t I just not get up? Because you’ve got to get up. You have a job. You have a family to support. Your wife has got up. Your children have got up. They have done their duty. You have to do yours. Yes, but it’s easy for them. They still love life. I don’t any more. I only love this: lying in bed.
The hero, or perhaps anti-hero, decides not to get up – ever. The consequences are unexpected, for himself and others. Hamen has made a “lounger desk” for Lodge’s character and in a sense for the writer whose imagination conceived him. With an appropriate ergonomic structure, including a ‘face hole’ usually found in massage tables, it enables the user to read or work lying face down and thereby questions the long-held association of verticality with the activity of work, whereas horizontality is mostly associated with idleness. Hamen’s lounger desk assuages any guilt we might feel when lying down, reconciling the work space with the domestic sphere.
Please note Ikon’s Tower Room is only accessible via a number of steps. The exhibition is supported by Fluxus Art Projects.
The Man Who Wouldn’t Get Up and Other Stories by David Lodge is published by Vintage on 15 September and will be available from Ikon Shop or online at http://www.ikon-gallery.org.
Event: David Lodge and Philippine Hamen in conversation
Saturday 8 October, 4.30–7pm
£8 per person, £6.40 concessions Ikon Gallery and Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, Broad Street, Birmingham B1 2ND
Designer Philippine Hamen and writer David Lodge discuss Hamen’s work For The Man Who Wouldn’t Get Up – Hommage to David Lodge at an event chaired by arts journalist Rosie Goldsmith. The event begins at 4.30pm at Ikon Gallery with a drinks reception and special viewing of the current exhibitions, followed by the talk at 6pm at the Library of Birmingham. To book visit http://www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org or call 0121 245 4455.
Based in Krakow, Poland, Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer are creating, curating, documenting and theorising a literary revolution : Liberature. Since Fajfer coined the term in 1999 – which could be used not only to describe the kinds of works that he and Bazarnik were creating together but could also be applied retrospectively to works by writers such as James Joyce, Stephane Mallarme, William Blake and Laurence Sterne and equally applied to a range of more recent and contemporary works by writers such as B.S. Johnson and Jonathan Safran Foer – the couple have been prolific in producing, publishing and researching around this previously undocumented area of literary activity.
Katarzyna has published widely in academic contexts on Liberature, including the 2014 Incarnations of Material Textuality, and has a book forthcoming this year. Zenon’s collected essays from 1999-2009 can be found here. Together they edit and run the Liberature imprint at Krakow-based small publisher Korporacja Ha!art, which has published several notable works including the first publication in Poland of Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a specially-formatted version of Mallarme’s Un Coup de Des following the writer’s original directions for the text, and the first foreign translation of Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller’s Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm. The Liberature imprint has also published works by B.S. Johnson, and publishes a range of liberatic works by Bazarnik and Fajfer themselves.
Liberature takes its name by replacing the Latin ‘liter’ (letter) with the Latin word for book, ‘liber’, which also means ‘free’.
What distinguishes Liberature from literature is the focus on the form of the book as an integral element of communication within the structure of the whole. Where generally the bound codex is rendered invisible – and in the digital age, almost obsolete – as simply the carrier of the message of the printed word, Liberature recognises and foregrounds the book’s physical materiality as a vital component of the literary work printed onto its pages.
What distinguishes Liberature from the Artist Book is that the primary focus is on the literary text in its relationship with the book object – the marriage of material form and literary content – where the Artist Book in general explores the possibilities of the book form without requiring specific literary content.
On 12th August, Joe and I met Katarzyna and Zenon at the Liberature Reading Room in Krakow where they showed us their collection and spoke about their work. The Liberature Reading Room is a research resource housing books from their own personal collection, theoretical and scholarly publications, promotional material and press clippings, all related to contemporary and historical works that are considered to be works of liberature, or ‘liberatic’.
