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Neil Griffiths recommends the best Indie Books of 2017

Publishing took a hit in the 2007-8 financial crisis, but tough times may just have changed the industry for the better. As the big guys consolidate and tighten their margins, cracks grow wider and more books slip through... Which is good news for the publishers ready to catch them. The novelist Neil Griffiths, founder of a new prize for small presses, discusses 2017’s best indie books and celebrates publishers who ‘think like you, read like you, and live books like you’

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Neil Griffiths

Neil Griffiths’s novels include As a God Might Be (2017), Betrayal in Naples (2004) and Saving Caravaggio (2006), which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year. He is the founder of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. He lives in London.

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Neil Griffiths

Neil Griffiths’s novels include As a God Might Be (2017), Betrayal in Naples (2004) and Saving Caravaggio (2006), which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year. He is the founder of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. He lives in London.

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Let’s start by stating the obvious: publishing is a difficult industry to get into, let alone stay afloat in.

I was stunned the other day when I was reading the sales figure of the Booker short list. I think it was Ali Smith’s book that had sold the most. She sold 50,000 copies, which is huge in literary fiction terms. But the next one down was only 10,000. And one of them had only sold 3,000… and that’s pre- and post- shortlist combined. So even the impact of making the Booker shortlist is not that great.

Galley Beggar, one of the small presses we’re going to discuss, cite a statistic on their website: “Most writers make less than £600 a year, and the average literary title sells just 264 copies.”

Funnily enough, I tweeted that and it was the first time anything I had done on Twitter that trended – it got about 10,000 retweets.

I doubt anyone expects to make money as a writer these days; I think about one per cent of books break out. The big publishers have not helped the situation. Since the 2007-8 crash, they have retrenched in terms of what they publish, and how they go about it. I was talking to someone at a major publisher the other day and she asked a colleague about a book: “is this one of the ones we’re getting behind?” The point being, of all the thousands of books published every year, publishers only “get behind” a few. That can make the difference between a book you’ll hear about and one you never will. Of course, an author will never be told the publisher is ‘not getting behind their book’.

So where do you see independent publishing factoring into this? The traditional brief is that small, independent publishers exist to catch the books that would otherwise slip through the cracks.

Yes, and that’s generally still the case, but the financial crisis has made a difference, I think, to what is possible. There are more opportunities now for small presses.

We’ve got to the point where, at any major publisher, the financial directors say, at best, ‘yes, you can break even on a book, but we can’t lose money anymore – no literary loss-leaders, please’. The result being, after the crash, a number of literary authors, or edgier authors, who might just have made it in pre-2007, have been cut adrift. So the cracks are wider, more great books slipping through. Which is better for small presses.

Indeed, all the publishers on your list are recently minted: only CB editions is more than five years old. Galley Beggar was founded in 2012, and the others are 2014 and 2015. They have all done tremendous things in such a short space of time. Was 2017 a good year to be a small independent press?

The other thing that small publishing – and these five are a case in point – has always tried to do is support translated fiction, or fiction from diverse backgrounds … both financially precarious areas of publishing – although I think it might be a little less so these days. People seem more open to foreign fiction. Also, booksellers tend to like small presses and show support by giving them more prominence. And social media helps – there is a lot of social media activity around small presses – all of which makes a difference.

“The people you should be talking to are running small presses – they think like you, they read like you, they live books like you”

So it is a reasonably good place to be at the moment. But you’re still not going to make any money, really, unless you have that elusive break-out book or vast personal wealth that allows you a certain artistic freedom.

What is it like from the writer’s perspective, to be published by an indie versus a major publisher? You’ve experienced both.

With major publishers… it tends to be a case of ‘writers should do what they’re told. You’ve been paid. We don’t need to meet you for tea and a chat.’ But with a small press you’re essentially in each other’s faces right from the beginning. That’s probably slightly different if you are working with a translator or if you are working with someone who is overseas, but take Galley Beggar: they have their editorial conferences round their kitchen table. It’s a cottage industry that has personal and probably quite intense editor/author relationships. Writers are generally more comfortable with those relationships. We need to feel loved.

But to say the investment is more personal rather than financial would be to rose-tinting it a bit.

Yes, and obviously small presses do have bust-ups, but most of the time they’re husbands and wives or best friends, so they’re looking to keep going! So a writer is less likely to be orphaned. But everyone wants to make a living. The big presses seem to think they can’t survive if a book fails, but of course they can. For a small press, breaking even on a book is far more important because there’s no safety net. So really it should be the big publishers taking the risks and the small presses being more conservative – but it’s the other way around. As a result, being involved with small presses is a much more exciting and emotional place to be.

