The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 Winners’ Party – Speech by Neil Griffiths

In yesterday’s Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winners’ Event 2019 I wrote that the founder of the prize, Neil Griffiths, gave a speech that I felt encapsulated the prize’s ethos – celebration rather than competition. He said a great deal more that I had wanted to summarise in my write-up but couldn’t note down quickly enough. So, as he left the podium, I accosted him to request a transcript. He kindly agreed.

I reproduce it below – thank you Neil for allowing me to share your words.

Thank you all for coming to the 3rd Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. As some of you know, after tonight I will be stepping back from the prize. One of the reasons I’m stepping back is that I find the whole prize … enterprise … so unbelievably … distressing.

If you took a PET scan of my nervous system before, during, or after any of the moments in the judging process, it would look like the nervous system of a small naked boy holding up a broken stick in front of a herd of bison.

He’s not in either fight or flight mode, but the less common ‘freeze’.

Who in their right mind wants to make these choices? – there never can be the right amount of books to fit a prescribed longlist or short list; how can there really be a winner!

One of the reasons I started a prize is that I won one once. And it’s a nice feeling.

After the event, Bridget and I drank the champagne that came with prize straight from the bottle in the taxi home.

Once at home I found a cigar someone had given me, smoked that, and then threw up on the stairs.

What’s interesting about that prize that year is that the one judge, Deborah Moggach, couldn’t choose between two books and so gave the award to me and another. She made an effort to convince us all – she simply couldn’t … or did not want to choose.

The Booker has done this twice. It’s a good thing. Each winner is an award-winning novelist from then on.

But it’s this ‘winning’ thing that is troubling. Games have winners; competitions have winners. Prizes, whilst winning something might be implicit … at least for the arts … should be more about a celebration of great work.

Everyone in the arts knows picking a winner is a nonsense. If the short list is strong enough then there will be strong arguments for each of them to be the winner.

So from next year … which is this calendar year … the judges of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses will be instructed to select the winning book(s) on the criterion that book x or y cannot not win.

If we raise enough money … we want to be in a place where we don’t … have … to choose between books … that we can’t choose between.

If we can’t raise enough money, giving three writers an award might divide the pecuniary upside by three, but it triples the good feeling.

We approximated something like this in our first year. Because I had no idea what I was doing I had just made things up as I went along. The judging panel came from independent bookshops and just wanted to read the books and tell me which they loved.

It meant there was no one to tell me how long the long list must be. Why stop at 12 or 13, 14 if I still loved another book?

Our first longlist was 18 books long! The short list was only 9 because even I realised double figures was too long. It was great. I didn’t feel like a naked boy with broken stick in front of herd of bison. At that point, I didn’t know it was possible to feel like that. That comes later.

In year 1 we did have a unanimous winner, Counternarratives by John Keene, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

But there were two other books which the judges loved enough to win had they not loved Counternarratives more.

So I decided we’d have 2 runner-up awards. If the prize wanted to spread the love, it also wanted to spread the money around.

And then there was a novel that polarised the judges … and who doesn’t love a polarising novel … apart from the 50% who don’t love it?

This novel seemed to me to be so multitudinous in conception and execution, not to award it something seemed like an act of bad faith … so I created the Walt Whitman Award for Multitudinousness.

On the understanding that such an award might do more harm than good, we quickly turned it into a Best First Novel Award.

But then we were established, and for some reason we thought we must play by the rules, so what did we do? – we followed the Booker Prize.

A Longlist of 13, shortlist of 6 and only one winner.

It was this more rigorous culling process that nearly did me in.

I will never right the wrong of Mathias Enard’s Compass not making the short list. Sorry, Jacques. It still causes me pain when I think about it.

And it’s no exaggeration when I say … had I insisted on it making the short list – and the judges were split – there would have been a fight. When someone is willing to ‘take it outside’ … you don’t have much choice when you’re in a French restaurant in Charlotte Street.

That said, we managed to raise enough money that year so all the short list presses received £1,500.

(Interesting statistic: the Booker Prize gives money to their shortlisted authors but it represents 0.96 of their budget; our shortlist receives a third of our budget.)

This year … the judging wasn’t as potentially violent as last year, and we’re sticking to the ‘established’ format.

Before we move onto the short listed books and publishers, I would like to thank a number of people. Quite a lot of people.

