Sunshine beats down into the small cobbled courtyard where I’m interviewing Neil Griffiths, Costa-shortlisted novelist and founder of the new Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses. Griffiths expresses himself with no guardedness at all, seems to relish being a little subversive and is not shy about expressing an opinion or two. We discussed what inspired him to set up the new prize, how submissions are going, and his thoughts on the publishing world.
Big exposure for little publishers
Griffiths comes at the industry as a reader and a writer, shortlisted for the Costa Prize for his novel Saving Caravaggio (2006, Penguin). According to him, the 2008 crash had a profound impact on the industry, signalling the end of the midlist and "a cultural changing of the guard." In the Eighties, when his first book was initially turned down because of concerns about finding a market for it, that was an unusual occurrence, but now it’s something that happens regularly in mainstream publishing.
"Marketers are mostly stupid, and they’re mostly cultural vacuums – mostly, but not always. But they’re few and far between the ones who will read a book and say, ‘This is an outlier but don’t even bother consulting me, just publish it and we’ll do our best because it’s obviously a work of art.’" Conversely, in Griffiths’ opinion, smaller independent presses manage to remain committed to their literary integrity.
"About a year ago, I noticed that some of the best writing in the world – and certainly in this country – is being published by small presses," he says, explaining why he started the Republic of Consciousness Prize. "If I felt I was fairly engaged and involved with the British literary world, and this stuff hadn’t reached my radar, that’s not a failure on my part, or the presses, but the bit in between, the media. It made me realise that I had to do something."
At first, Griffiths donated money to presses he felt had published a particularly impressive book, for example Alex Pheby’s Playthings, published by Galley Beggar Press. "I finished the book and they had a donate button on their site, so I sent them a couple of hundred quid, because that’s actually closer to the value of this book than twelve pounds. I started to think I could carry on doing that but it felt a little bit flash – obviously not to the publishers - but to me." Instead, he decided to start the Republic of Consciousness Prize.
The prize seeks "hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose" and is open to any UK publisher employing a maximum of five fulltime workers. The prize money currently stands at £3,000, with £2,000 going to the press and £1,000 to the author, but Griffiths is keen to boost the funds. He’s written an open letter to try and raise more money, is considering crowdfunding, and in February went on record in The Guardian as saying he intended to "guilt trip" bestselling authors into contributing.
The idea of the prize came from his own experience as an author with his old publisher Penguin. "They’d essentially abandoned me. Then I got shortlisted for the Costa, and they were nice to me again. It told me that if you get shortlisted for a prize, it makes a difference. Sales went up a tiny amount - nothing for Penguin - but a lot for a small publisher."
Good publishing, bad publishing
The Republic of Consciousness Prize is focused on getting exposure to small presses doing great, but currently unseen, things. Waterstones Piccadilly has committed to holding a shortlist event, and Griffiths is hoping to get table space in stores across the UK. The prize’s name should help: "It’s a name that might make people who might have an interested sensibility think, ‘I wonder what that’s all about.’"
Another bonus is that the judges, aside from Griffiths who is chairing, are all independent bookshop owners. "They’re reading books that might not even make it onto the shortlist, but might be right for their customers."
While the closing date is not until 31st October, Griffiths is already spending much of his time reading submissions. It’s been an "instructive" experience. "When I started this I clearly thought I was going to be inundated with novels of the quality of Playthings or Zone or Martin John. That hasn’t happened, because obviously indie publishing is a broad church, from the well-meaning without an eye for a book, to the absolute genius of Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo Editions. Only a couple of books haven’t even made it past me as a gatekeeper, they’ve been that terrible. Most books have gone on, but I know 70% have fallen short."
More variable than the writing has been the quality of the publishing. "Publishers are producing books that a shop like Waterstones is never going to stock because of how it looks. That’s a real problem! I don’t quite know what to do about it. Hopefully when the shortlist appears, it will include some of these well-published books but also some of these very badly published books, and maybe people will pay attention."
According to Griffiths, it’s part of a wider problem. "There’s a lot of people writing and finishing novels who shouldn’t be, because they can’t write. They just want to be writers. It’s the same with publishing: people want to be in publishing but that doesn’t mean they have any gift for it. I don’t think it’s naivety; it’s the arrogance of wanting to be something regardless of talent. I’ve met so many people for whom the idea of being a writer is so entrancing, that they forget they have to be able to write. You can con yourself for decades, but not be able to write. I think that’s the same with some of these publishers, they’re not up to being publishers."
Literary fiction: a vertical experience
Griffiths didn’t start reading until he was fourteen – "I didn’t grow up in a bookish household" – but he is an avid reader now and his tastes are particular.
"I’m so past genre fiction," he says, revealing that he made the decision to stop reading it about five years ago. "I’ll get a lot of flack for this, but genre fiction is about obeying cues and rules, otherwise the genre readers don’t like it. That’s not what the process or enterprise of art is about for me. People who read genre literature want predictability. They want to know and trust that the characters will behave in a certain way and I’m not interested in that.
"Art and literary fiction is a vertical experience. Genre fiction is a horizontal experience, it’s about beginning and end, whereas the moment you hit literary fiction, you’re going down or you’re going up. It’s more like the experience of music. It’s transcendent. It’s not an experience of propulsion, literary fiction gathers us in and forces us to dwell in it, rather than making us say ‘what happens next?’ We’re to be shocked in literary fiction, whereas genre fiction is about recognition."
Were his personal sensibilities the only reason for choosing to focus on literary fiction with the prize? "No. Quite frankly, genre fiction is what’s holding up mainstream publishing. It’s literary fiction that needs exposure, genre fiction can look after itself."
For all that Griffiths tastes might at first seem inflexible, adhering to a decades-old code about what literary fiction and genre are, on second glace there’s a longing for modernity and boundary-breaking. He’s a fan of the one-sentence novel; he’s about to release a fully-soundtracked YouTube audiobook in ten minute segments; he doesn’t believe in research because writing is "an imaginative act"; and life in his "post-agent" world involves featuring on the publishing schedule of cutting-edge publishing initiative Dodo Ink.
"Most literary novelists who made a living in the 80s and 90s, they’ve got nothing to write about. They’ve lost the stories!". He asserts that "To write you have to be driven, but no one’s ever driven by light and bright reasons, they’re driven for dark reasons. What one wants is a balance between functionality – because that gets stuff done – and the drive to actually do it. Occasionally you find people that are sane and gifted and driven but their work lacks any real depth. There’s a lack of that surplus of renewable energy which means it can survive and be reincarnated in each generation and have new meaning.
"‘Art’ is something that we confer on work," he adds. "You make novels or photos or paintings or whatever and then ‘art’ is bestowed on the work if it does something extra, something other than what it’s supposed to do. I think any piece of art where one sniffs an agenda fails if the individual human side doesn’t somehow push through."
Whether the winner of the Republic of Consciousness Prize manages to live up to these expectations remains to be seen but, at the very least, it will certainly be an interesting read.