The book for which the term was coined, Oka-leczenie (2000), is formed of three interlinked codices bound together – a deliberate decision to present a physical experience of the book’s content in material form. Spanning the stories of a death, a birth and an intermediary period between the two, the book can opened at the beginning of any of the three codices which never end but open onto one another in an intentionally endless cycle. Thus the book is no longer an invisible component, subordinate to the text in the communication of meaning, or at least intention. In a work of Liberature, the material structure of the book is employed as an integral dimension of communication in the design of the text as a whole. This, for those who have attempted it, is a radical act that questions some deeply held assumptions.
The focus of Western literary production and its critical reception has overwhelmingly been on the words of the text, rather than the design of the book as an object. This echoes the cultural prejudice that has traditionally valued the intellectual over the physical. The physicality of the book remains invisible and unquestioned, as it has largely been the intellectual work of the writer in creating the text that has been most valued. In this way, it’s become easy to ‘lose yourself’ in a good story – the physical act of turning the pages becomes no interruption to the mental and intellectual act of reading the words and reconstructing an imaginary narrative. But this kind of reading can neglect, or at worst negate, the body: the physical processes at work not only in the act of reading, but in the experience of being human. To me, this replicates the age-old theological dichotomy between the body and the soul, which again demonises the former in favour of the latter. Liberature aims at bringing the material form back into play, to foreground its relationship with the immaterial and raise questions about its role.
The codex form itself, far from being an innocuous and insignificant vehicle for the written word, developed at a culturally and spiritually significant point in time. The first codices were Coptic – designed to encode the biblical narrative. In the structure of the codex form, with its linear temporality and teleological focus, we can see the structure of the biblical narrative embodied in material form. Every novel ever written and produced within this set of structures is to a greater or lesser degree reproducing the structure and story of the Bible. Its structures and codes have dominated our narratives for so long that they are now an unconscious and unquestioned part of our lives, shaping the ways that we think, interpret and experience the world.
For these reasons and others, I believe it is the vital work of writers and artists to draw attention to and question our unconscious assumptions about the material form of the book.
In his ’emanational texts’ – the literary texts that become the content for the liberatic material forms – Fajfer goes further still in probing the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. Each book contains both a visible text and an invisible text: the invisible text emanates from a close reading of the first letters of each word of the visible text, until only a single seed word remains. The seed word becomes both the origin and the end point, or the birth and the death, of the visible text on the page. In this way, both the visible and the invisible carry equal significance and weight, as each gives rise to the other.
An exploration of the relationship between the physical form of the book and the physical form of the body, and the energising of silent spaces in relationship with the word, are integral elements in the work of our book The Unfinished Dream, which we donated to Katarzyna and Zenon for the Liberature Reading Room while we were there. It was exciting to discuss our work in the context of Liberature: particularly being told that The Unfinished Dream is a liberatic project in their opinion. Overspilling the boundaries of the codex, The Unfinished Dream is also a performance and a film with each element of the project designed to foreground the relationship between the physical forms of the book and the body and the interrelationship between word and silence in speech and on the page.
The physical object of the book is a central concern of The Unfinished Dream. The project explores the ways that the materiality of the book is ignored and made invisible at the expense of the words and ideas it contains, in a similar way to the relationship between the physical human body and the concepts and ideas that are generated by the mind. The Unfinished Dream explores writing, drawing and creative practice as embodied, physical processes – processes that take place in, of and through the body, and which may be experienced physically, viscerally and emotionally by those who come into contact with them. The foregrounded interrelationship between word and silence is intended to raise questions about the relationships between self and other, subject and object, writer and reader: creating a non-linear multiplicity that requires the collaboration of the reader to engender meaning.
In Fajfer’s words, Liberature is ‘total literature’ in which every aspect of literary production is engaged and controlled by the writer as a potentially meaningful component of the work. I find the phrase ‘total literature’ difficult to subscribe to, due to the ways that I work with energising silence to co-create a text that overspills its pages and finds its meaning and its locus somewhere in the spaces between self and other, subject and object, writer and reader – it doesn’t reside in the pages of the book, and I as the writer am not fully in control of its meanings. I asked about this while we were there and Katarzyna explained that the term comes from the idea of ‘total theatre’ in which all elements of theatrical production are employed to generate the overall effect. Total literature is intended to reflect this all-encompassing method of production, and not to be conflated with totalising. This is something I understand, but still find uncomfortable in its terminology. For me the defining phrases ‘spatio-temporal literature’ (p62), or simply ‘literature in the form of the book’ describe the work and impact of Liberature adequately, whilst avoiding the complication of unintended ideological connotations.