First, this year’s judges: David Collard, who has supported this prize from the off and has guided the judging process with great integrity and gentleness; Catherine Taylor for her enthusiasm and all round commitment to the detail; and Niven Govinden for his generosity and openheartedness. We were also joined by three creative writing students from UEA, Ayanna Gillian Lloyd , Vijay Khurana, Maya Lubinsky. Thank you to Nicci Praca for spreading the word from year one; Rebecca Irvin for creating and running our Instagram account – whatever that is. The Pigeonhole for running extracts of the Long List for two months. Laura Hopkins for design and manufacture of our trophy.

A big thank you to two people who I hope won’t mind being name-checked: Graham Fulcher and Anil Malhotra – without their support, the prize pot would be significantly smaller. Your generosity and support in general has been essential to this year’s prize. Thank you to our media sponsors the Times Literary Supplement, our academic partners the UEA Writing Program and the UEA Publishing Project, especially Philip Langeskov, Nathan Hamilton and Steven Benson. I look forward to our ‘strategic partnership’ ‘going forward’, which in normal language is ‘I hope the relationship over the next few years flourishes’. Sarah Crown and James Trevelyan at the Arts Council. Without the support of the Arts Council of England we wouldn’t exist – they are existentially important.

Talking about existentially important, as I said last year, and it remains more true this year, and will be truer still next year, when it comes to the success of this prize, I’m irrelevant. As everyone who has been involved over the last two years knows, this prize continued existence is the work of one man, our Lord Je … – sorry, I mean … James Tookey. His years may be few, but his gifts are many – it’s quite sickening, really. Thank you, James.

I will be back in 15 minutes …

Will Eaves, Murmur, published by CB Editions

Murmur takes two points in the life of Alan Turing, falling in love at school and the ‘chemical castration’ he was subjected to later in life after being convicted of ‘gross
indecency’.

I’m not one for talking about what novels are about, or even what they mean. But much has been made about this novel being about ‘consciousness’ and ‘artificial intelligence’. All fiction is about consciousness, it seems to me. Which is one of the reasons I named this prize the “republic of consciousness”. So what is Murmur? It’s a novel that has at its heart … a broken heart … and it reminds us that we are irrevocably changed by a broken heart. No anti-virus can rid us of it. But of course it’s more than that … it’s about a man with whom the world is not yet finished with … whatever his brilliance … his service … there is still more pain to come. As is the case for all of us. Which is why this novel, despite its formal difficulty, its mind-blowing intelligence, is so easy to love.

Doppelgänger by Dasa Drndic, published by Istros Books. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth and SD Curtis

Doppelgänger contains a short story ‘Arthur and Isabella’ and novella ‘Pupi’. Only one judge was familiar with Drndic’s work; the rest of us were stunned by what we read. It was like discovering Kafka for the first time – dark, playful, uncanny, absurd, funny, haunting. The first story had us reeling. Not only does it include … gerronto sexuality … in all its wrinkliness … but before we get there we have full-on incontinence.

And yet, even in this short story, the history of central Europe in the 20th century … is present. This is what Drndic does – she brings you characters who have managed their lives through Nazism, then Communism, and then just in case you’re too involved in these particulars, just in case you forget what’s happen around them … she strides in and provides documentation, language use, registers of names, the facts. It makes for a reading experience of real emotional depth … and at same time this pulling of focus upwards reminds us … what horrifies you here … is everywhere.

The translations are extraordinary.

Chris MaCabe, Dedalus, Henningham Family Press

Dedalus is a creative response to the greatest novel in the English language. It is a momentous act of hubris. Chris McCabe has the cojones of Achilles. How many writers in the last 97 years have thought to themselves ‘I wonder what happened to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom when they woke up on the 17 of June 1904? And think: sequel?’ Whatever the number … they’ve either thought better of it or tried and failed. Of course they have: it’s a mad idea. But not for Chris McCabe … he wondered and then thought: “fuck it. I can do this.” Let me just quickly say what Dedalus is not … and that’s a good try or honourable failure.

Dedalus is work of art … answering to a deep need of response … by a writer-poet possessed of the imaginative gifts to deliver that response in the 21 st century …

On a personal note: I’ve started and not finished Ulysses many times. Reading (and finishing) Dedalus somehow provided the energy to start and finish Ulysses. I got the keys to Ulysses from Dedalus. That is quite some gift.

