The Contemporary Small Press talks to writer Neil Griffiths about his new literary award for books published by small presses, The Republic of Consciousness Prize.
CSP: What are you suggesting by the award’s title?
NG: A grand name for a small prize. The phrase came to me when I was reading A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, after I’d just read Zone by Mathias Enard from Fitzcarraldo Editions, both of which are deeply written within the… there’s something stream of consciousness about them but they’re not at the same time. I think they’re articulating almost a kind of theory of mind, and so part of me was thinking that. Does writing of a certain kind give us a potential insight into what consciousness is? And what mind is? Because I work in research there’s a lot of neuro-guff going around. There’s a lot of neuro-philosophers who have completely rejected any notion of mind, rejected any notion of will, they just sort of think we’re pre-programmed computers, that in fact we live in a kind of causal nexus that means that not a single thing that we do do we have any control over, there’s literally the big bang and then there’s us, and it seems to me to be so palpably silly, and I think that there’s something about this writing that does create a sort of republic of consciousness, that we can find or get a sense that other people, however it’s articulated, are like us, that we are like each other, and that we can get as close to knowing another through that kind of prose, and I think that’s hugely valuable and moral. It’s a moral act to write like that. Even if it is difficult. Both Zone and Girl have done very well but they’re exceptions. There are books of equal quality that don’t get that kind of exposure.
What is it about the small presses that enables that kind of writing? Why do you not find that in the mainstream?
I think you do now and again. What the prize is throwing up for me, having lots of submissions, is that quality is variable, that’s in the nature of the prose, the nature of the publication, whatever, but there are a number of small presses out there who clearly have a niche sensibility, and that is to publish what might be called avant-garde work, and I think there is a kind of community of people who kind of love and relish and want to support that and they end up in fairly close coordinates of each other, and that’s how the small presses come into being. There’s almost an acceptance that mainstream presses are unlikely to publish these books and perhaps a rejection of the model that mainstream publishers offer. I think that’s become my experience. So the best of the [small] presses who want to do this, I think, are doing it with such commitment… Books don’t make money, but rather than trying to make something that doesn’t make money make money, they go, well let’s just try and get the best possible thing we can. Publishing is not a very good business model. There is a fit between the kind of amateur sensibility and the avant-garde. Which means that occasionally you get these small presses doing it.
Equally with the short story, the short story is a difficult proposition for mainstream publishers, but small presses can take that up and there is a short story market and that’s an area of opportunity for them. One of my favourite books from last year was Pond [by Claire-Louise Bennett] that is just brilliant: they’re not really short stories, it’s not really a novel – it was published by Stinging Fly who only publish short stories [now also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions]. That’s writing of such high order that it is astonishing: on some level mainstream publishers should be going ‘we will give you anything you want to have this writing’. If they just set aside the commercial imperative and just think purely in terms of artistic merit – we have a tradition of gently avant-garde female writing, so she’s part of a tradition, it’s quite rural writing and at the moment that’s quite fashionable – but it’s just the sheer quality and the originality of prose and the originality of voice. If I was the head of a mainstream house I would just say ‘buy her, and pay her, and let her do what she wants’ because we owe that to her and the writing community. That’s the kind of interesting place where that’s what a small press does when a mainstream publishing house should take a decision there. And there are other books that I’ve been submitted that that’s the case for.
How many entries have you had, how many books have you read and what is your sense of the wide diversity of books being published by contemporary small presses?
I’ve probably had about 20 entries and there’ll probably be about 40 by the time it closes in September. There’s a couple of books which have been very unique in their own way, and I mean that in a good sense, that just needed better editing, better editorial control, a kind of mentor to guide them. We’ve had a great book by an African writer based in Africa with a press over here, an astonishing book by an American writer, a couple of great Irish writers, short stories, multinarrative voices, classic modernist works: a [diverse] range, but the quality has been variable.
All the books come to myself and my co-chair Marcus and we read them for a very low level of quality control as gatekeepers, and if it passes that then it gets sent out to the six other judges who are all independent bookstore owners or workers, there’s one in the north east, one in Wales, one in Scotland, one in Manchester; there’s Sam at Burley Fisher Books in London, and there’s the deputy head of fiction at Foyles. So a real regional spread. They are instructed only to carry on reading if they think there’s any chance that this book is likely to end up on the longlist. I don’t want to make it too arduous. But at the same time I might say that I don’t think this book is right for the prize but actually you might have a readership for it. So that’s another point about the prize, to give books exposure.
There’s been a couple of books that have been more genre literature than literary fiction and that exposure might help, so even if you don’t end up on the long or shortlist there might be a bit of exposure in those bookshops, so that’s a plus point. When that finishes we’ll draw up a longlist, then there’s going to be a shortlist ‘do’ at Waterstones Piccadilly in early January. Hopefully we can get a month of table space for the shortlist. The big moment will be the shortlist announcement, because that gets more names and more books out there.
How has this experience shaped your understanding of the small press?
If anything it’s made me think that I want to start some kind of small press surgery, which is, if you’re a small press and you want to produce a book well you need guidance from people who know how to do it well. I absolutely believe in the small presses and I feel as evangelical now [as when I set up the prize] but if I’m to be honest, quite a lot of them need quite a lot of help to actually get into a good place where they’re going to be creating viable novels.
Have you had much support for The Republic of Consciousness Prize since you announced it earlier this year?
There’s a number of ways people can support. All the people I’ve asked to be judges have been very supportive. The media to a certain degree have been supportive, The Guardian, TLS, whatever, but I think social media has been just as supportive, lots of people have got in touch through Twitter and Facebook. While the books come in and we read them and there’s essentially a kind of lull, because that’s all there is to do, social media is to a certain degree keeping the flame alive in terms of awareness.