The crucial thing is, people in small presses are actually at the coalface in publishing in a way that big publishing houses simply aren’t. First, they have to make decisions about every aspect of the book – there is no marketing department, no design department to turn to. Also, they turn up at other small presses’ book launches; they have their own parties and salons; they’re much more active on social media. All of which makes a difference, and the potential market slightly bigger.

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I’m taking some small presses along to the School of New Writing at the University of Manchester to talk to MA and PhD students. I want to say to them all: ‘Quite frankly, you’re not going to get rich from writing unless you’re really lucky. Now I know you all want to be published by Faber or Penguin, but actually the people you should be talking to are running small presses – they think like you, they read like you, they live books like you. And you actually have a better chance of getting above the parapet if you’re with a small press. They get behind all their books!’

And a couple of thousand pounds can make all the difference to how far above the parapet a publisher can push you. It can double the print run, for example. Which leads us to the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, which you’ve recently set up.

That’s exactly right – the prize money might not be huge, but this year we’re giving each of our shortlisted books £1,000 pounds each. Most other prizes require shortlisted publishers to pay up for marketing and so on. Our ethos is: our prize costs small presses nothing. We even pay their expenses to come to the events, too. As for the prize money: the winner gets £5,000, which is a lot of money for a small press, but even that £1,000 pounds for being short listed means a small print run for a small book, or perhaps the impetus to take some other risk. If the prize can do that for a couple of publishers each year, plus give them a tiny bit more exposure, a small increase in sales, the overall difference should be meaningful. I should plug our supporters here: the TLS just came on-board, which is great; plus Arts Council England have given us a Grant for the Arts; and the University of Westminster, who partnered us in the first year, are with us for a second year.

I can’t help but find an echo here in the epic storyline of your novel As a God Might Be (also published by a small independent, Dodo Ink), in which a man decides to leave his comfortable home to build a church on a clifftop helped by society’s outsiders.

I hadn’t thought about that, but yeah!

Your protagonist Proctor McCullough has been described as a modern-day Fitzcarraldo, a reference to the 19th-century rubber baron who hauled a steamship over a hill to get to a rich source in the Amazon basin. (Or rather, he had it hauled by a fleet of workers under pain of death, but that bit doesn’t really fit the analogy we’re going for…). This was, of course, brought to life for us by Werner Herzog’s extraordinary film, Fitzcarraldo….

I see my character more like the Herzog version, where they concentrate on his dream to build an opera house in the jungle.

All of which lands us neatly back with Fitzcarraldo Editions and the first book on your list: Compass by Mathias Enard. What struck you about it?

I think Zone, which Enard had published in 2014, is the most serious work of fiction ever written. In terms of its level of engagement with the darkest side of the 20th century and its formal inventiveness … it’s a most astonishing book. And I don’t think Compass is as good. Very few books are as good. But it is a brilliant book, and incredibly timely in terms of the west’s relationship with the Middle East. And in a sense it’s a kind of fictionalised version of Edward Said’s Orientalism. It tells us something about how we, in the West, established our perceptions and our relationship with the East, with Otherness, and I found that deeply compelling. Enard found the ideal form with which to render it. His idea of a real-time sleepless night takes on a kind of dreamlike quality reminiscent of Arabian Nights. There’s an endless focus-pulling, and sometimes you think you’re in one city but you’re in another…. It’s a study of how we got where we are – and it’s deeply relevant in this age of Islamic State, but without overtly dealing with social issues or political issues. I am cautious about novels or art that are overtly politically or socially engaged because if a work of art can’t transcend the here-and-now it will fail. Enard’s work absolutely transcends this current moment in the West’s relationship with Islam. There’s a real, lasting greatness to his work. It should have won the Man Booker International.  Fitzcarraldo Editions is, I think, making the best commissioning decisions in the UK.

Enard has an academic background and you can tell – he really brings the weight of his knowledge to the novel. Another of your novelists, Preti Taneja – whose We That Are Young is your second choice – is also an academic and human rights activist (at Warwick University).

She is, but her novel doesn’t feel like it’s been written by an academic, whereas Compass is full of academics. I have to say while I did love it, it wasn’t an uncomplicated reading experience for me. It’s a reworking of King Lear, and if you really love King Lear, as I do, it actually it makes it quite a weird read, because you’re constantly guessing at what the author is doing: ‘Ah, is she doing this here?’ ‘Is she subverting that?’ ‘Is this supposed to be read like this?’ etc.