Also, I must mention the publisher, Henningham Family Press – this is the most beautifully published book on our shortlist, and without a doubt the most beautifully published work of fiction this year …

Wendy Erskine, Sweet Home, Stinging Fly

If everything is right and good with the world, the playing field is flat and true, and the goalpost cannot be moved, there is a story in Wendy Erskine’s first collection that should be in every short story anthology for evermore and taught on every creative writing course across the world. “Inakeen” has stayed with me as no other short story ever has.

Wendy Erskine has that rare talent – she can write short stories. Because so few people can. Most people just start and finish them, and it’s really not the same thing.

It’s an odd form: it’s not as naked as poetry or as forgiving as the novel. It also allows for clever-dickery … which the poem or the novel does not. But at its best … there is a kind of guilelessness in its acceptance of ordinary human affairs … an understanding that we are fragile in a world of hard objects …. and as we try and make it through, there are going to be moments, even without an explicit crisis, when it feels touch and go.

Wendy Erskine has this guilelessness … and she renders it in a prose that has wisdom, edge, pathos and natural humour. There is no doubt Sweet Home is one of the great debut collections in recent times.

Kitch, Anthony Joseph, Peepal Tree Press

Maximalist, polyvocal, polyphonic – Kitch is a bravura work. It’s all left on the page. As David Collard said: “The writing creates a saturated technicolour … when, let’s face it, all other books are different degrees of bleak”.

It’s prose for the senses. It’s a prose that intoxicates. A work of voices, worlds, music, politics, society. Oh, and the life of one man called Lord Kitchener who could sing calypso. A boy who takes his talent from a village to the city and out into the wider world. What is held in beautiful tension in this work … is the purity of the talent: some people are just born to sing; and all the other … tougher attributes one must possess to be survive and be heard in an unwelcoming world …

This is a timely book of course. After the Windrush scandal, here is a story to make it real in ways we cannot know from the new stories, the archive footage, even the anecdotes of grandparents of friends.

It should be noted after the saturated technicolour of Trinidad, when the Windrush enters Tilbury Docks, we might not have despair (there was much hope) … but all the colour drains away and Anthony Joseph gives us a wonderfully sustained piece of onomatopoeic prose, including Lord Kitchener singing on board ‘London is the place for me’. There is no greater compliment to a writer than when we say: you made me feel that. It’s near perfect. No, it’s better than that – it’s perfect.

Lucia, Alex Pheby, Galley Beggar

On the RofC GB podcast, I said that in the narrative arts ‘empathy’ had become shorthand for ‘liking’, ‘understanding’, ‘feeling for …’ a character. And that that has become a problem in literature. It’s has become a requirement.

Alex Pheby had this to say: “I think empathy … is a much more rigorous and exhausting task … where you are obliged to put yourself into position where you wouldn’t normally otherwise put yourself in, with no hope of recouping anything, and taking that into the self.”

What if I were to say reading Lucia is a rigorous and exhausting task … where the writer obliges you to put yourself into position where you … wouldn’t … normally … otherwise put yourself in, with no hope of recouping anything, and taking that into the self.”

Which writers these days set out to write such a novel? To make such demands? Only a writer of deep psychological insight … and writerly courage would do that. Would ask that of us. Try and think of another novel that mutes and extracts the central character from the beginning and yet somehow has us weeping for her at the end.

Only art created from real empathy can do this.

 

Neil Griffiths is the author of Costa Best Novel shortlisted Saving Caravaggio. His most recent novel, As A God Might Be, is published by Dodo Ink. You may follow him on Twitter: @neilgriffiths

 

The joint winners of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses in 2019 were:

Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions
Lucia by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press

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Guest post by independent publisher, Peirene Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I am grateful to those who responded so generously as the articles and Q&As they provided 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.

Today I welcome Molly from Peirene Press whose book, Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translated by Margita Gailitis), I reviewed here.

The aim of Peirene Press is a simple one – to bring the best of European fiction to the UK market and expose English-speaking readers to unfamiliar authors, ideas and worlds. To do this, we specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas for the first time in English in translation. Once all this hard work is done, 50p of each sale is donated to our chosen charity (currently Basmeh and Zeitooneh, who work in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey) – as our publisher Meike Ziervogel says, ‘a good book should change the world for the better beyond the last page.’

