On Judging Artistic Endeavours

A number of weeks ago I was invited to join a judging panel for a literary prize. This surprised and delighted me. It is not the Booker Prize (ha!), and it is not the Not The Booker Prize – more than that I cannot yet say. What a tease I am being. With lead times and read times the official announcements will not be made for some time, although my involvement starts immediately. I have already received the first books to be considered. All of this has got me thinking, once again, about how each reader judges a book.

When writing a review I consider the way a publication is being marketed. For example, I will compare crime thrillers alongside others in this genre – books should be of interest to their target audience. In all works the writing must be fluent and fluid. The reader needs to be engaged and in some way entertained. Genres may be crossed but there are certain expectations to be met. Romance readers are unlikely to welcome unremitting horror, literary fiction needs to challenge but not be impenetrable.

My husband often reads no more than one book a year, generally when travelling to and from a holiday destination. When he asks for my recommendations I therefore choose with special care. Sometimes I have gushed about a book but subsequently suggested it may not be for him. He has been known to mock such retraction in a manner similar to our appreciation of art, with accusations of pretention.

I know very little about art. I visited Tate Modern several months ago and pondered how people ascribe value to certain of the chosen exhibits. A pile of bricks that wouldn’t look out of place in a builders yard was on display. A urinal on its side in a glass case had an information card explaining this was not even an original installation but rather a replica, the original being elsewhere. My first thought was if either had ever been used for their intended purpose.

Even in more traditional galleries I quickly grow bored of the many portraits of rich, dead people, or the endless depictions of religious scenes. I understand that those who know more about the subject may relish texture, style and perspective. I want an artwork to be pleasing to look at, not merely an investment. Pleasing is, of course, a matter of individual taste.

Music is another art form that generates strong opinions. I have a friend who adores opera, another who raves about the minutiae of David Bowie. My husband’s musical tastes have at times made me long for silence. I once sat up late with an acquaintance while he played me examples of innovative offerings that he became quite animated educating me on. It sounded to me like hitting metal bins together. When we watched a video of the musicians this was exactly what they were doing.

My musical choices tend to be influenced by memory: Chopin’s piano concertos which my father played; rock music from the seventies and eighties, my formative years; the stadium bands popular a decade or so ago when my children were developing their musical tastes. In my view music should provide the listener with pleasure. If catchy pop songs do this they have served their purpose however shallow the purists deride them for being.

My views on books are much the same. I read The Da Vinci Code and now understand why Dan Brown’s writing style is often mocked. The samplers from the Fifty Shades of Grey series were enough to convince me to avoid. Yet so many have read these books and this has encouraged them to read more. I consider this a good thing even if not to my taste.

Literary prizes reward particular attributes so it will be on these that I will judge the books I am being sent. My reviews are a reflection of writing I am impressed by and these titles look to be a good fit. I would not, after all, have agreed to take part had I not expected to enjoy the reading. This is an adventure in which I am thrilled to participate.

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winner(s) Event

Yesterday evening I enjoyed my first literary prize presentation event when I attended the announcement of the winner(s) of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Held in the impressive Fyvie Hall at the University of Westminster this turned out to be a fun and friendly evening. I managed to talk to some lovely people from Cassava and Peirene as well as Becky and Sally, who have also been reviewing the books that were under consideration for the Contemporary Small Presses website.

After drinks, canapes and mingling with the attendees, Neil Griffiths, who instigated and organised the prize, opened proceedings. He told the rapt audience that he has been accused of trying to overthrow the literary establishment. He acknowledged that there is plenty of fine fiction coming from the bigger houses. He was not the only one in the room who believed that the best innovative fiction is being published in the UK and Ireland by the small presses, that they enabled stories, characters and experimentation not found anywhere else in British publishing.

   

This wasn’t an evening for long speeches so Neil moved swiftly on to the first award – for a Surfeit of Multitudinous Energy. He explained that he had decided on the name and criteria for this and was keeping his reasoning to himself. The award went to Galley Beggar Press for publishing Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge. Both the author and publisher, Sam Jordison, accepted the award. It was good to see that under his shirt Sam was rocking his now signature EU t-shirt.

After a short break during which I was able to chat about the books with fellow attendees and more drinks could be consumed, Neil introduced Guardian newspaper reviewer, Nicholas Lazard, who presented the remaining awards.

There were two runners up.

The first went to Anakana Schofield for Martin John, published by And Other Stories. As the author could not join her publisher, Nicky, to collect the award she was represented by Joanna Walsh.

The second runner up prize went to Solar Bones by Mike McCormack published by Tramp Press. The publisher had travelled from Ireland to be there.

   

Moving swiftly on to the winner. The inaugural Republic of Conciousness Prize for Small Presses was won by Counternarratives by John Keene, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. The publishers accepted the award, expressed their gratitude and commented that it is not easy to publish their kind of fiction. This reader is very glad that the fabulous small presses enrich us by managing to do so anyway.