What would it be like to a reader who wasn’t very familiar with Lear? Would it still work as a novel?

It would read like a loud, raucous and rambunctious, multifaceted, classic Anglo-Indian novel, full of characters, lots of colour, lots of light, lots of voices… creating a really immersive reading experience. But for me, the text actually moved in and out of focus as I read it. I was absolutely immersed one moment and then jolted out of it, asking myself: ‘Is this? … who is this? … Oh, right.’ The flitting between levels may be a bit problematic for some, but it is an interesting, intellectually stimulating experience to watch what she’s doing with Shakespeare’s biggest and most emotionally exhausting work.

Reappropriating a text of that magnitude is certainly a bold and risky move.

Yes, the writer is putting up certain hurdles between the reader and the novel. Interestingly, Galley Beggar’s last novel, Forbidden Line [2016] by Paul Stanbridge, was a rewriting of Don Quixote. That played really fast and loose with the original – that really was, without a doubt, a novel with its own original genius in it.

A number of the books on your list do a similar work of taking up literary tradition and either reworking or take it apart. Robinson by Jack Robinson is a case in point. It’s part novel, part reportage, part political indictment…

…and part memoir of the author Charles Boyle [Jack Robinson is a pseudonym]. He’s also the founder-publisher of CB editions. Quite apart from the rendering of its themes, what makes this book so wonderful for me is its gentle sentence-making. Boyle was (and might still be) poet. I love the way, in about a page and a half, Boyle reduces something essential about Englishness, colonialism, the public school system to the self-sufficiency of Robinson Crusoe, and then just riffs on that, with erudition, wit and warmth. What more do you want from a short fiction than to do all that?

Its premise is given as: “The footprint discovered by Robinson Crusoe on the shore of his island is that of a migrant. Crusoe is ‘terrify’d to the last degree’. He builds a wall, and fortifies it with guns.” Literary re-appropriation and politics and now-ness?

I have to say, I probably loved this work of fiction most this year. I think it’s just the warmest, most playful, witty, erudite and unique offering. There is such creative intelligence at play at; it is just so generous. I also love the unclassifiability of it, too. It’s one of those things where you kind of go, ‘Is it fiction?’ ‘Is it about fiction?’ Jack Robinson is ploughing a literary furrow that I think is very narrow, but very deep.

Tell us about your fourth book, Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre, published by Les Fugitives.

I tend to find first-person narratives difficult. They’re either too arch, too writerly, or not arch or writerly enough, a bit clunky. But I think when it is got right, like Noémi Lefebvre does here, it can be incredible. One of the reasons I called the prize the Republic of Consciousness is to push against this notion that neuroscience and materialism promote … that basically all we are is independent sets of firing neurons, and so we can’t know each other or relate beyond physical stimuli. Writing puts us right into the middle of someone’s consciousness, wraps us up in someone else’s interior world. Lefebvre does this extremely successfully. I think she captures something very essentially about how we think. We think we think in full sentences, but we don’t, we think in fragments. It’s when we reflect on our thoughts and how we think that we put them into full sentences. We don’t really have access to how fragmented our thoughts are as thinking is happening. What Lefebvre achieves in this book – like Eimear McBride in A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing – to capture the simple fragments of thought she’s having. If she were to tell the story, she’d fill in the gaps; instead, she drops us into her mind as it’s happening.

It is a deeply immersive reading experience. In that sense, it did remind me of Compass.

I like the brilliant combination of a slight gaucheness of articulation, while at the same time she’s reading the letters of Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann while sitting on an airplane … And yet the mixture of gaucheness and seriousness somehow doesn’t feel pretentious. The character is very charming, a little bit hopeless, slightly nihilistic, smart, but not confident.

I think many of us know someone like her. She’s utterly believable.

Personhood like that is quite difficult to do in literature. You end up with characters or symbols rather than something that feels real. And I liked spending time with her going from funny to serious to funny. Few novelists can combined Schoenberg’s painting and grieving cows.

Les Fugitives describes itself as being “dedicated to short, new writing by award-winning francophone female authors previously unavailable in English”, and that sense of identity, and purpose, is carried into the design. Les Fugitives have striking covers, reminiscent of the modernist little magazines of the early 20th-century, and contemporary zine culture, too. Design is a very important part of small, independent publishing, isn’t it? Fitzcarraldo have their French-flap format and their own typeface.