It was incredibly inspiring and energising to meet with Katarzyna and Zenon to discuss Liberature, and we’re grateful to them for their generosity and their genuine interest in our work as well as the vibrant and animated conversations we had that sparked so many ideas. We hope to continue the conversation for many years to come.
Sally is researching for a PhD in utopian theory and experimental writing at the University of Westminster, and works as the research assistant for the Contemporary Small Press project. The Unfinished Dream is a collaborative project between Sally-Shakti Willow and Joe Evans.
The Contemporary Small Press interviews writer Lara Pawson, whose book This is the Place to Be will be published by CB editions in September.
Lara, you were at the first Contemporary Small Press Symposium run by the University of Westminster in February 2015, how did that event impact on your decision to choose a small press publisher for your book?
Massively. I went to that because I’d seen something tweeted by Tony White, the writer who also has Piece of Paper Press. I went, very much inspired by Tony, and I went because I though I know that small presses are doing interesting things, I want to learn more about small presses. At that point I had written my piece that has now become the book, This is the Place to Be, which was initially called Non-Correspondence, and I wrote that in 2014. So it wasn’t that I’d gone there looking for a small publisher. I’d gone there because of Tony White and because of the kind of work that I’m working on – I’m working on a novel at the moment – and the way that that is progressing, I feel that it probably won’t fit with a conventional ‘market’. My hunch is it’s more likely to be taken up by a small press. So I went with the hope of meeting like-minded people, seeing what kind of people were in that world, a bit of ‘networking’, and also that I might learn something. And I did feel really inspired by it.
Afterwards at the book fair, I went around all the tables looking at the books, and when I got to the CB editions table Charles was standing there, I saw The Notebook by Agota Kristoff. I had seen that performed by Forced Entertainment at Battersea Arts Centre the year before, and I said ‘Oh my God, you’re publishing Agota Kristoff’ I told him I’d seen it – incredible play. [Then we started talking and exchanged contact details and stayed in touch] and he said to me ‘if you’ve got anything you’d be interested in publishing with me, just send it my way and let me have a look’ And I didn’t really think much more about it until a year ago when I was on my way back from Wales and I was in the car with a former performer, who had performed with Forced Entertainment, and he had asked me about my work and I was telling him about the Non-Correspondence monologue, and he said to me ‘why don’t you get it published as a book, that sounds like it’s a book’ and when I got back I thought ‘oh I should get in touch with that man Charles’.
And I think that, going to the symposium, I just felt very excited that there were a lot of people there doing very interesting, brave things. In a world that you quite often feel is closing in on you all the time and you have to conform and you have to compete with all these people to get your product into the market, there I was amongst people who seemed to be interested in the work for what the work is and I felt very liberated and excited by that. So when Charles said yes he’d publish it, I just felt like I’d hit the jackpot, even though I hadn’t literally hit the jackpot in terms of dollars. I felt very lucky. These people are doing very interesting things, and they’re sort of creating what they want to exist.
Now that I’m working with Charles and CB editions I’ve been slowly making my way through some of the books he’s published, and I’ve just been astounded by how great they are. All these wonderful things that are being produced. In the world of the small presses, it feels like you’re creating something and I think when you live in the over-developed world, which I like to call the northern hemisphere and especially the UK, you kind of feel that everything’s been done, and it’s closed and locked – and I think for me what that conference, the symposium did for me, and did again last week and that’s why I went again because I thought I know it will open my eyes, it’ll open my horizons, and this time I heard about Commune Editions and I thought I really want to explore all of these things.
What’s your experience of being published by CB editions?
