The Beautiful and the Damned: Fairy Tales Reimagined for a Feminist Readership

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2: Modern Fables and Ancient Tales edited by Teika Bellamy: Mother’s Milk Books, 2016

Fairy tales occupy an important part of our cultural psyche, woven into our collective memories and literary traditions. Often the first stories which are told to us in childhood, it is easy to forget their violent and visceral brutality in the rosy glow of nostalgia. Not so the tales in this collection. Children are abandoned to the savagery of the forest, babies are ripped from the breasts of their mothers, women are first deified and then discarded by men.

Editor Teika Bellamy’s eclectic and celebratory anthology of short stories and re-tellings perfectly captures the dichotomy between light and dark, good and evil, familiarity and fear, which can be found in even the most whimsical of fairy tales. They also effortlessly transverse time and space. Stories about the discovery of a fairy frozen in the icy window of a London tower-block or the disturbing goings-on in a contaminated forest outside Chernobyl sit side-by-side with the folkloric once-upon-a-time universe of castles, kings and queens.

In fact, some of the most effective re-tellings take place in the modern day. NJ Ramsden’s Icarus effortlessly imbues a story set in a Second World War prison camp with the lyricism and language of the fairy tale. Rather than detract from the seriousness of the plot, this merging of genres only enhances the themes of entrapment and escape which power the narrative towards a transcendent climax.

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Despite the tradition of evil queens and infanticidal mothers which has previously dominated the genre, a rich seam of feminism runs through these tales. In Finola Scott’s beautifully poetic Paths of Desire, the female protagonist encounters a community of discarded women whose mouths have literally been sewn shut by men. In a society where youth and beauty equate to female worth, the protagonist contemplates her own grisly fate as she fails in her duty to conceive a son:

Her dreams are full of bloodied lips, creased flesh hanging from bone.

In a more symbolic questioning of female identity, the young wives in Hannah Malhotra’s How Women Came to Love Mirrors are obliged to surrender any names they have previously been called, instead adopting the more prosaic label of Wife. Before long the woman at the centre of the story starts to find herself falling through solid walls, much to the incredulity of her husband and the sympathy of the other unnamed, and equally insubstantial, wives. This affliction can only be remedied by the woman’s obsessive studying of her own reflection in a looking glass. It is not difficult to miss the author’s point about the shedding of any individuality creating an absence of physical self. Malhotra’s coyly ambiguous last line skewers the hypocrisy which strips women of any meaningful identity whilst condemning their need for self-affirmation:

Perhaps she dreamed of a day when women would not need the mirrors. Perhaps she did.

The purity and power of nature is a recurring theme in many of the stories. Women are seen as almost mythical creatures occupying the hinterland between the human and animal worlds. In Rebecca Ann Smith’s Rumpelstiltskin, which perfectly recreates the sing-song cadence of the traditional fairy-tale, the miller’s daughter is depicted as a sprite-like creature, more a part of the natural world than the human one:

She settled into a pattern of spending her days in the woods and the fields, or swimming in the river, watching the plants and little woodland animals, or sometimes just lying on her back staring at the sky.

She ultimately sacrifices her untamed existence for the sterile confines of marriage in order to please the other male in her life – her father. In Rachel Rivett’s ‘Seal Woman’, this sense of intrusion is even more pronounced; the protagonist is literally plucked from her idyllic sisterhood of fellow seal-women by the lurking threat of a man:

And while the sea sang and sucked and hissed and kissed we stamped our feet on stone and span and laughed for sweet wild joy of it. Breathless with night; giddy with the prickle of starshine on my skin. And so I didn’t see him.

For fans of Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie and other purveyors of magical realism, there are rich pickings to be found in this collection. Some of the metaphors chosen by the authors may be slightly heavy-handed but fairy tales have traditionally relied on blunt symbolism to relay their messages about society, sexuality and womanhood, whether it’s the pricking of a virginal finger or an apple offered by a serpentine queen.