The designs promise a certain tonality. Galley Beggar have their black covers. In my day job, I did research into book finishes for a major publisher, and so I spent a lot of time walking around bookshops with customers trying to get a sense of why they pick up a certain book. It’s an implicit decision. You don’t sit down and study all the covers. You glance and pick one up instead of the others. And it was extraordinary how much attention the small press covers got – because they always look different.

But that clearly doesn’t translate to huge sales or our conversation would have got off to a very different start.

Sadly not. What’s also interesting is how quickly people put those books down again, because they don’t necessarily conform to the decision-making process that a normal reader wants.

“Writing puts us right into the middle of someone’s consciousness, wraps us up in someone else’s interior world. Lefebvre does this extremely successfully”

They pick up a paperback because they like the cover, but the next step is key: turning it over to read what it’s about. It’s as straightforward as that. And actually on the back of the original Galley Beggar books, for example, they would turn to the back of this striking black design, and not finding a plot blurb and rave reviews, and would it down again. It wasn’t making it easy for them to make a decision.

Galley Beggar changed their design recently, didn’t they?

They still have the black editions as special editions, but their bookshop editions are just a single colour, with the right essentials on the back. I suppose the point is: great design is crucial in construction an identity as a publishing house, but you still have to conform to how people buy books. Another thing is, if you ask a bookseller she’ll say, ‘If I were to be published I would want to be in hardback. But if you want to sell books, you should go straight into quality, premium paperback.’ Hardback is a vanity project. So the French flaps paperbacks of most of these small presses is right for the market.

Let’s move on to your last book, The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo, published by Tramp Press.

Once again, I think this is a slightly problematic book. It started as an award-winning short story that has been turned into a short novel. One can feel that. I love Tramp Press, I think they are commissioning some of the most interesting fiction this side of the Atlantic. They’ve got a brilliant eye.

The Iron Age does two things very well indeed. First, it conjures Finland, which strikes me as a very mysterious place, especially in the early 20th century when this story is set. It’s steeped in myth and that is deeply entrancing in itself; it feels Other, like if one was stranded in Finland, one wouldn’t necessarily be able to operate with one’s western coordinates. The line between magic and reality is troubled. Strange people might turn up in your cabin. Some things are just slightly wrong…. Take the cover: there are these two cute children in dungarees and then you notice that one is smoking. Things are slightly off kilter.

What’s the second thing?

It’s probably the reason I picked this book: the portrayal of the father. Yes, he’s ignorant, tyrannical, and bullying, but Kajermo is also sensitive to his lack of self-awareness, his existential vulnerability – a kind of despair. Again, the author dimensionalizes the character so you actually feel there is a person in there. He could just be a representative of a certain kind of man, but Kajermo kind of pushes him beyond that and into life. You feel there’s nothing for him – in Finland, but perhaps also in Sweden when the family moves to. Perhaps there is nothing for him anywhere, and he kind of knows this.

I first heard of Tramp Press in 2015, when they made the news after asking writers who were submitting manuscripts to them to list their literary influences and, predictably, the gender imbalance was considerable. It reminds me a little of Les Fugitives’s statement. It seems like there’s a kind of social-responsibility dimension to the project (for want of a better phrase).

Yeah, Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen at Tramp Press were in the Guardian again over the fact that they still sent letters that say, “Dear Sirs.” They said ‘we are not going to look at any the work of anyone who assumes we are men.’ Which is not to say that they publish women exclusively.

“Tramp Press are commissioning some of the most interesting fiction this side of the Atlantic. They’ve got a brilliant eye”

Other publishers like Cassava Republic Press and Peepal press do publish on an exclusive basis – African writing and Caribbean writing, respectively – and that does mean that certain highly original and important novels that might not have got on the radar in this country get some exposure. Two novels that made the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses longlist and shortlist respectively were both incredible imaginative acts that no major publisher would ever buy. The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas and Born on A Tuesday by Elnathan John.

It’s true that many of the people who get into small presses – whether running them or reading them – do so because they’re dissatisfied with mainstream publishing, which they feel, for whatever reason, doesn’t represent them, or challenge them, with the books they want to read.

All I can say is that while I’m not on the judging panel of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Press this year (at this stage) – my sense is the long list is going to be super-competitive, stronger than last year, with more translated fiction, single author short-story collections of real originality, and formally inventive novels – who can ask for more than that?

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

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