I’ve only published one book before this book. The book that’s being published by CB editions is called This is the Place to Be, my first book was called In the Name of the People and it was about Angola, a non-fiction, published with IB Tauris, so I’d already had a lovely experience of working one to one with my editor, and it was a very positive experience. So it’s kind of, again, incredible to be working with Charles and it’s even better than that was. Because Charles is basically a one-man-band, he does the design, he does the layout, he does everything. So I sent him my text, he had a read, he gets back to me, we go for coffees, and it’s been a very personal microexperience. Instead of spending so much of our lives sitting behind screens and not being in touch with people, or being in touch with people miles away. We both live in London so we meet in town for a coffee or something and we talk about various stages of the book planning. It just feels very close up and intimate.
CB editions tend to have uniform covers – they used to be those beautiful brown covers, but Charles has recently changed that, and I entered into that process while he was in the middle of making that change. So in fact my book when it comes out won’t look like lots of the other CB editions books, but Charles sent me some suggestions of how it could be and was very happy for me to choose. Then I went to his house where the books are produced and I sat in his front room with his cats and we looked at different covers on the screen and looked at fonts and it was great. I met his wife who’s a painter and I felt like it was a really special day, and I found myself thinking ‘why can’t all books be produced like this?’ It was really good fun. I just love the fact it’s such a personal experience.
I think the small presses are much more flexible and there’s a kind of speed and elasticity which feels in some ways much more appropriate in a way to the world that we live in where everything changes so quickly and you can produce stuff online and produce a digital book ‘like that’ [*snaps fingers*] but these small presses are producing hard books, quality paper books, in months, so I really love that. I’m quite impatient and I’m quite spontaneous so for me that’s just great.
I remember at the first symposium you were angry at the suggestion by some panellists that writers and small press publishers shouldn’t expect to make a living from it and should accept poverty as a choice in exchange for the privilege of writing non-mainstream books. What’s your opinion on that now and can you clarify your thoughts for us?
The idea that it’s noble to not be paid. What’s noble about not being paid? It’s important, we all have to live, we all have to get by in the world, and I think that the idea that writing and producing works of art, be it fine art or writing or poetry or theatre or whatever, that the people who produce it don’t need to earn a living from it is something I really dislike. I think it’s just a sort of fanciful idea, presumably reproduced by people who either don’t appreciate art and don’t think it has a value or by some people who have a lot of money and don’t need to be paid for the work they’re doing or what they’re creating. So I don’t think we as writers and artists and people who are producing this stuff should encourage a culture of not earning. I think it’s a real problem.
That said, in a way you might accuse me of hypocrisy but I also understand that here I am being published by a very small publisher. I’m not being paid huge sums, I am being paid a sum of money for it, but a very small sum of money. Certainly not enough to live off or pay my mortgage with. I have an agent, who did send my book to another publisher that didn’t want it, I suppose I could’ve gone around looking for more big publishing houses with more money. But I think with this particular book, because it was originally written as a performance, as a looping monologue that was performed at the Battersea Arts Centre as a kind of theatre-performance-sound piece I never expected it – and I was paid for that by the way, I was paid a sum of money for that piece of work and I was paid again when it went to Brussels, so I got paid for the times that that was produced. But when it became a book – I never expected it to become a book and it’s been expanded a bit, it was initially 20,000 words and it’s now 35,000 words, so still very small, but when it became a concrete plan that it was maybe going to be published as a book, I saw that as a bonus, as a kind of surprise and so I wasn’t thinking primarily that I must get lots of money out of this. My priority was that I wanted it to be published with a publisher that was respected for the quality of writing that they produced.
But I feel really strongly about being honest about the money side of it. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I wasn’t a partner with someone (my husband, I’m married) who has a full time job. If he was not earning money there would be no way that I could do this. I’d be doing other things as well. I do do other things to earn money but I don’t earn enough to live off without my husband’s contribution. So I’m fortunate, I don’t think it’s a model that should be pursued. I don’t think it’s something to be proud of. I don’t think it’s noble not being paid. I think I’m very privileged and fortunate and it’s not fair on people who haven’t got money or haven’t got a partner who can support them, what are they supposed to do: just sort of think it’s noble to produce a book and breathe in air? People need to live. And you need time to write, you can’t work full time and write. Some people do do that, but it’s a really hard thing to do.