The tone, language and setting of the individual stories in the anthology may differ but all of the writers have captured the ‘deep, wild magic’ that can be found running like mercury through the veins of traditional fables. It is impossible not to find yourself drawn into a world which is deceptively familiar and yet distorted, much like the mirrored reflections which haunt the women in so many of the tales.

Click here to find The Forgotten and The Fantastical 2 on the Mother’s Milk website.

 

About the Publisher:

Mother’s Milk Books is a small, family-run press, which aims to celebrate femininity and empathy through images and words, with a view to normalizing breastfeeding.  Mother’s Milk Books receives no grant funding and the press survives purely through sales of books, cards and prints. The press was set up in 2011 and its first title Musings on Mothering, edited by Teika Bellamy, was published in September 2012. This charity anthology of art, poetry and prose about pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding continues to raise funds for La Leche League GB, a breastfeeding support charity.

Review by Katie Witcombe

Katie is a book-fiend and (very) occasional poet. She will quite happily read anything, including the backs of cereal boxes. Also a recent convert to long-distance running.

Irenosen Okojie Shortlisted for Betty Trask Prize

Irenosen Okojie Shortlisted for Betty Trask Prize
Irenosen Okojie has been shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize 2016 for her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, the Society of Authors announced on 1 June. Okojie is one of four authors shortlisted for the prize, which celebrates the best debut novel by a first time author under the age of 35.
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Butterfly Fish is a part historical, part contemporary novel which follows the story of a young woman, Joy, coming to terms with the sudden death of her mother. When Joy inherits an ancient artefact leading back to 19th Century Benin, she is compelled to discover more about its origins, taking the reader on a journey through time and space, revealing long buried family secrets along the way. Judge Michèle Roberts said of the novel, “A bittersweet story uniting different traditions of narrative to create a whole new geography of the imagination.”
The Betty Trask Prize will be announced at a special ceremony on 21st June 2016. The winner will receive £10,000 with runners up receiving a Betty Trask Award of £5,000 each. The judges this year were Simon Brett, Joanne Harris and Michèle Roberts. The Prize and the Awards will be presented by John Agard.
Butterfly Fish, which published in hardback in 2015, will be newly released in paperback this month, followed by her short story collection Speak Gigantular in September 2016. Okojie will also be appearing at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in August and the Henley Literary Festival in October.
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2016 SHORTLIST & JUDGES’ COMMENTS

ALEX CHRISTOFI GLASS (Serpent’s Tail) A marvellously funny, original story, written with immense charm and humour – Joanne Harris

IRENOSEN OKOJIE BUTTERFLY FISH (Jacaranda Books Art Music) A bittersweet story uniting different traditions of narrative to create a whole new geography of the imagination – Michèle Roberts

NATASHA PULLEY THE WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET (Bloomsbury Circus) A fascinatingly imaginative and enchanting book set in a Victorian London that builds up a completely self-consistent world only slightly out of kilter with the real one – Simon Brett

LUCY WOOD WEATHERING (Bloomsbury) An emotionally mature consideration of generational love, loss and change – Michèle Roberts

Betty Trask left a bequest to the Society of Authors in 1983 to celebrate young authors writing in a traditional or romantic style. This year a total of £25,000 in prize money will be distributed.

Literary Criticism and the Small Press: A Symposium

Literary Criticism and the Small Press: A Symposium

Friday 1 July 2016, 10am-6pm

The Boardroom, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London, WIB 2UW

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Literary criticism has historically been practised using three broad models: a close attention to form; a consideration of the way that histories of ideas, identities and social forms are apparent in literary work; a more sociologically oriented consideration of practices of production and reading. From the twentieth century on, while the relations among these, and the prioritising or marginalising of each, shifted and changed, the mutual shaping of literary writing and its means of production has been consistently ignored. In contemporary literary criticism, while much literary critical work combines the first and the second, very little considers all three. Detailed consideration of the way that formal elements are shaped by and interact with the production and dissemination of writing remains almost absent from the discipline. At the same time, the limits of mainstream publishing and the growth of the small press have each been particularly visible since the economic crash of 2008, yet an investigation of the relation between this and the kinds of writing studied and interpreted has not emerged.

