Diversity, Risk-Taking and Community: A Celebration of 2017’s Small Press Anthologies

by Anna Vaught

This month, I posed a question on Twitter for the small presses of the British Isles: what prompted them to commission and curate their anthologies of various authors? This, from Salt Publishing, was a beautiful summary: ‘So many things: outreach, delighting readers, finding new readers, celebrating writers at all stages of their creative lives, curating, presenting, sharing cultural excellence, building a community, sharing a space, collisions and surprises.’

I loved that; its joyful focus not only on reading but on risk (‘collision’), community and outreach. And the quotation from Salt prompted me to reflect, more broadly, that it has been quite a year for small presses. You might have read in the Guardian about their growing importance to the publishing industry as a whole, and their willingness to take risks on books that might otherwise have been considered unsaleable. And of course one understands that; book buying and selling are mercantile activities. Yet could we not combine business with the wonderful, life-giving list I quoted above? There is one genre where I believe that, without question, the indies are joyfully blazing a trail for both art and commerce – and that is with the anthology comprised of multiple authors. These books are well received and provide much refreshing diversity.

The word ‘anthology’ entered the English language in the 17th century, from the Greek word, ἀνθολογία, that is, anthologia, ‘a collection of flowers’ – a reference to one of the earliest anthologies, The Garland, the introduction to which compares each of its poets to a flower. I like to remember this etymology and carry it forward figuratively because there is cross-pollination at work here. Between the constituent flowers: the texts; between lives, authors, publishers and ethics. I've worked hard on being a visiting bee this year, too.

I want to focus on Refugees and Peacekeepers by Patrician Press, the first in a series of anthologies from this very small and often overlooked press; Salt Publishing's The Best British Short Stories, which has been published annually since 2011; Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class By the Working Class by the wonderfully inventive Dead Ink; and Comma Press’s Protest: Stories of Resistance. (In 2017, Comma Press also published the second of its fund-raising Refugee Tales anthologies, and I continue to be moved and cheered by this excellent example of a press working hand in hand with a charity and a group of people who desperately need our support and understanding; in this case, refugees, with all profits for the 2015 anthology and this year’s second volume going to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and Kent Help for Refugees.)

In spring 2017, Patrician Press launched its inaugural mixed anthology, Refugees and Peacekeepers at the Essex Book festival. Robert McCrum called it ‘a gripping, rare and brave collection of new work written in extremis, the classic source of truly original poetry and prose through the ages’ – and I do feel that, in this haunting book of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and narrative non-fiction, there is a sense of urgency; of being in extremis; feeling helpless as we watch others flounder. To give a flavour, jazz musician Ian Shaw, volunteer for a year in the Calais jungle, contributed a piece which begins with the startling words: ‘ . . . at the time of writing, there are over 200 unaccompanied kids from civil war zones . . . stranded on a toxic wasteland, 23 miles from our coast.’ (Patrician will be launching a new anthology, My Europe, in the spring of 2018, which explores the experience of Brexit and what it is to be a European, and then, in 2019, Tempest will look at dystopian settings across the world.)

Now in its seventh year, Salt’s Best British Short Stories is an impressive work of curation. Its editor, Nicholas Royle, draws from anthologies, collections, magazines, newspapers and websites to create an eclectic body of work. Some of these authors are well known; some are much earlier in their careers. ‘It’s so good,’ commented Kate Saunders in the Times, ‘that it’s hard to believe that there was no equivalent during the 17 years since Giles Gordon and David Hughes’s Best English Short Stories ceased publication in 1994.’ The current anthology features work by Lara Williams, Niven Govinden, Daisy Johnson and Andrew Michael Hurley, among others. I particularly appreciate Royle’s pithy introduction, and his eye is excellent, of course; he’s a brilliant storyteller himself. He offers an intelligent survey of the past year’s stories – many are mentioned and commented on that were not included – resulting in a rewarding reading list. Thus, Royle mentions a story from Gary Budden; I go on to read a short from Budden at Galley Beggar (another fine small press), then his excellent Hollow Shores from Dead Ink, and then I find he’s the co-director of Influx Press, a small press whose invigorating work I’ve discovered this year; and then Kit Caless, Influx's other director, whom it transpires curates Losslit on twitter and is a co-editor of its magazine, which I now love. I also discover Unthank books and their Unthology. Reading that back, there’s your cross-pollination. The anthology as the garland; bloom to bloom; text leading on to and supporting another text, its auspice and provenance.

Dead Ink’s Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class By the Working Class (which is visually stunning, a beautiful object, red black: urgent and handsome) features pieces from Kit de Waal, Sam Mills (author and co-director of Dodo Ink Press), Wally Jiagoo, Lee Rourke, Catherine O’Flynn and Andrew McMillan, among others. There's a great spread of emerging and established writers working in a variety of genres. I discovered new voices here; my favourite is probably Ben Gwalchmai, whose ‘Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold’ is beautiful and funny and, with my own heritage mirroring his, an essay that prompted painful exploration of my mother’s will to leave rural Wales, heft herself from a farming background and become middle class, defined for her by ‘thinking and reading’. Ben’s essay reflects with excoriating clarity on heritage, imagination and valuing both opportunity and graft. And he's got a wonderful comic touch.