So I’m just very uneasy, particularly when I hear academics, who are very often on salaried jobs, talking about the idea that it’s somehow superior not to be paid. It’s not true, we need to live. It’s elitist, it’s exclusive. There’s a minority of people out there with private money, but we don’t just want work to be produced by those people, we want work to be produced by everybody, so that we get a mix of voices and input. So yeah, I really bristle at people who promote poverty, I just think it’s bullshit.
Will you be looking for a small press publisher for your third book?
The publishers that are producing books I like are often small presses, but not only. There’s plenty of good books produced by the ‘normal publishing industry’ that I really like. There’s lots of books that get produced by all sorts of publishers that I really like. But the books that sort of fire me up, apart from the old classics, tend to be with the small press. So I might well [look for a small press for book 3] but I’m also quite mindful that I’m anxious to make a bit more money out of it. People said to me once you’ve got your first book out you’ll make loads of money on your second, but that has not been the case. And that’s not a criticism of CB editions for one minute, but it’s not as simple as that. I’m beginning to think that maybe, given the kind of writer that I seem to be, or seem to be becoming, that I’m not sure I’ll ever be that mainstream, and I’m going to have to accept that. But I also think that small presses are influencing the mainstream presses, so who knows. Eimaer McBride’s book is a classic example of that, but there are plenty of other books and I think people are beginning to realise there’s quite a big desire to read those books. So to be honest I’m not sure.
What would you like to see in the future from the small presses in general, and for your book in particular?
I hope with This is the Place to Be, that it will reach people, that it will reach readers, I’d really love it if it gets reviews by mainstream newspapers in Britain. With my first book it had quite a big readership, especially in Portuguese. What for me is really wonderful is writers getting in touch with you from Mozambique, or someone in Spain or someone in Canada, and they’ve read your book and it’s moved them and affected them and they write to you – you cannot beat that sort of feeling of something you’ve produced touching people.
I feel very nervous about this book, because I feel like I’ve really let it all hang out, I’ve really exposed myself, and in fact after I’d initially written a first draft, I gave it to my next door neighbour who’s a writer, and she really liked This is the Place to Be, and she said to me, ‘You’ve got to read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, your book’s really like that.’ I hadn’t heard of Maggie Nelson until then, so I then read her book and I then felt really nervous because I thought Maggie Nelson’s book was so good. I though oh shit, my book’s not good enough. But I suppose there were overlaps, and felt that if I could reach people with my own writing, I don’t know. In some ways I just feel like I’m so amazed it’s being published. I’m so happy it’s being published with CB editions. I’m so happy with the few people who’ve read it and their response to it, that if it keeps going like that then frankly I’ll be dead chuffed. The writer Joanna Walsh read it and very generously endorsed it, and I was just ecstatic for about 48 hours because she’d read it and liked it.
In terms of what I hope for the small press, I hope that they keep going, I hope they survive. In the climate we’re in right now, not simply that we’re in this weird, ‘Are we going to Brexit or not’ moment but the fact that in the economy we’re looking at even more austerity that presumably is going to be a bit of a threat to people working on small presses. And if we pull out of Europe is that going to affect the funding because a lot of these small presses, I don’t know who funds them, but a lot of CB editions books are written by European writers, translated by people into English. To what extent is this whole Brexit moment going to affect the publishing houses? And Other Stories produce lots of books written by people all around the world. I imagine this [Brexit] is a bit of a threat to [publishers]. On the other hand, I think people quite often rise to the challenge – so it’s a threat and it’s a crisis but it might make us all fight back a bit more. Because when you put up barriers, people create ways through it. I’m amazed by the number of young people who are behind a lot of this stuff, and I think wow, they’re really pushing back and creating a lot of this stuff and it’s happening.
