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