Literary Criticism and the Small Press: A Symposium aims to draw attention to and investigate this absence through three broad themes. The location of the small press as the site of formal innovation is clear from the end of the nineteenth century, and its role in the dissemination of modernism is well known. How has this relation changed over the last century or so, and what are the interventions or absences in the literary critical work with regard to it? From William Morris to the digital revolution, the relation of the small press to writing has made central the question of materiality. What is the relation between material and linguistic forms? The relation of the small press to the mainstream, the material forms of writing and linguistic innovation are all mediated and determined by the institutions within which they exist — publishing, bookselling, the university, government funding of the arts and universities, and so on. How do these institutions shape what is published, where and for whom?

The symposium will consist of three panels:

Materialities: Nicholas Thoburn; Sophie Seita

Institutions: Claire Squires; Lisa Otty; Nick Thurston; Matvei Yankelevich

Histories: John Wrighton; Matthew Sperling; Stephen Voyce; Richard Price

The event is free, but please click here to book your place.

 

The Symposium has been organized by Dr Georgina Colby, Dr Kaja Marczewska and Dr Leigh Wilson as part of the Contemporary Small Press Project, supported by the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster.

For more information please contact Dr Leigh Wilson: wilsonl@wmin.ac.uk

 

Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

Killing Hapless Ally by Anna Vaught: Patrician Press, 2016

A darkly funny account of a woman’s courageous battle to regain her sense of identity following a lifetime of self-doubt.

Behind the chintz curtains, it was hell.

Alison has always had plenty of friends. Unfortunately, they are all in her head. With a conspiratorial smile, she invites the reader into her world as a confidante, providing an occasionally harrowing, often hilarious but always vivid insight into life in the grip of mental illness.

Killing Hapless Ally

We join Alison on a journey through her lonely childhood, schooldays and early romances; horrible Christmases, disastrous holidays, unhappy birthdays and ‘many angry cooked breakfasts’. She shares her wedding day (‘not the happiest day of Alison’s life but at least it was undeniably funny’), honeymoon (featuring a visit to a relative in a psychiatric unit) and the births of her children; events interspersed with her own treatment at various NHS mental health centres.

Alison’s hugely popular mother enjoys nothing more than destroying her daughter’s confidence through emotional and physical abuse behind closed doors. Her father, a widely respected headmaster, advises parents to ‘never crush a child’s spirit’ whilst doing exactly that to Alison on a daily basis. Her dad also being a ‘caravan-fancier’ while her mother hates caravans means her parents are ill-matched but united in loathing their daughter. ‘My parents? Well, they are pillars of the community, we are a middle class family and that…is how they get away with it’.

Trapped in an unhappy home, Alison invents a buffoonish alter ego called Hapless Ally in an attempt to hide her ostensibly unworthy true self. Hapless Ally fills the hole where self-esteem should be, providing a protective layer ‘as an alternative to feeling skin-off vulnerable’. However, as Alison starts to lose control, her alter-ego threatens to take over.

This bold, unique novel is a first-rate example of the innovative and original approach exemplifying the contemporary small press scene. Anna Vaught challenges and inspires the reader with many references to scholarly greats including Sartre and Camus alongside more accessible and familiar creative artists from the literary and music worlds. Alison’s eclectic mix of imaginary friends includes Sylvia Plath, John Keats and Dolly Parton. They pop up on a regular basis to cheer her on, providing words of comfort during difficult times. ‘A little hand with long shiny nails was placed firmly on her arm. It was small, but mighty, and Alison knew that Dolly was the big sister she had always wanted’.

Alison’s troubled past haunts and occasionally sabotages the present as ‘tentacular memories’ ensnare her. One such memory involves a 5-year-old Alison playing with another child who falls and hits her head accidentally. Alison’s parents blame her and when the girl later dies as a teenager, they imply it was down to this earlier head injury and that Alison is, therefore, a murderer. Unfortunate events are described in darkly funny anecdotes, such as the time her distant, inscrutable father accidentally severs his own toe in a freak lawn-mowing accident and the young Alison agonizes over whether frozen blackberries are an appropriate substitute for peas to keep it chilled on the way to hospital.

