‘Aesthetic Ownership’ & The Small Press

‘Aesthetic Ownership’ & The Small Press

In an article published in today’s Irish Times, writer Fiona O’Connor continues her explorations into the state of the small presses by asking, ‘Can small presses save us from formulaic Fast Fiction?’.  

O’Connor reviews the recent Literary Criticism and the Small Press symposium at the University of Westminster, organised by Dr. Georgina Colby, Dr. Kaja Marczewska and Dr. Leigh Wilson as part of The Contemporary Small Press project, as a hub for bringing together writers, readers, publishers and theoreticians with an interest in the impact of small press publishing on literary production.

“A recent symposium held at London’s University of Westminster, Literary Criticism and the Small Press, focused on the means of production in literature as a shaping influence on literary writing. It’s an area of criticism largely ignored to date, but given the corporatisation of mainstream publishing, one that is badly in need of some attention. To what extent is literature tailored for commercial objectives? Just how much of what reaches the bookshops is decided not by writers but by those who, as one writer put it, “couldn’t write fuck on a venetian blind”?”

Quoting Dr. Leigh Wilson, O’Connor raises the question of ‘aesthetic ownership’ as literature becomes more and more generic and increasingly ‘morphs into content’ (O’Connor).

“Dr Leigh Wilson, convenor of the small presses’ symposium and co-founder of the contemporary small press network: https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/ puts it like this, “If someone goes to McDonald’s and their Big Mac isn’t the same as always, that’s a failure”. Wilson distinguishes between the legal ownership still belonging to writers, and the notion of aesthetic ownership – the particular writing style, unique trace of ownership as human stain on the writing that says “you can tell this is mine because of the way it’s written”. Wilson fears that it is this aesthetic ownership, gained in the years following the copyright act and the modernist developments of the 1920s and ’30s, that is now in question.”

Click here to read the full article in The Irish Times.


Republic of Consciousness

Republic of Consciousness

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.

Neil Griffiths

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.

Neil Griffiths 2

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.

Thanks Neil!  

Follow the progress of The Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

‘This Book Should Make You Angry’

‘This Book Should Make You Angry’

Sitting Ducks by Lisa Blower: Fair Acre Press, April 2016

Sitting Ducks, the debut novel from award-winning short fiction writer Lisa Blower, is a book that wears its politics heavily, and is all the better for it. Set in Stoke and taking place over a 4-day period spanning the 2010 General Election, the novel details the despairs and thwarted hopes of a community abandoned by industry, manipulated by successive governments and exploited by the neoliberal ‘dream’.

The novel opens, fittingly enough, at a Jobcentre with our main character (anti-hero? anti-anti-hero?) the perpetually unemployed Josiah “Totty” Minton, harbouring desires ‘of a three-bed semi with bay windows, fully-fitted carpets and enough of a garden to stretch his legs’. With his hand voluntarily manacled to a tool-box throughout the novel, and the Thatcherite legacy of right-to-buy inspiring his dreams, Totty not so much represents a dispossessed working-class, but forces himself to carry it around with him.

Yet, it is the notion of ‘home’ that resides at the center of Blower’s novel. Totty lives at his mother’s house, 13 Bennett Road, with his two children – thoughtful and protective Joss, and the younger Kirty, who each day ‘role-plays’ another prospective, and equally unlikely, job. One of the novel’s narrative strands is Constance Milton’s (Totty’s mother) attempts to hold onto 13 Bennett Road against the overtures of Malcolm Gandy – local boy done property developer, landlord and amoral ‘success’ story – owner of the property and the majority of the other houses on the street.

Constance’s story sits alongside incidences of rape, domestic violence, child neglect, murder, deceit, violence, alcoholism, shady politicking, death and an election. The cover art for the novel shows a man with his eyes screwed tight and his mouth straining in a painful grimace which, while content-wise alludes to the struggles to come, does in no way do justice to Blower’s prose. Although Blower does not shy away from the grim realities of parts of post-industrial Britain, the novel’s strength lies in its frenetic pacing and pitch-black humour which makes Sitting Ducks anything but a struggle. The ‘plot’ of the novel is at times undoubtedly bleak, yet the rhythm and force of Blower’s linguistically dexterous prose gives Sitting Ducks an urgency its subject matter deserves.

Aesthetically, Sitting Ducks combines its ‘traditional’ chapters – in fact the novel does not have ‘chapters’, but 44 short ‘rounds’ and a final section entitled ‘Knockout’ – with sections that include flip charts, news reports, a survey, estate agents’ property listings and even a ‘round’ entitled ‘Eggs’ which takes its lead from concrete poetry. Not all of these aesthetic choices work, and it is hard to discern a purpose beyond their playfulness in a number of cases, particularly ‘Eggs’; yet Blower’s novel is constantly inventive in its adventurousness.

