REVIEW: Republic of Consciousness, The Best of Small Presses

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12 October

St Chad’s College Chapel

Elvira Parr

Last Saturday a select few of us were treated to a fascinating insight into the work of leading UK small presses from writers Eley Williams and Rachel Mann, along with Rachel’s editor, Michael Schmidt, from Carcanet Press, which is celebrating its 50th birthday. The discussion was chaired by Sophie O’Neill, Managing Director of Inpress and thus an important voice in the promotion of independent publishers herself.

As Mann predicted and the event affirmed, people who seek to explore the possibilities of words often seem to find each other, and the hour did indeed reveal many similarities between our four panellists. Both writers, for example, chose to read extracts on a universally acknowledged anti-hero: our famed transport system. An extract from Williams’ short story collection, Attrib., related an equally comical and touching account of an awkward tube encounter, whilst Mann’s verse on the Underground was as spiritually evocative as her closing liturgy of poems from A Kingdom of Love.

The key consensus that emerged from the discussion was the fundamental importance of good relationships in this industry. Williams described her meeting with Influx Press at a pub live-reading as the first time she felt truly acknowledged and “energised to respect my own writing”, dispelling the common misconception from her own mind that short stories are “a sandpit” for writers. Working so closely with Influx crucially allowed her to dismantle the imposter syndrome she had often felt with bigger publishers. Suddenly being told that her “lyrical thoughtful exposition” was in fact “waffle” felt more like friendly, well-intended criticism rather than a crippling attack.

For Mann, the key to her successful relationship with Schmidt is that it is “not cosy but critical”; an environment where Schmidt’s bluntness is welcome, but Mann still feels like she has “permission to come back”. Their tough-love dynamic was clear even during the event; as Mann proclaimed herself a “second-rate modernist”, Schmidt was quick to respond with a smirk “but an improving one”. They laugh and joke about their “delightful disagreements”, a testament to the close relationships small presses allow writers and editors to foster.

Indeed, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind by the end of the event of the benefit and importance of small presses in the publishing industry. Their increasing recognition in prestigious award categories, such as the Nobel Prize for Literature, outwardly praises these businesses for their boldness and subsequently urges London publicists to look beyond the city. Such promotion is also making it easier to ensure diversity across the industry, something that Influx Press is prioritising as it opens up applications for women and non-binary authors in January 2020.

In the daunting landscape of publishing, it is nothing but encouraging to see so many ‘hands on deck’ to ensure that that all voices are heard. For any new writers braving this new world, the time, it seems, is now.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.