Attempting to define herself, Alison exclaims: ‘I’m potentially bipolar, a depressive, with several anxiety conditions… psychoses… possibly obsessive compulsive and definitely with an attachment disorder’. Society’s misperceptions of ‘madness and badness’ are further highlighted as Alison seeks a label to help her tidy up the ‘strange, amorphous shape’ of her internal mind but naturally does not fit into a narrow definition. What finally helps her is the acknowledgment that there could be a solution that works; that things can change, including her thought patterns and, subsequently, her feelings. That realisation, and the special team of NHS superheroes who come to her aid as members of the Mental Health Recovery Squad, enable her to bravely set out to regain control over her life, seizing back autonomy from Hapless Ally.

This is a novel with an important message of hope: that mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of and may be worked through and overcome in whatever way works best for the individual. ‘For Alison, it took a couple of particularly sequinned imaginary friends, because she didn’t know how to make…conventional friendships’. It challenges the stigma associated with mental illness and demonstrates that it is OK to be different. It is a testament to Alison’s own strength and an inspiration to others that she emerges from a history of self-harm and suicide attempts with a survivor’s determination to face up to and surpass her traumatic past.

 

About the publisher:

Patrician Press started in 2012 and promotes writers of fiction and poetry. They represent unique literary voices and believe it is ‘imperative to uphold and maintain the quality of contemporary literature in today’s challenging, competitive and ever changing technological world’.

Click here to buy a copy of Killing Hapless Ally by Anna Vaught from Patrician Press.

Click here to read Anna Vaught’s article A Small Press State of Mind.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet and reviewer of books. A huge Dolly Parton fan, she dreams of one day going to Dollywood. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123

 

My Mother Is A River – Review

My Mother Is A River – Review

A moving exploration of the complex relationship between a daughter and her mother in the shadow of dementia.

My Mother Is A River by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated by Franca Scurti Simpson: Calisi Press, November 2015.

My Mother Is a River is a story of love, relationships and identity lost and found. It explores an only-daughter’s response to her mother’s descent into the grip of a cruel disease which causes the gradual loss of someone who continues to remain physically present.

The unnamed daughter takes on the role of narrator and pieces together the life story of her mother, Esperina, who was born in a remote village in Italy during the Second World War into a relatively poor family whose traditions had lasted for centuries. The story provides a glimpse of a nation at a key point in its history as it develops into a modern, united country. We discover how events of the past shaped Esperina’s identity and by telling her story, the daughter gives her a voice and reveals her to be a strong, robust woman who worked hard and provided for her family against the odds.

This book is unique in the memoir genre because it is up to the daughter to tell us about the mother’s life as Esperina is no longer able to do so directly. The daughter’s re-telling of her mother’s story, intertwined with her own, reveals her shifting role from a fiercely independent woman into a fragile shadow of her former self. The challenges faced by a working mother resonate in the modern world. Guilt and misplaced priorities are revealed as the daughter recalls how Esperina would toil in the fields by day and be busy with housework in the evening, her own resentment emerging as she states that her mother was ‘too accustomed to sacrifice to allow herself the pleasure of spending time with her baby’. The daughter herself is forced to adapt to a shifting role as she becomes the parent figure, escorting her mother to appointments and reassuring her.

My Mother is a River

As the story unfolds, time is depicted as a precious and precarious commodity with both nurturing and destructive powers. We learn the cruel way in which dementia prevents any sense of resolution to conflict. With age, the daughter herself has a clearer understanding of her mother’s choices and wishes she could resolve her anger by addressing her childhood feelings of neglect. Her early experiences shaped her character and deep down she still feels like a neglected child longing for her mother’s time: ‘I was still planning to settle my score with her when she escaped from me into her illness’.