I guess you could say that we are a rather niche publisher. But even we did not realise quite how niche we are until we did some digging into the statistics of translated fiction. Surprisingly, only between 3-5% of books published in the UK are works of translation. Of that only 30% are written by women authors – and so, with some quick maths we can see that translated books by women writers actually make up only 1-1.5% of our literary market!

Over the last 10 years we are pleased to say that 60% of our writers and 70% of our translators have been women. That’s already double the amount of women writers that make up the UK’s translated fiction market, and we hope that this number only continues to grow.

So this year our mission is even more focused. In 2019, we are only publishing books written by women.

Soviet Milk, our novel longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize is an excellent example of the power of women in translation. As Jeremy Davies from Dalkey Archive Press said, Soviet Milk ‘opens up new paths not only for Latvian literature in English translation but for English literature itself.’

This makes being longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize extra special. Not only are we raising the profile of small presses, but also all those women writers and translators that we have worked with for the past 10 years. We’ve been part of the 1% of the market taken up by women in translation and we couldn’t be prouder. In the future we hope to grow this unique part of the publishing industry and publish authors that would otherwise not have reached UK readers.

If this sounds like something you fancy head to peirenepress.com to get yourself some translated goodness! If you subscribe you’ll be supporting our work in the long term and you’ll also have access to our Subscriber Book Club which includes; discussions, giveaways and author Q&As!

You may keep up with all the news from Peirene Press on Twitter: @PeirenePress 

Guest post from independent publisher, Fairlight Books

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. 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.

Today I welcome Lindsey from Fairlight whose book, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, I will be reviewing tomorrow.

Fairlight Books is an independent publisher based in Oxford. Our aim is to promote literary fiction and quality writing by new and established authors. Literary fiction has been under threat in recent years and with our attractive books and illustration-led covers we are trying to reconnect readers to this strand of literature.

Established in 2017, we publish 7-10 titles per year, including hardback and paperback novels. For us, it’s all about quality, rather than quantity. We also publish novellas, as part of our Fairlight Moderns series.

One of the reasons writers of high-quality and literary fiction find it so hard to get published these days is because the system over the last few years has become very geared towards finding and promoting genre fiction, particularly the hugely popular genres of crime and thriller writing. In fact, The Arts Council recently suggested that literary fiction in the UK was in crisis.

Because of this, we think it’s important for us, as a publisher of literary fiction, to be innovative in how we source and promote literary fiction for readers.

One of the ways we do this is by focusing primarily on receiving our submissions direct from writers – not with windows that open for short periods of time at random moments, but through a constantly open submissions process. We review every single manuscript we receive and although sometimes it can take us a few months, we do get back to every single author with a response one way or the other.

We’re also unusual in that we are happy to publish and promote novella-length literary fiction. Our Fairlight Moderns series is quite unconventional in being made up of novellas of new English-language writing (not translations) from literary writers worldwide. With their gorgeous jewel-like covers, each with a unique illustration by New York-based Sam Kalda, this eclectic collection of stories from around the world is proving popular with readers. They are a great way of introducing new literary authors’ writing to a wider readership.

It’s great to see such prizes as The Republic of Consciousness Prize out there supporting small independent presses, and celebrating literary fiction. It offers a good opportunity to get visibility for our authors and expand our readership. Since one of our Fairlight Moderns, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, was longlisted we’ve had a great response from the industry which has really raised awareness among readers as well.

Find out more about Fairlight Books on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @FairlightBooks

Guest post by independent publisher, Peepal Tree Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. 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.

Today I welcome Peepal Tree Press who published Kitch by Anthony Joseph. On their website we are told that Peepal Tree

“aims to bring you the very best of international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK.”

“We publish fiction, poetry and a range of academic and non-fiction titles. Our goal is to publish books that make a difference”

Do please read on to find out more.

Founded in 1985 by our Managing Editor, Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree press had humble beginnings. Our first title, Backdam People by Rooplall Monar, was typeset on a daisywheel printer after hours in college. In the last 34 years, we have brought readers around 350 titles by Caribbean, Asian, and Black British authors, making a name for ourselves as the leading publisher of Caribbean literature.

