Thursday 10 November 2016

On literary prizes

To Foyles bookshop yesterday evening for the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize shindig. 
The shortlist included three books by Irish writers, all of them outstanding - Martin John (Anakana Schofield), The Lesser Bohemians (by Eimear McBride, who won the inaugural Goldsmiths in 2013). and Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. The other three shortlisted books (which I haven't read) were by Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy and Sarah Ladipo Manyika.

The prize  went to Solar Bones, published by the Dublin independent Tramp Press. As t happens I was the first person to review this fine novel. I was very pleased to see the prize go to a small independent publisher - Tramp Press is based in Dublin and champions the best Irish writing. They had an early success with Sara Baume's wonderful debut novel spell, simmer, falter, wither and are developing an impressive list. Here's their website.

There are many literary prizes these days, but a new one launched earlier this year, the Republic of Consciousness, seems to me to be the one to watch. The man behind it is the writer Neil Griffiths (who was at last night's shindig, where we met for the first time) and here's a revised version of a blog I wrote about it for the Times Literary Supplement:

Up the Republic!

The author Neil Griffiths runs an engagingly low-tech YouTube site on which he delivers informal off-the-cuff literary monologues straight to camera, occasionally swigging from a glass of red wine. While preparing a broadcast about his favourite novels of 2015 he realised that they had all originated with small independent publishers and this was, he says, 'a Damascene moment that turned me into an evangelist'. 

He remains evangelical: 'To say I was surprised by the quality and range of novels and short stories being published, in English and in translation, is an understatement. Surprise doesn’t get anywhere near it. You don’t spend months thinking how can I have reached the age of fifty, with two novels published, another just finished, and not know about a world entirely attuned to my own reading and writing sensibilities; even my two novels published by Penguin would have been more at home with an indie publisher. I know I would have.'

As a (relatively) late adopter, Griffiths brings a convert's enthusiasm and energy to the  publishing revolution that has emerged over the past few years - an equivalent. if you like, to micro-breweries, artisanal bakeries and hipster pop-up bars. 

Griffiths' Betrayal in Naples (2004) won the Writers’ Club First Novel Award and Saving Caravaggio was shortlisted for the Costa Best Novel Award in 2007. At the end of February this year, after mulling over that Damascene moment, he launched The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, open to UK and Irish publishers employing no more than five full-time members of staff. Each publisher can submit a novel or single-author collection of short stories. A shortlist of eight books, decided by a group of independent booksellers will be confirmed at the end of the year and the winners announced in February 2017.  He freely admits there is a "selfish reason" for launching the prize - he wants his third novel  Family of Love to be published by an independent publisher because it is, he says, a "subtle" book, about faith that would be "difficult for a major publisher to get on board with".

Griffiths defines the 'Republic of Consciousness' as a 'writer's attempt to deliver us into the consciousness of another person, to take us from being mere witnesses to a character’s behaviour to participating in their lived experience. [and] the re-creation of a perceived world without any mediating voice.' Not the sort of thing one expects to find in mainstream middlebrow fiction, but precisely the kind of writing that excites Griffiths and those of us who share his taste for (as he puts it) ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. Galley Beggar Press (publishers of Eimear McBride's debut A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing and Alex Pheby's Playthings) is among the independents most admired by Griffiths, but there are many others, all punching far above their weight: Fitzcarraldo Editions (publishers of Mathias √Čnard's Zone (which I reviewed for the TLS) and Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond), And Other Stories, 3AM Press, Dublin's Tramp Press, London's CB editions and (in the US) Dalkey Archive and Coffee House Press. 

But evangelical zeal and high-minded intentions aside, is there room for yet another literary prize? Griffiths has a brisk defence: 'Whatever one thinks about awards in the arts, they do tend to attract attention, boost sales, and provide a little momentum – which is always a good thing. And even though the money won’t be Booker or Costa levels, any money is always welcome. And if the prize can include the independent bookshops – as judges and points of sale – then everyone wins.'

That remains to be seen but I think he's on to something. He has put £2,000 of his own money into the prize and this will probably rise in value. Speaking to The Guardian at the time of the launch he said: “I think I’m going to try and put a bit of a guilt trip on high-selling literary novelists, asking them to match what I’ve thrown in. I’m hoping to get it up to about £10,000 … These quite niche, quite difficult literary novels are really important in terms of making sure we have a vibrant literary life, so let’s support them.”

The list of nine judges includes Griffiths, his co-chair Marcus Wright, and booksellers Sam Fisher (Burley Fisher Books, London) Gary Perry (Foyles, London) Anna Dreda (Wenlock Books, Shropshire) Helen Stanton (Forum Books, Northumberland) Lyndsy Kirkman (Chapter One Books, Manchester), Emma Corfield (Book-ish, Crickhowell, Wales) and Gillian Robertson (Looking Glass Books, Fife, Scotland). 

Speaking to The Bookseller Griffiths said that "I realised after having a conversation at a literary event that half of these small publishers are vulnerable to going bankrupt half of the year. They don’t have big names such as Jamie Oliver or David Walliams to keep them afloat if their literary fiction either does or doesn’t work – but if they sell an extra 200 copies it can make a great difference. This is what I hope this prize will help to do. The business model is terrible so you would only do it if you love it.”

Love? Yes, and why not? There's no reason our literary culture should be in entirely in thrall to marketing teams and focus groups and balance sheets and bottom lines. It's about much more than big advances and hype. It's about aiming high and taking risks, and having a stubborn belief in the enduring value of  good writing. We  can all learn a lot from the new Republic.

See the 2016 long list - the best literary long list I've ever seen (and it includes Solar Bones)


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