The daughter states directly that she does not care, but her love is obvious in the kind way she speaks to her as she attempts to help her manage the chaos of her mind, placing labels on drawers and buying her a dishwasher. These little tokens provide a poignant insight into her desire to help her mother maintain her routine for as long as possible. The truth of her love is expressed not in words but through actions and in the seemingly mundane details of everyday life. She chooses her words carefully and uses them to help her mother make sense of her actions.

Old routines of rural village life which have died out mirror Esperina’s disappearing memories. There are rich descriptions of food and festivities and beautiful details paint a vivid picture of Italy in the past. Italian culture and tradition are richly depicted and the importance of food permeates almost every page. Esperina continues to cook but mistakes caused by memory loss and confusion become increasingly serious, resulting in a meal ‘even the pigs won’t eat’. She eventually leaves a pan in the fridge containing nothing but broken glass.

My Mother Is a River is a challenging read which truly showcases the innovation and risk-taking that characterises the contemporary small press scene. It is a searingly honest account of the complex range of feelings experienced when caring for a loved one with dementia. Guilt, grief, frustration and anger; protectiveness, love, nostalgia and regret. The reader is invited into the chaos which the narrator is attempting to put into order through words as she goes along. The narrator shifts frequently between past and present, recounting shared experiences directly with her mother and making private observations about her current state. Harrowing topics such as sexual abuse and childhood disfigurement are described in an almost fairy-tale-like way with references to ogres and young farm maidens in distress. The novel subtly depicts the therapeutic power of storytelling to help make sense of the world as the daughter observes: ‘I dispense my own story to her, and a…tablet every twelve hours, in the mild hope that it will slow down the degeneration of her neurons’.

‘Her memory is now a manuscript traced with invisible ink; I leaf through it page by page and hold it to the flame to reveal its secret’.

This is Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s first novel and it has won two prestigious literary prizes. The author’s second book, Bella Mia, was published in Italy in 2014 by Elliot Edizioni, a publishing house promoting up and coming writers with a unique voice.

My Mother Is a River is published by Calisi Press, an independent publisher committed to promoting Italian women writers in the English speaking world. Calisi Press was founded specifically to publish this novel, such was the enthusiasm of the founder, Franca Simpson, for its unique quality and message.

Buy My Mother Is a River direct from Calisi Press here.  Calisi Press will donate 50p from the sale of every copy of My Mother Is a River to the Alzheimer’s Society.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is an avid reader and creative writer. She has a keen interest in Italian culture and lived in Rome for two years. Her own mother was recently diagnosed with early onset dementia. Follow Becky on Twitter: @BeckyD123

Haunting Myself: Run Alice Run

Haunting Myself: Run Alice Run

Run Alice Run by Lynn Michell: Inspired Quill, May 2015

“How do you carry on when your heart has been torn out? Like a rag doll whose seams had split and opened to expose the softness inside, Alice was completely undone and did not know how to mend herself.”

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Run Alice Run traces the breaking points of a young girl’s heart and the ways in which each fracture moulds her into the woman she’s become at the novel’s start and end. We’re led through the tentative waltzes of Alice’s hopeful, turned hopeless, connections and attempts at life as she remembers the highs and lows of her hometown, her student and librarian days at the University of Birmingham and now her endlessly monochrome existence in Edinburgh.

Tracing the fault lines of her past, she questions how, in her fifties, she’s once again found herself in a police station on charges of shoplifting. We see how each fragment and splinter of herself, fashioned by the actions of others with the help of her own hands, have slowly morphed into defining characteristics, habits and triggers that Alice carries into each relationship, even her relationship to herself.

The novel’s temporalities seesaw between her present and past, with her memory holding the stitches together as her present self is aided by the haunting of a younger Alice. The transitions from the present to the past or dialogue between a woman and the ghost of herself may occasionally seem disjointed, throwing the reader off.

