Up the Republic!
By DAVID COLLARD
The author Neil Griffiths runs an engagingly low-tech YouTube channel 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 (see above), he realized that they had all originated with small independent publishers and this was, he says, "a Damascene moment that turned me into an evangelist".
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, of micro-breweries, artisanal bakeries and hipster pop-up bars.
Griffiths's 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. Griffiths 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's previous novels were published by Penguin).
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 always the sort of thing one finds 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 (which published 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 Énard's Zone), and Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond), And Other Stories, 3AM Press, Dublin's Tramp Press 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 more will probably be added. 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 nine judges announced last week are Griffiths, his co-chair Marcus Wright, and the 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 recently, Griffiths said: "I realized 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.