When I started the prize I threw in a little bit of cash myself, and I said that I would try and raise money elsewhere. I’ve tentatively started that and that’s not going quite as well. It’s always hard to get money out of people and I accept that. I’ve gone to a few agents and I’ve written to them saying that often small presses are their last resort, if they’ve got a novel and they can’t place it with a mainstream publishing house, small presses are always there. They don’t necessarily want their authors to go with a small press because there’s no money, but it’s better to be published than not. So did they want to back my prize? Nothing, I mean, not even ‘no’. Just completely ignoring the emails. Someone even emailed me back and said ‘I’m not going to support your prize, I don’t think prizes do any good’ and then he added, ‘you’d be better to spend your time trying to renegotiate financial terms with Amazon’. This is someone who’s been published by a small press. That seems to me a very unhelpful [response].
There’s been endorsements, Marcel Theroux, Scott Pack, Anthony Horrowitz, Alistair Campbell – I haven’t yet sent out a load of letters to wealthy writers to see if they’ll support it. At the moment the prize money is £3000, which is kind of fine for the winner, but I want to get it up so that I can give money to at least the final three or four books that make the final cut.
Do you think this is symptomatic of a lack of support for small presses in general among mainstream writers, agents and publishers?
I think mainstream agents are fairly scornful of the small press enterprise. I spoke to one agent who just looked at me with a sort of smirk at the idea that he would even go to a small press, he was too important for that. But I think writers, who I haven’t spoken to yet, writers I hope will respond. But I think publishing is a difficult business. The mainstream publishing houses are fighting for retail space in bookshops, they’re fighting for column inches in newspapers, against each other, they don’t want a whole load of attractive, alternative, sexy, small imprints coming up and taking away [from them]. They want to manage that and have their imprint that does that. I think it’s a battle.
I think British publishing itself isn’t a particularly generous place, there isn’t a great deal of money in it so the people who have money want to protect it, the people who have jobs want to protect them, people who have power want to protect it. So I think small presses have a kind of nineteenth century amateur sensibility, they’re still in it for the love, whereas it’s so tough to be in a mainstream publishers, you lose that after a certain period of time. Someone told me the other day that at UA United Agents, each agent has to make 250k in advances just to pay for their deskspace, before they even start to make any money. If that’s the case, and you’ve got a difficult novel that you know the mainstream publishers aren’t going to buy, it’s still a financial difficulty. We’re not in a good place, in terms of the industry.
Your next book is being published by Dodo Ink Press, how has the experience been different for you from previously publishing with larger publishing houses?
It’s been really nice! I courted three small presses with my book and despite being a published novelist it’s still been quite tough. Just because you want to go to small presses doesn’t mean that the journey’s going to be easier, you go through a very rigorous reading period. With small presses they’ve got to really believe in it, which means that everybody on the team has to believe in it equally, and if you’re writing a difficult novel your chance of doing that diminishes, because people disagree about things. But Sam Mills at Dodo made me believe that she loved my book, which was good. They’re only publishing three books next year and mine’s going to be one of them, and they need to make it work.
We talk to each other as grown ups, I’m not treated like some kind of employee or indentured servant or slave. We all know that we’re going to try and do the best for it. They’re quite happy for me to have an input into the marketing and the cover, we’ve discussed the title, we’ve discussed my vision of the book to make sure that that accords with their vision of the book. They just want it to be the best book it can be on its own terms. It’s a long, difficult book about faith. So you just might as well try and make it the best long difficult book about faith.
Leigh Wilson and Georgina Colby set up the Contemporary Small Press research project in response to the resurgence of independent publishing they had noticed as a result of the 2007/8 financial crisis. What do you think might be the impact of Brexit on the small presses, and what would you like to see as their response to the changing economic and political landscape in Britain?
[Brexit] can’t be good for publishing – good books are luxury items in a way. There’s a rather utopian belief that when the world gets dark that art steps up and finds a place: I’m not sure that is or ever was true. Certainly artists and writers have something to react to, but I don’t think necessarily that – apart from a small hard core of people – that you’re necessarily going to turn to difficult fiction because the world looks gloomy. Certainly that audience isn’t going to increase. I think it’s going to be quite grim.
Publishing on any level is a very narrow margin business. And I think the financial crisis of 2008 meant that mainstream publishing houses had no wriggle room, and many people who were being published by mainstream publishing houses found themselves on the streets at that point, because they couldn’t afford a loss leader. I’m not convinced Brexit will happen. But I think it’s going to have a negative impact on mainstream publishers and a negative impact on small presses because there’ll be less money about – I think that’s just a given. What will small presses’ response be to that, I don’t think there should necessarily be a response, in the sense that the only objective they should have is publishing the books that they love. They may have more choice because the mainstream publishers may have to pull in even further and therefore maybe the result will be that agents will have to give more consideration to small presses.
The Arts Council needs to make sure that it carries on with its grants because that’s the only way half of them survive. It’s actually for people like me and other people – small presses need a philanthropist – if I was a very rich man I’d be their answer because I’d just support the hell out of them. But I fear it’s going to be tough and I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think that initiatives like this [The Republic of Consciousness Prize], however tiny… If the prize money stays at £3000 and they give a grand to the author and the small press gets two, that is the price of a first print run of a new book, that just takes some of the risk out of one book. And if on some level one can think of other ways of getting those small amounts of money it will just prop up what is essentially an artisan, amateur business.
Follow the progress of The Republic of Consciousness Prize here.