The inspiration for our name came to Jeremy in the form of a poem by Indo-Guyanese poet Jacob Chinapen. In the poem, workers tell stories under a peepal tree after a day at work. The peepal tree, which originated in India but was brought to the Caribbean, seemed to Jeremy to be a perfect metaphor for something transplanted – symbolic of putting down roots. And so, Peepal Tree Press was born, out of a desire to help Backdam People be published in a time of Guyanese oppression.

Since then we have survived on various shoestrings, prioritizing great literature that says something new to the world, and editing those books with the utmost care. We have evolved through the development of different printing technologies and are now in a place where we are publishing 20 or so books a year, members of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, and home to Inscribe, which delivers writer development and support. Peepal Tree is based in Leeds, part of a growing independent publishing sector outside of London and the South East, and a proud founder member of the Northern Fiction Alliance. It has been an honour to have the brilliant Anthony Joseph’s innovative fusion of novel and biography, Kitch, longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize. Discovering the books on the longlist has been a delight, and prizes like ROFC are hugely valuable in helping readers discover amazing books from indies that they might not otherwise have come across. Similarly, ROFC’s nomination of Marcia Douglas for the 2016 longlist was hugely beneficial to us, attracting new readers.

We hope to continue developing and contributing to conversations about Caribbean literature and culture, publishing wonderful books, and opening up this world to readers and writers. Our new anthology, for example, The Peepal Tree Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories, featured on BBC Radio 4 Open Book, shines a light on a wide range of authors across the Caribbean and its diasporas, with a strong focus on women and LGBT writers. You can see a list of the books we have planned for 2019 here, and look out too for the New Caribbean Voices podcast, launching soon on Soundcloud. We’d love it if you followed us on instagram, twitter, or facebook – or you can even subscribe to our newsletter.

We wish luck to all of the authors longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize.

 

Guest post by independent publisher, Splice

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. 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.

Today I welcome Daniel from Splice whose book, Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner, I will be reviewing tomorrow.

The first thing to know about Splice, for readers who have found it recently, is that the small press is only one part of its activities. The second thing to know is that it’s not a commercial enterprise; it’s a not-for-profit organisation. This means that its remit is a lot broader than simply publishing books and making some money off sales and prizes. There’s more to it than that, but naturally you’ll need to take a step back to see the bigger picture.

I set up Splice in 2017 with just one idea in mind: I wanted to create a system for supporting the production of formally unconventional literature. Let me define some of those terms. By “formally unconventional literature” I mean books of any type (short stories, novels, essays, memoirs, etc.) that somehow push the boundaries of style and structure, whether subtly or in revolutionary ways, adopting and defending their own terms of formal “success”. I didn’t grow up in an especially literary household, and in fact literature didn’t begin to speak to me until I was in my twenties and out of university, so the notion of literature as some sort of refined pleasure, or something with cultural cachet, is absolutely anathema to me; it doesn’t jibe with my gut feeling. I like value irreverence, iconoclasm, edginess, messiness, stylistic abandon, wilful disregard and even disparagement of literary politesse. If a work of literature plays by the rules stylistically and structurally, I’m flat-out not interested. I don’t care how provocative its subject matter might be; a book’s “success”, for me, is entirely a question of its aesthetics and their deviation from the centre of the literary landscape.

Two more key terms and then I’ll get to the heart of Splice. By “system” I mean a series of interlocking mechanisms that could offer support to these sorts of books at different stages on their journey from the mind of a writer to the hands of readers. And by “supporting the production” of these books, I mean supporting the authors who write them — but this is a very complex, multifaceted activity, and it’s worth looking at some of the nuances.

To my mind, support for an author isn’t worth much if it doesn’t help the author take a step towards writing something new in future, beyond whatever work that has captured your attention here and now. At the same time, chances of future work greatly diminish if the current work isn’t accorded some value and future possibilities aren’t invested in from the get-go. So, in setting up Splice, I knew I had to create a system that would do at least five things in order to realise my one overriding goal:

  • It had to pay writers up-front, offering a fee as a reward for the labour that has already produced the work. No royalties-only arrangements, where all income is contingent on sales, but something to recognise that the work already has value.
  • It had to pay writers on an ongoing basis, in a way that recognised them as co- creators. That means fifty per cent royalties, higher than an industry standard of ten per cent, from the sale of the very first copy, with no advance to earn out.
  • It had to commission future work from writers at the same time as arranging the publication of their early work, guaranteeing no-strings-attached publication and an additional fee. As a result, Splice’s standard contract for its small press authors involves purchasing publication rights for an existing manuscript and pre-arranging the purchase of two new, as-yet-unwritten works of prose — one for the website and one for the Splice anthology — with extra cash attached.