Having concluded formal proceedings there was once more time to mingle. The venue staff ensured that nobody went thirsty – we were well looked after.

   

As Neil has a book coming out next year he will hand over organisational duties to James Tookey. I do hope that we see Neil’s Family of Love, published by Dodo Ink, take its place on the 2018 shortlist.

Thank you to the publishers who have provided me with interviews or guest posts as part of my coverage of this prize. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be involved.

Guest post by independent publisher, And Other Stories

Chatting to independent publisher, Daunt Books

Chatting to independent publisher, Freight Books

Choosing a favourite from The Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist

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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.

martinjohn   born-on-a-tuesday

finefrontsmall   lightbox

counternarratives   treats

forbidden-line   solar-bones-cover

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.

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Reading the Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist

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In mid January I wrote of my plans to read the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist (you may read my post here). Between now and the announcement of the prize winner on 9th March I will be posting my thoughts on each book along with guest posts from those of their publishers who chose to take part in this feature. I am grateful to all who found the time to provide me with content.

I had previously read two of the books from the prize longlist which did not make it onto the shortlist. I have since read one other. If you click on a title below the photograph you may read my reviews.

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I had also previously read one of the shortlisted books:

Given the quality of the writing in all of these books I was eager to tackle the remaining shortlist and have not been disappointed. All credit to the prize judges for curating such an impressive selection.

On Friday I will post the first of my remaining reviews – Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). This has already won the Goldsmith Prize and the Irish Book Award Novel of the Year. It was the only other book from the Republic of Consciousness Prize long and short lists that I already had on my TBR pile. All other shortlisted books have been generously provided by the publishers for this feature – a big thank you to them.

Next week I will post my thoughts on: Fine Fine Fine Fine Fine by Diane Williams (CB Editions – who went into semi-retirement just before the shortlist was announced); Martin John by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories) which was also shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize and the 2016 Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction; Treats by Lara Williams (Freight Books).

My reviews for the remaining three books on the shortlist – Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John (Cassava Republic) which was shortlisted for the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature and longlisted for the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature, Counter Narratives by John Keene (Fitzcarraldo Editions), and Light Box by KJ Orr (Daunt Books) – will follow along with the promised publisher guest posts.

Naturally I am not the only person reading these books. I recommend you check out the reviews being posted by the contemporary small press – A site for small presses, writers, poets & readers as they are excellent.

As a footnote to this introduction I will add one other thing that this exercise has taught me – how to spell consciousness. I have been hashtagging it on Twitter incorrectly for over a month. If you spot me doing this sort of thing again? Please let me know.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize

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I write regularly of my enthusiasm for books published by the small, independent presses. I am therefore following with interest a new literary prize set up to generate wider awareness of their work.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize was created by novelist Neil Griffiths to celebrate the “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Griffiths, whose novel Betrayal in Naples won the Writers’ Club first novel award and whose Saving Caravaggio was shortlisted for the Costa best novel award, said he decided to found the new prize after realising that works from small presses represented the best fiction he had read in the last year. He explains in more detail here.

Unlike many larger awards, publishers are not charged an entry fee. The prize pot, to be divided between publisher and author, was raised by raffling £10 tickets online which gave donors a chance to win a bundle of books by British and Irish presses. Publishers with a maximum of five full-time paid people working for them may submit one novel or single author collection of short stories per year.

The winner will be chosen based on two criteria, lifted from the Galley Beggar website, ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. These sound like my sort of books.

The Longlist, announced at the end of November 2016, contained the following titles:

  • And Other Stories for Martin John by Anakana Schofield
  • Cassava Republic for Born on A Tuesday by Elnathan John
  • CB Editions for Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
  • Daunt Books for Light Box by KJ Orr
  • Dodo Ink for Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen
  • EROS for Crude by Sally O’Reilly
  • Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene
  • Istros for Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić
  • Freight for Treats by Lara Williams
  • Galley Beggar for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge
  • Holland House for The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong
  • New Island for Beautiful Pictures of a Lost Homeland by Mia Gallagher
  • Peepal Tree Press for The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas
  • Peirene Press for The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift
  • Tangerine Press for The Glue Ponys by Chris Wilson
  • Tramp Press for Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Yesterday evening, at an event held in Waterstones, Piccadilly, this was whittled down to the following shortlist, decided by a small group of independent booksellers, chaired by Neil Griffiths:

  • And Other Stories for Martin John by Anakana Schofield
  • Cassava Republic for Born on A Tuesday by Elnathan John
  • CB Editions for Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
  • Daunt Books for Light Box by KJ Orr
  • Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene
  • Freight for Treats by Lara Williams
  • Galley Beggar for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge
  • Tramp Press for Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The winner will be announced in March and, if I can get hold of the first six of these books (the final two I already own) I will be reading along with the judges. Anybody care to join me?

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