However, the interaction suggests the tenacious resilience and strength of a person and how we never truly lose our former selves, even if we sometimes end up carrying them as the “unsettling emotional luggage” of a time marked with pain that we wish to forget. The reader sees the poignant moments where Alice’s life fully knocks her to her knees, yet the four heart-breaking incidences that leave her lost and numb within herself all serve as catalysts for her final dénouement – freedom.

Lynn Michell’s character demonstrates a wilful preservation of self mixed with a frustrating coercion into previously expected roles of women, expectations driven by societal norms, yet equally supported, dutifully abided by or even accepted due to a woman’s perception of herself.

One of the four horsemen of Alice’s life, Oliver, notes her thesis’ use of “subtext,” a topic closely related to his own sociological interests “in what people don’t say as much as what they do. Body language tells a quite different story from the spoken word…” and in Alice’s case this is all too true. In the face of societal pressures, expectations and norms, particularly norms for women to marry, mother and manage it all, Alice finds herself trapped in the superwoman complex and forgetting that it is ok to not be ok and more importantly to voice this when it is so, rather than letting it dangle in the subtext of her ever quietening, withering; retreating self.

Nowadays, complacency often overcoats the topic of gender inequality when we seem to have more equality than ever before and it’s easy to forget just how recently a woman’s place was still considered within the home, raising children, cooking and cleaning and not questioning her husband’s actions, even when they were terribly wrong. Alice falls suspect to this over and over again as she attempts to fit other people’s templates of how she should be, desperately trying to be right, but right for whom? Everyone, but herself. We see her struggle to fit the mould, yet equally resist through tiny rebellions of self-destructive behaviour, fighting off the “waves of anonymity” that suffocate her.

People (in Alice’s case four men) can – for lack of a better word – suck, but what is more alarming is how we let them make us suck too. Alice learns how people will bring her down to their level, their benchmark, within which she can never win because it is not her own.

Yet, after years of experience, the dualistic narrative of her past and present relaying of temporalities, spaces, and mind-sets intertwine with her conclusory desire and driving force for freedom – the most priceless essence of humanity and one she never realised how fully she had lost, until she no longer had it.

Liberation is tackled, fought and wrestled in all arenas within the novel’s predominantly male-dominated society where Alice struggles to find a space for herself. Nonetheless, tracing the footsteps of her past leads her to the positive, yet daunting, choice of freedom – she decides to save herself, for herself. No longer will she stick her head in the sand and simply accept things the way they are, choosing rebellious acts like shoplifting to ease the simmering tension of her discontent, but never truly lashing out at the real sources. Alice decides on the best revenge – to put herself first, fight for herself and succeed in living life her own way, on her own terms.

When observing Alice’s state of existence, chronic is a word that dances upon the tip of my tongue, a loaded word with excruciating meaning known only too well to Lynn Michell, the dedicated writer of this novel, creator of Linen Press and tenacious battler of ME. Any state of chronic suffering, even that of the inertia of a lifeless existence in Alice’s case, treads the draining, exhausting lines between being alive and simply surviving, always looking over the precipice and wondering if you will make it.

Ultimately, we all go off our rails sometimes, but it is how we get back on them that matters.

 

About the publisher:

Inspired Quill is a not-for-profit publishing house which describes itself as dedicated to quality publications and providing a people-oriented platform for authors to develop their skills both in writing, marketing and self-editing. They value a collaborative approach with their authors throughout the process from submission to launch, endeavouring to produce unique and powerful pieces of work.

Buy Run Alice Run from Inspired Quill here.

 

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing. 

Small Presses: Worth Much More than Money

Small Presses: Worth Much More than Money

Last weekend I went to a writers’ conference in Brighton.  It was a really great opportunity to meet with like-minded people; the catering and hospitality were excellent; and the programme provided a valuable insight into the publishing world, with ample opportunities to meet and talk to the very-accessible-and-wonderfully-human writers, agents and literary consultants who gave talks throughout the day.

