The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards brilliant and brave literary fiction published in the UK and Ireland by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees. Now in its third year, the 2019 longlist was announced last month. I felt privileged to be invited to join the panel of judges for the previous year’s prize as this enabled me to discover some of the best literary fiction published in 2017. Having experienced the process I was eager to read the books this year’s judges were putting forward for further consideration.
When the longlist was announced I invited a number of the small presses who made the cut to contribute a guest post as part of my coverage of the prize this year. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.
The first press to feature is Henningham Family Press whose longlisted book, Dedalus by Chris McCabe, I will be reviewing tomorrow. On the back of this book we are told:
“Henningham Family Press is a microbrewery for books.
Our ingenioous handmade editions can be found in the V&A, Tate and National Poetry Library.
Our Performance Publishing shows compress the creation of printed matter into hectic live events.
Now our Fiction brings to you authors who are reinventing the conventions of Modern writing.”
Thank you to David at HFP for providing me with this fascinating guest post about the press, and his thoughts on literary prizes.
We gave the name Performance Publishing to what we do at Henningham Family Press. We’ve even managed to get newspapers to use the term as if it is a thing.
What Performance Publishing means is that we have been, for more than 12 years now, combining Visual Art, Performance Art and Literature in ways that hope to redefine the act of publication.
For example, in 2016 the British Council commissioned A Line of Five Feet, inviting us to join a delegation of artists and writers representing the UK in Moscow. We taught Art and Art History to Moscow students who went on to help us create, screenprint and bind a monumental concertina book in a bespoke bindery provided within the British pavilion.
That year we also led nine other London Artists in staging The Maximum Wage. An ACE funded show about income inequality. This show gathered, produced and distributed publications with its audience. Teams of volunteers manned our gameshow style print production line producing our own Orwell themed currency, valid in the immediate vicinity. An incredibly diverse crowd of 300 took part in our hectic cycle of production and consumption, going home with the publications they had helped make and contributing their ideas to a later glossy magazine.
When we are not on stage you will find us doing fine printing and master binding in our studio. We often represent the same text in different forms, as we did with An Unknown Soldier; a project based on a poem I wrote about the effect of the World Wars on my family. The National Poetry Library commissioned an exhibition of all the books, artists’ books and screenprints that made up An Unknown Soldier for the centenary year. The exhibition was praised highly in The TLS. We went on to make Letters Home with the librarians; a book teaching children about Modernist Poetry that was praised highly in The TES. (We aim to appear in all the T-something-Ss). Another commission from the time was the Active Service Gospel replica. SGM Lifewords have now distributed about a million copies.
I suppose you could call this an art career, in the sense of a car careering wildly from one side of the road to the other at top speed. The mixture of Art and Literature is hardly surprising, though, given that Ping and myself met at St Martins School of Art. Later, when I was graduating from the Slade MA and Ping was studying MA Modernist Literature at Queen Mary UoL, we started Henningham Family Press together.
Last year (a natural development, or a stab at coherence) we joined Inpress Books so that we could bring our collaborations to the shelves of high street bookshops as paperbacks, as well as to the shelves of Special Collections. 2018 got off to a flying start with us publishing split editions, paperback and artists’ books of Now Legwarmers by Pascal O’Loughlin and the first Ulysses sequel: Dedalus by Chris McCabe. These gained rave reviews (Literary Review, LRB Bookshop, The Idler), effusive endorsements as diverse as Max Porter and Marian Keyes, and our longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019.
We specialise in producing novels by writers coming from other disciplines. Poets, artists and performers who bring to their writing inflections from their training. Especially those who pick up the Modernist canon and kick it further down the road. We like working with people who will take their draft as the starting point for a textual and visual editing process. We think of ourselves as book producers, in the same way that Tony Visconti, Steve Albini and Danger Mouse are record producers.
This is the first year we have entered prizes. Before that our work was mainly given the thumbs up by being collected for the nation by institutions like the V&A, UCL, Tate, National Galleries Scotland and the National Poetry Library. Or they began as commissions for touring shows from places like the British Library, Christie’s, Dundee Contemporary Arts. But for novels there is this whole system that we are dipping our toes into.
We got passed over by the Goldsmiths, which packed no emotional punch for us, but on the day of the longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize I found myself utterly useless and completely pre-occupied.
This is easily explained: The Republic.. became (unconsciously) the biggest prize for me personally. It is so well thought through as a premise that it will make a big difference to our survival. Most big prizes present a financial burden. They are locked gates.
The Prize has also formed the backbone of my reading since it started. It feels like a tangible benchmark for ingenuity in art and practice. I went to the launch a couple of years ago as a consumer of canapés. We had no plans to do novels. But when plans began to coalesce they were shaped and encouraged by the existence of the prize and its culture. It would have been harder to focus our wide ranging technical and literary expertise (the unexpectedly prodigious offspring of our dilettantism and a decade-long global recession) into the form of the novel without the reading and solidarity the prize has provided.
Coming from an Art background, though, the big literary prizes (the ones we can’t afford to enter) seem a little over-understated. The ‘party’ finishes and we’re thinking “what, there’s no dancing?” I’ve never seen a fluorescent cocktail at a book event. If book events were an item in the kitchen drawer they would be the wine stopper that keeps wine from going off. We don’t own one, but I saw one once.
What next? 2018 concluded with the first in our series of non-fiction books for children, Colour Experiments for Future Artists, and in 2019 we publish Pattern Power for Future Artists.
Spring sees a second novel from Chris McCabe, Mud, which is a version of Orpheus set in the present day. Borak and Karissa must locate a bubble of air trapped in mud somewhere to end their caustic relationship. The book is “illustrated” with sculptures and concrete poetry.
We are also scouring museums and libraries with Sophie Herxheimer. Looking at Wisdom literature as we embed her sequence of poems 60 Lovers To Make And Do within collages and cutouts.
A version of An Unknown Soldier set to music for the stage with composer John Ringhofer also waits in the wings.
Find out more about Henningham Family Press on their website
You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @HenninghamPress