Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses: Shortlist Announcement

by Neil Griffiths

When I announced the shortlist for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I joked that I found the selection process so emotionally traumatic at one point I wanted to extend the short list from eight to 10, then 12 and then just rename the entire 16-strong longlist the shortlist.

It got a small laugh.

It’s a week and half since the announcement, and I’ve only just lifted myself out of a post-judging funk. Anyone who thinks judging a literary award sounds fun is mistaken. It’s miserable.

Writers often say books are like their children. Well, the simile can be extended – great novels are like people: they are hugely complex, defiantly individual, and possess a kind of existential integrity that means one is moral wrong to compare one to another. If Kant’s categorical imperative was that people must always be treated as ends in themselves; books should always be judged by the creative decisions that have enacted it. Which, if applied rigorously, means books which are not to one’s taste become equally good to books that are.

I know a couple of the other judges found themselves in this ethical quandary. Others, wisely, were just working on a taste metric. But none, I think, were being kept awake at night in quite the same way.

The problems were my own creation. Set aside the difficulty in comparing formally ambitious novels against one another; what about comparing formally ambitious novels with experimental short form writing; or translated fiction that limns the borders of fiction, poetry, memoir? It was my decision to make eligibility so open. I am disappointed no translated fiction made it onto the shortlist. But we only had a few translated submissions, something I hope to rectify in future years. I am pleased, though, that the shortlist included so much short-form fiction.

Who will win remains to be seen. But for the time being I am reading Moby-Dick, a novel that doesn’t need my judgement to be regarded as a masterpiece. Although on a couple of occasion I have found myself thinking: ‘definitely shortlist material; maybe not a winner.’ That’s how good some of the books on our shortlist are.

THE SHORTLIST (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 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?

Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene

Counternarratives is a work of great distinction, a once in a generation addition to short form fiction. It moves the form on; it deepens it. Few works of fiction operate on this kind of intellectual and textural level and still remain rooted in the human experience. Spanning four centuries, many countries, using different narrative forms as inspiration, each story unfolds with a control and wisdom that is startling. 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. And what’s more it’s a pleasure to read. That this set of stories and novellas has not made every shortlist its eligible for is a travesty.

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 women’s fiction. Lara Williams is gifted writer with great craft. 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 for anyone, let alone the women in these stories. These stories take a genre that is often 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, and the events of the Peasant’s Revolt, Forbidden Line take us on a picaresque journey through Essex and London in what must be the most exuberant and maximalist novel of ideas ever written in English. It shouldn’t work, but it does so with a joy and comic 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 if very soon there are clubs and secret societies dedicated to unravelling how the ‘hyperfine transition of hydrogen’ permits a chest of papers continually to appear after many determined destructions. This isn’t magical realism – it’s so much more mysterious and profound than that.

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.

The winner will be announced on 9 March.