Look out for our forthcoming review of Lara’s new book This is the Place to Be from CB editions.
The Contemporary Small Press interviews independent bookseller Sam Fisher of Burley Fisher Books, a London bookshop specialising in small press publications.
What made you decide to open up a bookshop selling small press books in the difficult climate of bookselling in 2016?
There’s reasons to be positive in bookselling, people’s attitudes are changing. I know that we’re pretty privileged in London and it’s more difficult outside of London, but people realise that Amazon and other online retailers only really offer an illusion of choice where you get funnelled towards certain mainstream titles. So I wanted to offer something which counters that, and to represent small publishers. There’s a real wealth of independent publishing happening – in London but outside of London as well – so I wanted to have a space where that could be represented.
Has it been easy to source and identify the books that you sell?
Mostly, it takes time to build it up. A lot [of small publishers] came to us, a lot of them I was following anyway, and it’s not just me, all the guys here have their own interests [in various small presses].
What do you think your customers value most about small press published books?
Firstly they cover areas that big publishers won’t touch, they take risks on new writers. I think in fiction you get a lot more innovation and risk taking than you get with big publishers, which means that it can be good and bad. I think there is a certain sense that big publishers are gatekeepers, and that can be helpful sometimes, but they miss a lot and they get [it] wrong all the time, and [the small press] gives you access to those things that you normally wouldn’t find, that don’t have a voice. I think people are pleased to come across the unexpected and it means that they come back to look for more. I think that what bookshops need to do now is to show people things that they didn’t realise they wanted until they see it – people grow quite loyal to publishers and start to follow their output. When a new book comes out people notice. Small publishers like Fitzcarraldo know that and are starting to produce their books accordingly. Also Galley Beggar, And Other Stories – they have a kind of coherence.
Small presses cover areas that big publishers won’t touch, they take risks on new writers. I think in fiction you get a lot more innovation and risk taking than you get with big publishers.
What makes a small press published book a bestseller in your opinion?
I think it’s very diaphanous. It’s very difficult to [pin down]. If you join a conversation at the right moment, one example would be Pond, which is a fiction, but I think it speaks to a lot of things that people are talking about in theory and cultural theory at the same time. Intersectionality is very important for small presses because that gets people talking, and small presses need word of mouth because they don’t have the ad spends – those kind of intersectional presses.
What’s the best thing about coming to work at Burley Fisher Bookshop every day?
Because we’re so new, it’s new every day, different things are happening every day. Getting to know the community, what our placement is, how we can become part of it [the community], I really enjoy that part of it. Also being able to talk to people about books like Pond [and others], I really enjoy being able to get people excited about those kinds of things. We do a lot of events here as well. They’re really helpful when you’re starting out. But also with these kinds of books, people read them because they want to talk about them, I think. People are thinking about those issues. It also means that – especially when something is published by a small press, there’s often opportunities to meet the person who wrote it in quite an intimate setting, and then you can have a meaningful interaction with them rather than kind of watching two august figures up on the stage at the South Bank, you know there’s a slightly different vibe.
With these kinds of books, people read them because they want to talk about them.
The recommended titles are what we’re currently reading. I try to read about two books a week. But there’s four of us and we all have different interests.
I’ve been really grateful for the support that small presses have given us in the first few months, the willingness they’ve shown to join with us and do events. So this is a good opportunity to say thank you to those people who have helped us there. And I think that this community building [work] is really important and we should try and do as much of it as we can.
Writer Fiona O’Connor explores the rise of the small presses in Ireland…
Over the last decade an unusual phenomenon has emerged in Irish publishing whereby a number of small local presses have begun punching far above their weight in the international literary arena. Back in the noughties a healthy mainstream book market in Ireland had been hit by plummeting sales in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger /credit crunch downturn. Harsh austerity cuts followed, many writers being excised from publisher’s lists and previously lucrative genres such as Irish chick-lit radically downsized. Post-apocalypse, the resurgence of a thriving contemporary literature scene powered by a proliferation of small magazines and presses is creating new possibilities for writers in Ireland.