Blower’s subtitle for Sitting Ducks, ‘If you’re not angry, you’re not listening’, foregrounds the unabashed political fury underlying the book. Politics surrounds the novel and its characters. While the General Election plays out in the novel’s background, only occasionally coming to the fore, political neglect and imposition are shown as having stripped employment, assets and hope from those living with the consequences of the 80s Thatcherite legacy and today’s Conservative government.

This book understands its politics, it understands its people. This book should make you angry.


About the Publisher:

Fair Acre Press is an independent Shropshire-based publisher of poetry and prose.  According to the website it ‘is committed to publishing high quality books and pamphlets that are good to hold, touch, look at and read; books that will call out to you – over and over again’.

Click here to visit the Sitting Ducks page on Fair Acre Press’s website.

Review by Mike James

Mike is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching trade union representation in contemporary poetry. He is also a poet, teacher and ex-comedian. He has lived and worked in South Korea, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Germany. None of these things inform his work. 






Escaping with a Book: Avril Joy Interview

The Contemporary Small Press speaks to Avril Joy about her novel, Sometimes a River Song released today, as well as her influences and experiences of working with small presses.

Avril Joy


Tell us about your upcoming novel, Sometimes a River Song, what inspired these characters and plots in such a vivid landscape so far from your home?

I think it goes back a few years ago when I watched a fascinating documentary by chance about a river community like this one – a fast vanishing river community. I was taken with it and I don’t quite know why, but I think somewhere in the back of my head I parked the idea of writing about such a place. I’ve been asking myself why it’s so resonant for me. I’ve always been attracted to water, nearly all my books have some kind of watery element. I actually grew up on a tidal creek. It’s quite different from Arkansas as this was in Somerset on the levels, but water would appear and disappear as if by magic, so I was always fascinated by getting over onto the riverbank and seeing what it would be like. I think that’s probably why it appealed to me so much.

What made you decide to turn this story into a novel?

I wrote two short stories and this helped me to get into the mindset of this community and the way they lived. Then one day I woke up and had this crazy voice in your head thing, which said “Silas keeps the book.” And that must’ve been the first time I heard her (Aiyana’s) voice and I remember thinking I don’t know what this is but there’s something here.

As you know the language is quite strange and I thought ‘this is so different from anything I’ve ever done before, am I going a bit mad?’ but I entered that (short) story for the Manchester Prize for Fiction and I was the only woman short listed, I didn’t win but I met the judges and they were very complimentary. One judge who had championed the story, Claire Dean, said that the voice had really leapt off the page for her late one night when she was reading her way through the entries. That gave me the confidence and I knew I wasn’t really done with it.
You mention on your website how the ‘floating photographers’ inspired your upcoming novel, what was it that inspired you most about these photographs?
They came in a bit later, I was already writing the story. There’s a journalist, blogger and author called Chris Engholm who I mention in the acknowledgements, I used to look at his sites a lot because of his photographs of the White River. There’s also a great book called The Last River by Turner Browne who took black and white photographs of the White River and that was fabulous – in fact grandmas boat is definitely in there – and that’s where I came across the floating photographic studio.


In my mind I was thinking (like any reader will) how is Aiyana really going to escape, and then when I saw the picture of the floating photographic studio I just thought that’s how. Suddenly it wove itself into the story and I knew it would be the end of the novel.

How did it feel to take Aiyana through that journey of trying to escape such a closed community?

I can’t read the ending without crying, I don’t know if it was just the sheer effort of getting her there because there were so many obstacles on the way or whether it has a deeper resonance for me. On a personal level, leaving the place where I grew up and loved was in many ways my salvation. I was one of those grammar school girls of the ’60s who got to go to University, but wouldn’t have been able to if there hadn’t been free education. We were the first real generation of any size of women going onto further education and it changed my life so enormously, so I guess deep down there’s some kind of internal resonance for me. Anyway I’m just glad she’s out of it!

How do you decide which characters are the crucial ones?

Often the name will tell me, if the name really rings for me I know they’re going to be something of importance. I’m not the sort of writer who has a plan, I let it grow organically and I honestly think that’s the best way to write. See what the pen says, as it can be very surprising. For example, I had no intention of telling Silas’ story but then you have to somehow for some reason as it makes sense to do that.

At first he was a monster, then I realised we’ve already got Floyd and no-one wants two monsters in a novel. He would’ve been quite stereotypical and I wanted him to be more complex, he couldn’t just ill-treat her. In reality people probably do go from one awful abusive relationship to the next, but that’s not how I wanted it to be. In fact, I found his story when I re-read The Grapes of Wrath. I had to be really careful actually and in the last edits I started looking at some of the names in Silas’ story to check – I haven’t taken those names from The Grapes Of Wrath have I? But really what better thing to read that chronicles the story of that huge migration, so his story just fell onto the page, probably easiest of all.

