If the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses isn’t a grand enough name, we added a strapline to make it even clearer the kind of work we wanted publishers to submit. I confess I lifted the line from Galley Beggar’s website, but in my defence it seemed to me to set the bar at just the right level, whilst and at the same time encapsulate what is missing from much of mainstream publishing these days. We weren’t just looking for great novels but ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose.’ It is on the website and was emblazoned below the name of the prize on the submission form.
All this is a way of saying that we had many excellent submissions that didn’t quite fall under this rubric. There were great acts of imagination; wonderfully accomplished storytelling; some beautiful stylists; many ‘exuberant’ characters; and one or two narratives that defy all explanation. Indeed, a fair few are in my estimation superior to many on the Man Booker Long List. But in the end the judges were asked to privilege small presses publishing writers who are challenging what is possible in literature whilst still taking pains (‘Genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains’ Thomas Carlyle) in sentence making.
I understand that for many this prize should be about small presses tout court. But if we look at the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist, a small press, Saraband, published His Bloody Project and outsold all the other books on the list. It was essentially crime fiction, and as with most genre novels of any quality, a little exposure and it will find a large readership. I’d also wager, given the self-consciously stylised prose and unconventional narrative structure, David Szalay’s All That Man has sold the least of the six. One could argue then, that the prize should support ‘difficult’ literature tout court, irrespective of the size of the publisher. But Jonathan Cape, Szalay’s publisher, is an imprint of Penguin/Random House, a global business: they can survive with smallish sales of a niche novel. Small presses cannot – hence our prize.
Finally, a few words on how we arrived at the long-list. It was always our intention to have a long-ish long-list – the prize is as much about exposure as it is about winner, and the more books we can place on people’s radar the better. (With that in mind please do the long-list page across social media, and be sure not to miss the chance to win subscriptions to many of the long-listed small presses, and the final shortlist here) To make the long-list each book needed two or more votes by the panel of judges. At this stage there has been no disagreement. To accompany the list I have written a few of sentences about each book, but no inference should be taken from what I think in terms of probability to make the short-list; I am one of eight judges and the comments below are entirely my own.
The long list is in alphabetical order.
- And Other Stories for Martin John by Anakana Schofield
Few novels can be said to enact Keats’s ‘negative capability’, but then few novels have a central character like Martin John and are written by Anakana Schofield. Categories of likeable, sympathetic, relatable and their antonyms are irrelevant. Martin John struggles with an impulse towards public sexual exposure, and we are witness to his life in a novel of formal ingenuity that embraces poetry, plainchant, monologue, memory and dream. Anakana Schofield is a novelist of very rare gifts and this is a singular achievement.
- Cassava Republic for Born on A Tuesday by Elnathan John
Employing the oral cadences of much of African literature, this deceptively simple novel unfolds slowly and to devastating effect. From the opening scenes of chaos and murder to the quiet menace of the internecine manoeuvres of mosque politics to an act 3 that I won’t spoil, this is the most involving and moving work of fiction about west African political and religious life I’ve read in a long time.
- CB Editions for Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
There are few writers whose prose provides an optic on the world that is so original that one more degree out and it may well be incomprehensible. These are stories of everyday life, but from sentence to sentence there are phenomenological shifts that both reveal and confound – much like life. Other avant-garde writers are pastiche-able because ultimately there is something contrived in their project. Not so here. No other writer so convinces us that while we might think the world looks similar to others, none of us really sees the world as others do.
- Daunt Books for Light Box by KJ Orr
There is in classical music a tendency to use the word ‘aristocratic’ to describe a certain manner of playing. For me it denotes three aspects of a performer: effortless technique, wariness of unnecessary sentiment, and a gift for locating a certain melancholy that is at the heart of great art. Is there a literary equivalent? I can only think of the James Salter. But I sense Ms Orr is striving for something similar. Does she achieve it? Certainly not all at the same time, and not all the time, but what writer wouldn’t want to intimate such things with their first collection?
- Dodo Ink for Dodge and Burn by Serafina Madsen
Superficially it’s On The Road for the rave generation written by a woman. And given the quality of the prose – that might be enough for many. But it has more ambition, and in what is a relatively short novel, Madsen explores the widest possibly range of transcendental mythologies I’ve come across in fiction. There is something incantatory in Madsen’s listing of how and what journeys have been undertaken to explore the world beyond our physical selves. There is a point late on when the central character encounters a blasted landscape that’s equal in evocation to Milton’s depiction of Satan’s landing place in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I was there and I believed it.
- Eros for Crude by Sally O’Reilly
Satire is seldom subtle. Comic novels are seldom, well … funny. This is a satire and comic novel about art and art criticism and it is laugh out loud funny, subtly observed, and has a prose style that manages real bounce even when discussing the most recondite theories. Given its subject matter it might have been too abstruse to be accessible and / or as up-it-self as some of its characters. Instead, it’s a joy on so many levels. Anyone interested in the art world and / or academic theory should read this.
- Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene
Counternarratives is a work of great distinction, a once in a generation work of short form fiction, moving the form on, deepening it. Few works of fiction operate on this kind of intellectual and textural level and still remain rooted in the human experience and a pleasure to read. Spanning four centuries, many countries, using different narrative forms as inspiration, each story unfolds with a control and wisdom that is breath taking? When compared to this, most other prose seems oddly ingratiating, as if Keene has decided that to ask for our indulgence is to undermine some fundamental truth being enacted in the stories. Few novels are works of art and few works of art are moral acts – this is one of them. That this set of stories and novellas has not made every shortlist its eligible for is a travesty.
- Istros For Quietly Flows the Una by Faruk Sehic
The Una river is not used here as a metaphor; it’s a real expression of place, of childhood, of freedom. Maybe that does make it a metaphor. Either way, Faruk Sehic is a poet-soldier (in that order), a Bosnian Muslim (I suspect in that order) during the Balkan conflict, and this novel is a brave attempt at a kind meditative reconciliation between a poet deeply sensitive to nature and a soldier being honest about his own nature – the will to survive.
- Freight for Treats by Lara Williams
Yes, these are short stories about women in their mid-to-late twenties, and yes, in a way they cover many of those life moments often found in the more sophisticated chick-lit. Should it be on our long-list? Absolutely – Lara Williams is gifted writer. But more importantly, every story has an edge, an unexpected slant, a truth-seeking glance that forswears easy answers and creates a subtle ambiguity that forces us to doubt that happiness and contentment is around the corner. These stories take a sub-genre that is often frivolous and unthinkingly optimistic and renders the subject matter with an artistry it deserves.
- Galley Beggar for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge
A modern day Don Quixote channelling early Wittgenstein and late Heidegger, the two central characters take us on a picaresque journey through Essex in what must be the most exuberant novel of ideas ever written in English. It really shouldn’t work, but it does so with a kind of panache that few writers possess. It’s an achievement to be admired, relished, and loved. Not only will there be PhDs written about this novel, there will be fan-fiction and meta-fiction, and I won’t be surprised very soon there will be clubs and secret societies dedicated to unravelling how the hyperfine transition of hydrogen permits a chest of papers to appear continually after many determined destructions. This isn’t magical realism – it’s so much more profound and mysterious than that.
- Holland House for The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong
To write a novel with a central character suffering from a lack of affect is always high-risk. To do so with prose that rightly pivots between clarity and opacity is a high-wire act that requires real insight and great technique. This reads like mid-period John Banville, but without ever taking its eye off the lived experience of character. An uncompromising and very strong first novel.
- New Island for Beautiful Pictures of a Lost Homeland by Mia Gallagher
This is a long multi-narrative novel ostensibly about shifting identities that repays slow, attentive reading. One story takes a loveless young family in 1970s Ireland, and then has one of the parents become terminally ill. This is a brave familial dynamic for any writer to deliver with emotional honesty and it’s heart breaking. Interpolated between the two main narratives – a boy navigating this damaged childhood & a woman (once the boy) navigating the past – we have the history of central Europe told through the playful and capricious Museum of Curiosities. Sensitive and playful, unflinching and generous, always beautifully written, this is an ambitious project that pulls focus and changes angles in ways that continually surprises.
- Peepal Press for The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas
A magical realist journey through the history of Rastafarianism, Bob Marley & Jamaica – not necessarily in that order. Rhapsodic, poetic, scripturally engaged and endlessly inventive. Not only is the electric atmosphere of Jamaica evoked with sensuousness, delicacy and love; so is the ‘dub-side’, a studio yard just the other side of death, where Bob Marley and a toothless and lisping Halle Selassie discuss the relative merits of routes to Zion.
- Pierene Press for The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift
Set in present day Vienna, this short novel possesses an otherness that comes from the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as if the city can never escape that moment in time when it pivoted from centuries of magnificence to terminal decline, here symbolised by the city’s on-going obsession with Empress Elizabeth. From the opening scene to the very last page the writer makes the uncanny uncannily present, as if the bourgeois of Vienna, contrary to everywhere else in Europe, have always been just a little bit strange.
- Tangerine Press for Glue Ponys by Chris Wilson
This is prose poetry by a writer who has really lived, and given his biography, quite possibly almost died a few times. Some people live in criminal chaos their whole lives; very few escape and have the talent to turn it into fiction. These stories remind us that there still is an underbelly of dealers and addicts, killers and losers; it didn’t go away in the 1980’s when it became unfashionable to depict in art; and it’s still just as dangerous, hopeless & crazy as it always was.
- Tramp Press for Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Ten pages in and I wondered why aren’t all novels written like this. Yes, it employs my favourite form, the ‘run-on’ sentence; yes, a description of great wind turbines moving through a small Irish town discloses a quality of being that seems almost transcendent; and yes, it’s never less than beautiful writing. But that can never be all a great novel is. Ultimately, we are most satisfied when we are taken on an emotional journey that reveals something new us, when in a split second the novel extends us and we become bigger, more multitudinous. This is Solar Bones great achievement. To my mind the most unassertively profound novel I’ve read in a long time.