What Nathan Connolly, Director of Dead Ink and editor of this collection has done here is to curate writing which covers mental health, opportunity, ‘Reclaiming the Vulgar’ (I loved this piece by Kath McKay, which unpicks quite brilliantly the lack of insight and vapid contradictions from those who consider themselves arbiters of good taste), living on a estate and what it has gifted Gena-mour Barrett, and learning, in Peter Sutton’s survey of his and others’ education. Connolly has created an important survey of ‘what being working class actually is’, and concludes the collection with: ‘Delegitimizing the working class is a step towards removing working class voices . . . we need to expect the working class to be educated, intelligent, perhaps even cultured . . . otherwise we’re just telling them to know their place.’ Kafka said that a book must be like ‘an axe for the frozen sea within us’; that the book we are reading ought to waken us with ‘a thump on the skull’. That’s what this collection does, but with courage and humour, too.

And so to Protest: Stories of Resistance by Comma Press. For me, the most impressive thing about this book, which comprises short stories inspired (and arranged chronologically) from The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the anti-Iraq war demonstration of 2003, is its placing of fiction alongside factual accounts. It has the solidity of a work of scholarship, and I know from corresponding with Comma that this work is ongoing. It seems obvious when I look at it, yet I cannot recall seeing an anthology having the temerity to do this. Ra Page, the book’s editor, writes of their insistence that ‘once the authors had chosen their protest, they then worked with an expert . . . to maximise their story’s verisimilitude’. And that’s just what has happened; it reads like a storybook and a document. And it seeks to remind us of the continuum of history. In a time when it feels hard to be British as Brexit divides us, the book – with its superb introduction – is a reminder of our history of protest and a prod to keep going. It also makes us look at those others we may not even see, such as the thousands of night cleaners across Britain whose lives you never observe but on whose work you may depend There are hundreds of thousands in London alone, and with wages ‘lower, relatively, than they were at the end of the 20th century’. In Maggie Gee’s ‘May Hobbs’, we look at the world of a cleaner, uncomfortable with her role, but with a mother keen to instil in her a new pride. This sits alongside Professor Sally Alexander’s very personal account of Women’s Liberation in 1970s London, including a description of the aforementioned May Hobbs, who was blacklisted by employers because she urged her colleagues to form a union. I want, I need to know all this. Feel compelled to know. And I recall Kafka’s thought on the book as an axe. He didn’t say that the same book couldn’t be beautiful or lyrical – and the stories in this Comma anthology are.

Looking forward to 2018, Unbound continues to forge ahead with more mixed anthologies. Readers likely already know of their 2016 collection The Good Immigrant, edited by the award-winning author Nikesh Shukla, which gathers twenty British Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers and artists to reflect, in essays, on race, immigration and being ‘other’ in today’s Britain. Next year we have 24 Stories, edited by Kathy Burke, in aid of the Trauma Response Network supporting those affected by the Grenfell disaster. Also to come is Others, a mixed-form book edited by the psychologist and writer Charles Fernyhough, with pieces by Salena Godden, Matt Haig, Noam Chomsky, Kamila Shamsie, A.L. Kennedy and Rishi Dastidar. The anthology aims to open eyes, shift perspectives, and ‘make the homely strange and the exotic familiar – but with an unflinching eye on today’s social inequalities and the thirst for political change’. Net profits will be donated to Refugee Action and Stop Hate UK.

Another collection to look forward to next May is Bluemoose’s Seaside Special – Postcards from the Edge. Unpublished authors were invited to submit stories and have the opportunity of publication alongside established writers: an excellent example of outreach. ‘We're looking for surprising perspectives and diverse voices’ said the press release, requesting texts set on the north-west coast to stand alongside work by Andrew Michael Hurley and Paul Kingsnorth, under the editorship of Jenn Ashworth. So you see this book has quite a pedigree. Small presses regularly punch above their weight. And I love it.

So, 2017, a bad year perhaps – have you shed tears, too? – but quite a year for small press anthologies: inspiring debate, but also comforting and cheering, and occasionally chilling – as in the case of Andrew Michael Hurley’s story, ‘While the Nightjar Sleeps’, in the current Salt anthology. Read it; you won’t forget it. Let us return to Salt’s list of aims behind their mixed anthology: ‘Outreach, delighting readers, finding new readers, celebrating writers at all stages of their creative lives, curating, presenting, sharing cultural excellence, building a community, sharing a space, collisions and surprises.’ I don’t know about you, but those last things – the community; the sharing; the collision; the surprise – are what I’d like most in my life for 2018.