So how did you change him from being the same monster as Floyd, as in the book, Silas sort of became a silent monster instead?

That was one of the benefits of having an editor, as Lynn [Michell] said to me that she felt there wasn’t that difference between him and Floyd. We decided on silence together, as soon as Lynn said it, I agreed with her. In the first draft he was doing the physical things her father did, so we reshaped him and both thought silence was the thing. I have some experience of that growing up, of that being used as a weapon and it’s not easy to deal with, it gradually eats away at your sense of self and confidence.

And of course that fits with the experiences of the women in prison, who I’ve worked with for so many years. They don’t have a voice often, certainly not in the community and often not in prison either.

Your work is so viscerally raw and seems to evoke a landscape of women, women’s connections and community, even when it’s a community stitched together with pain. How has working in a women’s prison affected your approach to this?

When I first went there, there was this tiny unit for women because in those days, before heroine and crack, there were very few women in prison, who were mainly prostitutes, shoplifters and the occasional domestic violence murder. Nobody wanted to work with them, the other teachers disapproved of them so strongly and so did the world. There was this kind of almost fear of them. I moved up north from London, so I had slightly different views with the right to choose marches we went on and the growth of feminism. I came up here and found County Durham was about a decade or two behind in all of that! I remember my boss saying could you go over to the female wing and I said “yeah, great!” And it was an extraordinary place to be, eventually it became rerolled as a women’s prison entirely as the prison population exploded, so I became the education manager and a sort of governor.

Everyone used to come to my door whether they were in my class or not, saying “hi miss, you got any paper?” I used to give out paper and pens freely, a bit like contraband. Later, they’d come back saying “this is my story miss would you like to read it?” For them, this was a huge time of crisis and difficulty, but for the first time in ages they had time to think, and a lot of what they’d think about is ‘how has this happened? Where has my life gone so wrong?’ They’d want to write their life stories down and I saw what writing meant to them. They loved education, the women loved getting English qualifications because a lot of them had missed out on school. I’ve met lots of women who couldn’t read and like Aiyana, they’ve learnt to read really quickly. That’s such a fantastic thing! I’ve had the experience of teaching people to read and there’s not much better thing you can do.

How did you come to be published by Linen Press, and what has your experience of Small Press Publishing been like over the years?

In my years of writing I’ve had two agents and two close calls with big publishers and it brought me to my knees. It was not a happy experience, so I nearly stopped writing. Then I just decided to go indie and go do whatever I wanted to do. I had a good experience with Iron Press, so I’d already made up my mind to try and find a small press for this book and Linen Press was on my list. I sent the submission and a few days later I got a fantastic email from Lynn saying just how much she liked it. It’s been wonderful because they really do like what’s arising and I’ve never really had that before, that enthusiasm, help and support. Small presses are really good with helping you. I think it’s a great connection for me as they’re interested in women’s writing as well and so I’d like to think we’re a perfect match, I love them and they’ve been great and really supportive!

Many thanks to Avril for giving us such a wonderful insight into her work.  

Click here to buy a copy of Sometimes a River Song by Avril Joy from Linen Press.

Interview 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. 

Read Isabelle’s review of Sometimes a River Song here.

Sometimes a River Song

A Tenacious Hunger: Sometimes a River Song

A Tenacious Hunger: Sometimes a River Song

Sometimes a River Song by Avril Joy: Linen Press, 27th April 2016

Sometimes a River Song

River in our blood. […] River our country, our voice. […] River always changing. Never still. […] River bind and shape us all, body and soul. River the skin we wear. […] River our home, only home we know. […] River don’t run in a straight line, ain’t one thing forever. It change course, make itself over. […] I belong to the river and I belong to him and he will do with me as he see fit.

Set in a 1930s Arkansas Riverboat community, the story of Aiyana, a teenage girl denied the right to read and write, demonstrates a strength and tenacious willpower in the face of oppression and inequality. Even though the landscape and time period will be unfamiliar to many readers, Avril Joy skilfully captures the all too well-known prejudices that still ripple through today’s society, an undercurrent that is constantly presenting itself in new guises, but remains the ugly monster of a society with foundations purposefully built on uneven ground.

A beautiful element of this novel is the subtle defiance of women. Whilst they struggle to create autonomy and freedom, the characters demonstrate how even in the most hopeless of times, women do not simply standby and let their selves be owned. Whilst some of the male characters’ actions are abhorrent and unforgivable, and whilst Aiyana is beaten over and over again by her supposed daddy, Floyd, in attempts to break her, she maintains an unwavering determination to better herself and to take control of her life.

