Today I will be travelling up to London to attend the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Winners’ Event. My thanks to Neil Griffiths for my invitation. Regular readers may have noticed that I have been running a feature on this prize for the past few weeks. I introduced this here: Reading the Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist. If you click on the covers below you may now read my reviews of each shortlisted book.
How does one choose a favourite from such a stellar line-up?
This question led me to contemplate a more controversial one – what makes a book good?
A well known, much coveted literary prize has been criticised for being too high brow at times yet this is exactly what certain readers, some of whom admire their own good taste in literature, wish more of the popular books could be. Some decry the number of ‘genre’ titles being published each year despite these enjoying sustained high sales. The book buying public does not always conform to a standard the self professed literary elite consider desirable.
Of course, I understand that readers buy books brought to their attention, which is more likely to happen if a generous publicity budget is allocated, a cost the smaller presses would struggle to cover. Personally I choose not to read many of the most popular genres of books as I do not enjoy them, but those who do help to subsidise the market for everyone else. Bookshops need to shift volumes of these bestsellers if they are to afford the shelf space for more radical works.
To return to this prize, which aimed to draw attention to small, independent publishers producing brilliant and brave literary fiction, the shortlist was a pleasure to peruse. I have read many innovative, challenging, entertaining and all round excellent books from independents over the years – they are well worth seeking out. There are lots of small presses and, between them, they offer a wide variety of works. Some even publish ‘genre’ books.
I have no wish to criticise anyone’s choice of reading matter, although I will always encourage everyone to read more books. What I will also do is to shout loudly about those titles I consider worth reading, which includes several being considered here.
The benefit of literary prizes is that they generate discussion. Word is spread by more people of books they have enjoyed. For each individual reader, perhaps this is what makes a book good.
So, how did I choose my favourite?
Each of the above books is technically well written – the construction and use of language impressed. There was originality, a challenge to thinking and a compelling story to tell. Where I found differentiation was in entertainment and engagement. Not all succeeded in holding my attention to every word on every page.
In the end I carefully mulled between two novels – Martin John and Solar Bones, and two short story collections – Light Box and Treats. From here I chose based on the story that lingered.
I am not on the judging panel, which is perhaps just as well, but if I were asked to nominate a winner from this excellent shortlist it would be Solar Bones. We shall see if any agree with me this evening. Whoever wins, I can see how each would deserve the accolade.