Book Review: Hang Him When He Is Not There

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner.

This book is disorientating. It reads as a series of short stories that the reader expects will eventually interlink – it is, after all, described as a novel. Some chapters are more straightforward than others. Some are distinctly weird. A threatening undercurrent weaves itself through the pages, shadows not quite glimpsed in passing. There is a viciousness to certain thoughts and interactions. Few of the characters are likable, not that this is necessary.

Settings vary but include: a care home, a vineyard, an apartment crowded by books, a decaying family home, rooms let to tourists by an elderly lady. A proof reader travels to meet a reclusive author; in later stories we learn more about their lives. A chapter tells of two brothers on holiday; they reappear in the background of another tale. Books and how they are read are a recurring feature – meta considering the challenge of pinning down what this book is saying.

One theme I plucked from the many permutations of characters’ narrative and observations was the disturbance felt on registering that a person one is close to is not as thought and treated as, perhaps for many years. It is impossible to fully understand all that goes on inside another’s head and one is rarely the centre of another’s universe however much they appear attentive and to revere.

I pondered if the author is offering a work that demands readers change and change again their interpretations as they progress through its pages.

The Mystics chapter was particularly challenging to read due to the brutality. Sexual or bodily explicit scenes throughout offer nothing pleasant. People within these stories are not conventionally good looking – flaws are described vividly. There is the suggestion of personal darkness that few acknowledge, an innate coarseness veneered by observers as much as self.

So, what was the author trying to convey in writing this way?

“I’ll do better than to tell you about a dream I had. I’ll tell you how it was to have this dream. But not before telling you how it was to recall having had it. Everything is everything.”

There are obvious plays with language and form. More was gleaned on a second reading. Ultimately though this was a book that left me perplexed and somewhat frustrated, despite best efforts. The intricacies offered were tantalisingly elusive, viewed through a glass darkly. I wonder if this was intended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

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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