They be my tears on the page. The world be made of the word. How my life gonna be worth anything if I don’t read? I ain’t settling for just river child. Be looking for more.

The focalisation of this narrative is crafted with delicate detail as the reader is immersed in Aiyana’s perspective, her voice captured within the very syntax of her words, which at first is challenging to read, but gradually shifts subtly as she learns how to read and write. The narrative shifts perspective now and then to Silas, a character with a backstory evoking similarities to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This stranger comes into the lives of Aiyana’s family and is later given Aiyana, as if she were a commodity Floyd could exchange for Silas’ silence. These two narratives steadily converge in the present, as Silas ultimately repents for his wrongdoings and Aiyana remains impressively resilient until she can find a new life, resolute in her denouement that “I ain’t belonging to any man.”

I collect the buttons that be thrown out because they ain’t perfect, because they ain’t all looking exactly the same. Why a thing got to be perfect like that? I ain’t for that, for everything and everybody the same, else how I gonna fit, else how all the people living on the river gonna fit? If you ask me they ain’t. And I ain’t sold on this idea of perfection. Truly I ain’t.

An alternative way of life for women outside this isolated riverboat community is encapsulated through Aiyana’s encounter with Ella P. Fry, and her business as one of the “floating photographic studios”, who offers a small reprieve from Aiyana’s day to day life. The poetic interlacing of her mother’s memory of being photographed and Aiyana’s desire to do the same is precious. Although the grandmother holds her suspicions, reflecting the scepticism of the time in believing that a photograph steals your soul, Aiyana embraces this innovation, allowing it to capture her essence and prove she existed. She is alive, and she relishes the relatable experience she now shares with her mother and how there’s a picture “to prove what I be.”

In subtle ways, Joy highlights not only the individual strengths of women, but the true power elicited when women help each other, a fact which is easy to forget in today’s society when women are so often goaded into competing with one another. Aiyana is determined to learn how to read and regardless of the consequences, she is prepared to fight for this right as if her life depends on it, which in many ways it does. Whilst there are moments when the women’s refusal to help and their silence in response to their oppression generates anger and frustration in the reader, there are exquisite moments of subtle defiance in this novel, heart-warming transgressions that show women’s unwavering tenacity and potential to create change in the face of adversity. When three generations – Aiyana’s grandmother, mother and herself – along with Hannah Lutz, secretly meet in the grandmother’s boat to assist Aiyana to learn how to read and write, the powerful image which results is one that will persist.

The values and beliefs of Cherokee and Ojibwe ways of life are beautifully intertwined within the narrative, instilling a respect for nature and its enigmatic ways that parallel the novel’s landscape of women, and how, when hungry for money and power, men have forgotten their duties to both families and nature alike. However, Joy balances the gender (and racial) inequality by highlighting that men have a choice to be violent, aggressive and take ownership of what is not theirs, or to champion and empower all people. Aiyana pertinently questions time and again the actions of cruel men, why her father or any father for that matter would want to kill their child, take her spirit or do what a father should never do to his daughter.

Times the river see what daddy do and it sing my sorrow.

The juxtaposition between men like Floyd and his son Lyle is stark and effective, highlighting how real strength comes from showing respect, from not using the power one could over another, but choosing instead to be secure enough in oneself to allow another to share that power, that equality. Lyle is a fine character, who does the right thing and defies the “law of his father” to follow his own voice, his own beliefs. He equally fights for his sister’s rights, ultimately demonstrating that the way in which men treat women is a choice.

Acts of kindness are articulated so tenderly by Joy. Through all the heart-breaking realities, fear, violence and entrapment, the little acts of kindness become so meaningful, reminding us not to take kindness for granted. When someone chooses to be kind rather than cruel it is a gift, which many are quick to overlook when it is considered to be expected. The ending is a priceless denouement, a heartbreakingly inspirational scene which reminds you that despite the darkness of certain circumstances, the flickers of goodness in people can make all the difference.

Ultimately, this novel demonstrates the power of tenacity and determination, and just what is possible when a person keeps hoping and fights for the life they deserve.


About the publisher:

Linen Press was founded by Lynn Michell and has grown into a young publishing house full of passion, energy and integrity. Michell articulates the impetus behind Linen Press, stating that, “I want to read beautifully crafted writing that speaks to women. I want to fall into a novel and not emerge until its ending. I want to gasp at sentences that defy literary gravity.” The novels that have emerged from this publishing house are a tribute to women’s writing and writing in general, where Michell, the team and authors have an unswerving dedication and enthusiasm for truly inspirational and innovative literature.

Buy Sometimes a River Song from Linen Press here.

Want to read more?  Read our interview with Avril Joy!

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. 

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

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