These three planks of Splice form the basis of all its activities in print, i.e. the small press publications and the anthology. That’s because they do the lion’s share of the tasks I mentioned above, according value to an author’s current work and investing in future work sight unseen. But still, in sketching out the various components of Splice, I realised it couldn’t fulfil its purpose if it didn’t do at least two other things:

  • It had to go to bat for authors of formally unconventional literature even if it wasn’t publishing them, and even if something that would benefit an author published by Splice would work to the detriment of Splice itself. This is a large part of why Splice is a not-for-profit enterprise; there’s just a huge amount of advisory work and advocacy work going on behind the scenes, pro bono. This includes providing detailed editorial advice to authors whose manuscripts have merit but won’t be purchased by Splice; alerting writers to opportunities for grants, bursaries, and workshop opportunities, which can help them to access further remuneration for their work, and assisting with their applications; liaising with publishers overseas who may be interested in acquiring territorial rights to titles, in cases where Splice doesn’t stand to profit because the rights still reside with the author; and so on. There are many more people involved with Splice than can be seen on the surface, and much of the pro bono work entails striking connections, soliciting feedback, helping people get together to help one another — again, with an eye on the future. And ultimately, on Splice’s terms, it would be a success, not a disappointment, if our authors ended up jumping ship and publishing their next books with bigger presses, just as long as they’re not compromising on their unconventional aesthetic visions.
  • It had to reward writers of formally unconventional literature published by other publishers, especially other small presses that take chances on adventurous work, by offering them a degree of serious attention they don’t typically receive. This is the rationale behind Splice’s online activities: we publish at least one long review of a recent book each week, at least 2,000 words in length, and we often supplement the review with an author or translator interview. On one level, it’s a real morale booster for these writers to have their work read in depth and written about at length in an intelligent way, rather than as a superficial publicity exercise. On another level, this can also yield further financial rewards for writers, and thereby help them to snag an investment in future work, because grants and bursaries often require applications to be supplemented with serious, insightful reviews. And on yet another level — which takes up probably one-third of my time — it allows literary critics of great skill to exercise their talents and get paid for it as well. It is excruciatingly difficult to be a critic with a knack for writing these sorts of reviews; it’s even more difficult when you don’t get paid for your work, and when you don’t get the editorial support and encouragement you need to keep going. The Splice website exists as a platform to reward these critics, to commission future work from them as well, to honour their abilities as creative readers and writers — and to acknowledge the indispensable role they play in sourcing, appraising, and adding to the value of exciting new books.

I suppose you could read back over all the things I’ve just said about Splice and think it’s all hokum, overly technical, or too industry-centric, or whatever. But the bottom line is that I believe passionately and absolutely in the value of formally unconventional literature — I’m driven by an evangelising zeal for it — and I’m anxious to do whatever I can to see more of it come into being, to not let authors become dispirited because their work isn’t taken seriously, to not let them fall silent just because their books don’t sell enough to allow them to quit their day jobs. Splice was conceived as a means to that end.

One last note on this point: if you want proof of all this, you’ll find it in the system of Splice itself. If you’ve heard me on the Republic of Consciousness Podcast, or you follow Splice on Twitter, you’ll know that I handle all the editorial stuff while the logistics (slush pile sifting, royalty payments, postage, contracts, etc.) are dealt with by Alec Dewar. I came to know Alec in the months before Splice started publishing online. He’s a young academic based in Scotland, specialising in Scandinavian literature, and I approached him in the dying days of 2017 to ask him if he’d be interested in reviewing a bevy of Icelandic titles that were due to be published throughout 2018. He agreed, in principle, but on two conditions. He hadn’t written for a non-academic audience before, so he needed some hands-on guidance, and he also wanted an opportunity to try out other things as he planned to leave academia. Long story short, in exchange for being able to delegate a lot of the day-to-day stuff to Alec, I arranged to mentor him in his reviewing activities for Splice. In other words, the advisory and advocacy responsibilities of Splice are baked into the structure of it, even at the level of the people who run it with me. And I’ve learned a great deal from Alec, too, such that I’ve now built in a mentoring “scheme” for young critics as part of my editorial activities, helping newcomers to build a portfolio of high-quality work as reviewers and essayists.

