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

rocp

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.

img_20170208_155733217

Book Review: Counternarratives

counternarratives

Counternarratives, by John Keene, is a collection of historical fiction pieces imaginatively written in the style of reportage. Most are set in America through the centuries of slavery leading up to the practice’s eventual abolition. The exploration of ingrained and continuing racial prejudice is percipient and depressing.

The ownership of people, the cruelties inflicted and the effect this had on all is presented in a variety of settings. The attitude that troublesome slaves should be broken, that they were property to be used or traded, reminds the reader of the entitlement the paler skinned fully believed was their due. They could think ‘only of their own disappearing universe’, not that of those on whose lives they viciously inflicted their ideas.

These jaundiced views remain recognisable in the world we live in today. There were instances of comeuppance but only the occasional glimmer of positivity:

“we must never let the lies and the tears devour us, we must deliver and savor the years.”

The essence of the subject matter and the breadth and depth of each short story is impressive. However, although the author takes an innovative approach to presenting his themes I found the writing dense and often challenging to read. The stories are substantial with a strong evocation of time and place. What was a struggle was maintaining engagement.

There are many who appreciate strong, literary prose and this may well be a book more suited to them. As a reader who wishes to relax and enjoy a book these tales proved heavy going. Creatively constructed and thought provoking though each piece is, this is not a book that I can personally recommend.

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

Guest post by independent publisher, And Other Stories

andotherstorieslogo

As part of my feature on the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited those publishers whose books made it through to the shortlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Nicky from And Other Stories to tell us a little about this excellent publishing house. I review their contender for the prize, Martin John by Anakana Schofield, here.

And Other Stories was founded by our publisher Stefan Tobler in 2010, as a result of his frustration with the conservative tendencies in the publishing industry, and a desire to do publishing in a different way – a way that was committed to extraordinary writing, rather than guaranteed commercial success.

As a translator, he was tired of constantly hearing that publishers loved the books he was showing them, but wouldn’t be publishing them because they were too risky. Other writers and translators were also concerned, and they got together to brainstorm ideas. And Other Stories was born out of these discussions. Our business model is not-for- profit and based on subscriptions (And Other Stories was the first modern independent publisher to bring back this eighteenth-century idea). And Other Stories also opened up the commissioning process through a series of reading groups where translators and readers of a particular language would come together to discuss books that And Other Stories might like to publish.

And readers and critics were apparently ready for this new approach. Two of the books published by And Other Stories in 2011, our first year of operation, went on to be shortlisted for major prizes (the Man Booker Prize for Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and the Guardian First Book Award for Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole). Many of our books have gone on to get widespread recognition and to find thousands of readers. In 2016, Lisa Dillman’s translation of Yuri Herrera’s brilliant novel Signs Preceding the End of the World, which weaves together Latin American mythology, US-Mexican border politics and linguistic innovation, won the Best Translated Book Award, and has to date sold over 20,000 copies.

Indeed, both independent publishing and literature in translation have continued to flourish, and we are honoured to be counted alongside so many innovators and risk-takers in having a book shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. It has been a privilege to publish Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, a novel that is virtuosic in the way it makes form and content each work to enhance the other, and we were delighted when we heard it had been shortlisted for this prize.

 

martinjohn

Click on the book cover above to check out what others are saying about Martin John. You may also wish to buy the book.

Book Review: Born on a Tuesday

born-on-a-tuesday

Born on a Tuesday, by Elnathan John, tells the story of Dantala, also known as Ahmad, who was sent from home by his father for Qur’anic training while still a young boy. He learned quickly, albeit at the end of a whip. When the story opens his six years of training has finished and his father is dead. Instead of returning to his village and mother he has joined a street gang who earn food and money through violence. Political candidates make use of these young people to obtain votes and further their careers.

Ahmad becomes involved in an incident where he attacks an old man with a machete before seeing a friend shot and killed. He is offered refuge in a mosque and meets two very different and locally influential men – Malam Abdul-Nur and Sheiki Jamal.

Sheiki becomes Ahmad’s mentor, providing food and lodging in exchange for the boy completing tasks around the mosque. Here he meets Abdul-Nur’s younger brother, Jibril, and they become friends. Jibril helps Ahmad to learn English as well as encouraging him to sample more worldly pursuits.

The background to the unfolding tale is one of hardship and violence. Muslim belief in northern Nigeria, where the story is set, is becoming polarised and fragmented with Shiite leaders encouraging their followers to rise up against the more moderate Sunnis who they accuse of pandering to the infidil. With poverty rife there is much dissatisfaction within the wider population which religious leaders use to feed their cause.

The upbringing and lifestyle in this land appears to accept aggression. Children are routinely beaten by their fathers, wives by their husbands. With such familial violence experienced as a means to force compliance it is understandable that many grow up regarding force as appropriate when trying to exert influence.