However, what struck me most was the missing narrative of the small presses.  The dominant narrative throughout the talks and workshops was that there were two opposing alternatives in contemporary publishing: pigeon-hole yourself into a pre-defined genre category for the chance to get in with one of the mainstream publishers, or take on all the risk, effort and expense yourself through self-publishing.  ‘Branding’ was definitely the buzzword of the day – barely a speaker failed to mention the importance of marketing yourself like a packet of cornflakes.

One writer informed us that the largest UK high-street retailer of books is now Tesco – so he gave us plenty of tips on how to turn yourself into a supermarket-shelf best-selling branded writer.  While a husband-and-wife writing partnership told us that ‘your novel is a piece of fruit’ and publishers need to know whether to place you with the bananas or the kiwis.  And if they put you with the oranges, don’t try giving them kumquats.

It was good advice for writers who want to pursue that particular route into publishing.  It was sincere and well-intended: a really honest perspective on the contemporary mainstream publishing industry.  Yet what I saw through that shop-window was not bananas or kumquats or cornflakes but something rotten, and potentially toxic.

Never before has the really valuable role of the contemporary small presses and the vital work that they do been made more clear to me.

Small presses occupy the position structurally in between the big mainstream publishers and the alternative of self-publishing.  This means that what they can offer writers, from a purely business point of view, is many of the benefits that come from having a publisher whilst shouldering much of the burden and the risk associated with self-publishing.  While the smaller presses are unlikely to be able to offer the temptingly high cash advances that the larger presses may bestow, and they might ask for more in return in terms of promotional work and marketing your book, the burden on a writer will be less than in the case of self-publishing, with the added advantages that having a publisher can offer.

These benefits may include editing, promotion, distribution, advice, nurturing, marketing, having contacts in the publishing industry, and access to an informed guide throughout the process of publication.  To be fair, many of these benefits were also advocated as reasons to choose a literary agent by the agents who spoke at the conference – I particularly enjoyed the metaphor of ‘spirit guide’ that one agent used to summarise his role and relationship to his writers.  However, again, a self-publisher is unlikely to have access to this kind of support either from a publisher or an agent, while a writer published by a mainstream press is likely to find that much of this nurturing and advice is geared towards maintaining your brand identity as a banana.  In any case, the benefit of having an editor in particular is one that very few writers should be willing to do without – we all need that extra pair of eyes and the benefit of a different, less entangled, perspective on our writing.

Aside from the structural positioning of the small presses and the benefits they may bring in terms of helping a writer to gain entry into the world of publishing, though, one of the key differences was this: mainstream publishing seems dedicated to maintaining and perpetuating the status quo, whereas small publishers are more likely to be committed to freedom of expression, artistic risk, literary innovation, and championing new and exciting writers that challenge the way things are.  

The most prominent messages and headlines to arise from our recent Reading and Being Read event at the British Library demonstrate emphatically that the small presses we spoke to on the day were dedicated to nurturing, developing and championing innovative new writing from a broad spectrum of writers who may otherwise be overlooked by the mainstream presses.  And the risks they are taking are essential to the development of new literature in the UK.  More and more books from the small presses are being nominated for prestigious literary prizes in recognition of the high quality of writing that’s being produced by the small presses.

In January 2017 the first literary award for small presses will announce its winning novel.  It’s been set up by writer Neil Griffiths as The Republic of Consciousness Prize, because he believes ‘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’.

I knew it to be true before today, but last weekend’s insight into the world of mainstream publishing has certainly put the emphasis on the ultimate value of the small presses as champions of innovative new literature into a new and deeper perspective for me.  Without these presses taking a risk to nurture, develop, publish and promote exciting and challenging new literature, it just wouldn’t be being published at all*.

Check out our links to small presses, and click through to buy their books direct.

 

*It was great to hear Candida Lacey, editor at Myriad Editions, speaking on the final panel of the day at the conference.  The panel discussed alternative routes into print and included several successfully self-published and/or e-published writers as well as Candida as a representative from the small presses.  The conference organisers were appreciative of the comments I had made about small presses during the day, and have said that they intend to address this as part of their feedback from the event.

Sally-Shakti Willow – Research Assistant, The Contemporary Small Press

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