Again, there’s nothing to be gained from this financially — it costs Splice money to pay for something like MacKenzie Warren’s recent long essay on Nocilla Lab — but the benefit, in terms of Splice’s mission, is  immense. I get to hone my Socratic skills by pushing MacKenzie to look closer, dig deeper, keep writing, find another way of saying this or that. MacKenzie ends up with a piece of high-quality criticism, plus some cash for her efforts, and hopefully Fitzcarraldo Editions and Agustín Fernández Mallo and the translator Thomas Bunstead get a financial kickback, and some extra prestige, as part of the same exercise. Ultimately, the winners are readers who appreciate formally unconventional literature, either because they become aware of Nocilla Lab or because they have a new perspective on it, a little bit of added value for their £12.99, and so Splice functions exactly as it was intended to do.

It’s hard to say how things have changed in publishing since I started, because Splice is only eighteen months old and its small press activities are even younger than that, but I’ve certainly been surprised by some of the things I’ve seen since I started looking under the bonnet. There are a few questionable practices, to be sure, but most of all I’ve been surprised — and humbled — by the staggering generosity of small press publishers who share the spirit of Splice, even if not in a codified way. There are plenty of publishers who’ve offered me advice and support when they have no financial incentive to do so, purely because they love the art of literature and want to help kindle the flames no matter where they may be burning. I reckon that at least half of the small press economy is powered by charity, goodwill, and quid pro quos, with publishers copping a hit (sometimes financially, certainly in terms of energy) so they can raise the standards of the entire small press scene, with no expectation of material rewards. There are a lot of unsung heroes out there — a great many more than I imagined when I was watching this scene develop from the outside.

Prize listings are beautiful things, especially the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize, because, much as Splice is intended to do, they raise the profiles of formally unconventional books and bring them to the attention of new readers. My experience with them is limited, of course, since Hang Him When He Is Not There is only the first title from Splice to be longlisted for a prize, but across the board I have to say that the entry costs and conditions are reasonable except for major awards like the Costa and the Booker Prize. Splice has also entered books into the Edge Hill Prize, the Desmond Elliot Prize, the James Tait Black Prize, and other competitions, and none of these have ever threatened to break the bank. Moreover, the potential rewards are wonderful. The longlisting for Hang Him has certainly garnered the book some new readers, and I hope it will also act as a springboard for it to reach other parts of the world.

Since Splice has such particular and idiosyncratic foundations, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that it also has an unusual future — at least insofar as I can picture it. Perhaps this is  a silly thing to admit, but I’ll admit it anyway: when I was putting together a cadre of writers for Splice, approaching critics and authors to see who was interested in signing up, my model was Nick Fury bringing together the Avengers. And that’s still the case because, like Fury, my ultimate aim is to step away from Splice and let all parties involved in it continue to run it collectively. I founded it as a five-year initiative for myself, creating it in a way that would allow me to disseminate some institutional knowledge to various other people and open up windows for yet more people to own a stake in it, and at the end of those five years I want to shepherd it from a two-person not-for-profit into a co-operative enterprise. I’m hoping to do this by liaising with editorial programmes at universities and creating a mechanism for editorial transparency, so that students of publishing (that is, editors-in-waiting) will be able to watch me running Splice, alongside Alec, as if through a one-way mirror. I also want to step up fundraising activities so that we have a subscription model for our books, as well as a Patreon-style system in which financial contributions at different tiers will give people shares in the Splice co-operative, including voting rights and a say on editorial matters. And I want to continuously increase the rates of payment for everyone who writes for Splice. It remains to be seen whether all of this is achievable by, say, 2022, but I’m hopeful, I’m encouraged by the raw passion I see from those who appreciate small press titles, and I’m not the kind of person who likes to say “no”. My door is always open to anyone who wants to be involved in any way, and if Splice is to have a long-term future, I’ll keep it open as long as I can to ensure that everything ends up in safe hands.

Find out more about Splice on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @thisissplice 

Guest post by independent publisher, Henningham Family Press

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