I know little of Islamic teaching but have lived amongst religious extremism in Belfast and can appreciate how those brought up to fear for their eternal soul if they do not adhere to a certain doctrine can struggle to escape its shackles. Ahmad is devout but to the teaching in which he was raised. When large swathes of the population live with limited education, perpetual hunger and daily hardship, it is little wonder that they will listen to those who promise improvement in this life alongside rewards in the hereafter.

The writing avoids judgement presenting Ahmad’s life and thoughts in a spare but always considered narrative. Whatever one may think of religion it is easy to empathise with the boy’s hopes and fears. His story is poignant and it is hard to see how the denouement could have been avoided given the violent backdrop to his tale. Living as I do in a society that chooses to demonise without attempting to further understanding of other cultures, I found this an enlightening and noteworthy read.

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

Chatting to independent publisher, Daunt Books

db-logo

As part of my feature on the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited those publishers whose books made it through to the shortlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Karen from Daunt Books. I review their contender, Light Box by KJ Orr, here.

An introduction – who are you and what you aim to achieve?

Founded in 2010, the Daunt Books imprint is dedicated to publishing brilliant works by talented authors from around the world. Whether reissuing beautiful new editions of lost classics or publishing debut works by fresh voices, our titles are inspired by the Daunt Books shops themselves and the exciting atmosphere of discovery to be found in a good bookshop. With our roots as a travel bookshop, we aim to publish narratives with a strong sense of place.

How have things changed in publishing since you started?

When I started in publishing it was 2008 and everyone was terrified eBooks were going to destroy the publishing industry and bookshops. They’ve certainly had an effect, but it hasn’t been nearly as extreme as first thought. I also think the books being published today are more diverse than they were a decade ago. There’s still lots of room for improvement, but it’s good to see a broader range of books from authors with varied backgrounds and experiences. 

Your experience of prize listings – what are the costs and benefits, monetary or otherwise?

We don’t have a huge list to begin with and many of our titles aren’t eligible for prizes because they’re reissues, but for titles that are eligible, we submit them for all the prizes we possibly can. Our author KJ Orr won the BBC Short Story Award last year and it’s been great for her collection, Light Box. For us, the benefits certainly outweigh the costs.

The future – where would you like to see your small press going?

We’ve been steadily growing since we started in 2010, and we’ll continue to grow. We’d like to commission more translations in the future, and continue to publish both original titles and re-discovered classics.

lightbox

Click on the book cover above to check out what others are saying about Light Box. You may also wish to buy the book.

Book Review: Light Box

lightbox

Light Box, by K.J. Orr, is a collection of eleven short stories exploring the multitudinous ripples caused by people as they interact and react to life’s experiences. The writing is vivid and sharply felt. As each of the characters is affected by the actions of others and their surroundings there is a shift in perceptions, be it a realisation of regret or the understated recognition of required change.

In The Inland Sea two brothers skip school to set out on an adventure. Although no strangers to personal loss they have lived a sheltered life within a close community. Recent visitors from abroad expanded their vision and now they can envisage a wider world than they have known thus far. They do not yet comprehend the potential cost of broadening their horizons seeing only the beauty and excitement of new experience.

The Shallows and Blackout look at the impact of small decisions made by young people which have far reaching effects, not only on themselves. Although not dwelling on how they cope with any regrets there is a knowledge that life has many such ‘what if’ situations and that even inadvertent wrongs cannot be undone, becoming hard to forget.

Disappearances and The Ice Cream Song is Strange offer perspectives from those approaching the latter stages of their lives when what they have made for themselves, what seemed important, is somehow stripped back and laid bare offering a discomforting insight on what they are and what could have been.

“What do you do when you stop? When you have been up and running for such a long time, what is it you do? When you’re used to a schedule that takes care of each second of the day? When there is no goal?”

In several stories the dislocation of travel is explored, both the getting away and the return. There is the seeking out of an expected satisfaction that may prove difficult to attain. There is the repulsion felt when personal space is invaded.

By the Canal and The Island present young men acting in ways that cause their partners to view them in a new light. How they are subsequently perceived is altered; going forward requires a change of direction. Partners are chosen based on an image created by the beholder which will always be at risk unknown by the beheld.

The snapshots of each life look at what is shown to the world, what is hidden and what seeps out anyway. The stories are intricate webs of emotion as much as action. They speak of the shifting sands of each protagonist’s inner thoughts and how these are shaped by the ripples caused by those they meet.

The writing is subtle, precise and elegantly put together. Each tale offers a clarity of thought that demands careful contemplation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading each work and especially what it revealed about wider peoples. This is a recommended read.

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