Some commentators have seen disaster economics as a key catalyst for change. During a recent discussion at the launch of Granta 135, New Irish Writing, novelist/artist Sara Baume spoke of the lack of jobs for artists in Ireland making it ‘perfectly acceptable to be on the scratcher’ (the dole). ‘It wasn’t until everything went crash that we had to look at what is the value of money…Had I had a proper job I would never have written a novel.’
The contribution of visual artists to new Irish writing is a striking feature; writers such as Baume and Claire-Louise Bennett (Pond) ‘seem to hover at the edges of the visual arts field,’ according to eminent Irish artist Alice Maher. Publisher Declan Meade, of The Stinging Fly Press, concurs with this view of people with limited career opportunities in the arts feeding into small press publishing, ‘many of whom had crashed and burned with the bigger publishing houses.’ Meade also points to a ‘growing appreciation of the importance of small presses’ developing in the crash aftermath. He emphasises the critical importance, following the downturn, of Arts Council of Ireland funding for writers being maintained, as a pivotal factor.
Technological change is another significant driver in the emergence of the new dynamic. Capitalising on the ease and reduced expense brought by programmes, small presses have optimised their size where agility and the ability to react quickly give them advantages over the lugubrious bigger houses. Sara Coen co-founder of Tramp Press in 2014, and hugely successful in publishing Sara Baume’s Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, agrees that ‘It’s easier to be agile now.’
An ability to focus on one or two projects at a time, maintaining aesthetic values rather than commercial priorities in choosing titles, distinguishes these new publishing ventures from mainstream practices. Tramp co-founder, Sarah Goff-Davis sees a problem for mainstream publishers lying in their bottom line fundamentalism: focusing on a book solely for its ‘commerciality and not looking at it and asking themselves if it’s a really good book and worth publishing on its own terms,’ she says. ‘We’re approaching it from the opposite end. When we pick up a book from our slush pile and we read it, we just want to engage with how brilliant the book is.’
Beyond the licence to recognise and pick up new talent, Irish small presses have also been instrumental in supporting emerging writing talent through mentoring schemes. Declan Meade flags up the importance of this role for publishing: ‘When Stinging Fly was faced with cuts a decade ago, the Arts Council said, increase your activity with mentoring. Which we did, and continue to do on an ad hoc basis.’ Allied with this support was the decision to publish short story collections as writers’ first books. Contrary to mainstream practice where the novel allowed sole entry to the literary party, Meade felt that not enough focus was being given to the short story form. Thus, short story collections including Kevin Barry’s There Are Little Kingdoms, Mary Costello’s The China Factory and Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, (all from Stinging Fly) launched careers in interesting new ways.
Ironically, the short story form proved a good little runner commercially as such writers made their way towards international recognition via magazines including The Paris Review, The New Yorker and Granta, because of and not despite their niche status. Development of a supportive American readership has been one of the major advantages in creating a recognisable Irish literary identity that draws to it a succession of new names and styles as it rolls forwards. The Irish connection with the US is of long standing, given the Irish diaspora. But Paul Muldoon, Professor of Poetry at Princeton, pointing to the years of The Troubles, finds that for many Irish writers ‘it was more natural…to look to the US than to England.’
The support of newspapers at home too, and principally The Irish Times book section, edited by Martin Doyle, has been instrumental in building credibility for emerging writers and for work that often challenges commercial publishing. This combination of factors, Meade sees, has led to a favourable environment for new writers and writing in Ireland and is heralding the next wave of publishers, now taking their places in a vibrant milieu. The outcome has been international success for literary novels and short story collections, amongst them:
Fiona O’Connor is an Irish writer and academic currently teaching at University of Westminster. She is a Hennessy Short Story Prize winner among other awards. Her work appears in The Stinging Fly, Crannog, Fiction International and nth Position. She is a regular contributor to The Irish Times and has written features for The Guardian, Time Out and The Big Issue.