Northern Soul

The literary loop

April 26, 2013 Angle of the North Comments Off on The literary loop
Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers

It’s a view that is widely held: printed books are doomed and ebooks and self publishing are the only way forward. If you’re out of London well gosh, poor you, you’re in the provinces. You might as well as be on Mars.

This issue of London-is-the-centre of the universe emerged when Granta’s American editor, John Freeman, made an apparently throwaway comment about the inclusion of Sunjeev Sahota on the list of young British novelists. “He lives in Leeds, completely out of the literary world,” Freeman said.

To some extent, Freeman was stating the bleeding obvious. But is Sahota really completely out of the literary loop? What about David Peace author of the West Riding trilogy? He’s from West Yorkshire. Or Alan Bennett? Val McDermid? They’re all synonymous with the North.

As the name count of great Northern writers increases, it makes Freeman’s quote seem all the more pompous and metro-centric. I genuinely doubt that this was his intention.

Yet, the rise in independent publishing houses, many of them based in the North of England is a foil to this metro-centricity that prevails. Meritocracy should be the buzzword, surely.

There’s New Writing North based in Newcastle and Byker Books produces left field fiction. I firmly believe that Northern-based crime writers, like their Scandinavian counterparts are massively influenced by their environment. The rugged Pennines, the North’s industrial heritage shape the way novelists write and influences them.

Ed Handyside, publishing director of Newcastle-based Myrmidon Books says independents have to ensure that the books they publish are consistently good, particularly as they publish five books a year. Often large retailers won’t deal with small publishers as they’re not big enough.

Handyside conducted a survey of Booker short listed authors over the last four decades. Only a tiny percentage were published outside London. This equated to seven books out of 150-plus that were short listed.

Another success story from the independents among last year’s Booker was Alison Moore’s remarkable debut The Lighthouse. Manchester-born Moore was noticed by Nicholas Royle, a creative writing lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, also a commissioning editor for independent publisher Salt. The Lighthouse is an unusual and disturbing book that focuses on a trip to Europe by a character called Futh.

Kevin Duffy, of Bluemoose Books in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, has worked in publishing for more than a quarter of a century. He argues that smaller publishers are driven by different responsibilities from the larger publishers. There has been a recent surge of interest in Pig Iron by the talented Benjamin Myers. King Crow, by his author Michael Stewart, won The Guardian‘s Not The Booker prize in 2011.

Independents love books and are enthusiastic about publishing. They don’t have to ask if a certain book will make money, he says. “As Stephen King once said, it’s all about portable magic and it should be like that no matter what the genre. There’s a terrible sense of worthiness with literature and a sense of derogatory attitude that the provinces are somehow out of the loop.

“In a way, smaller publishing houses have become like the research and development who nurture and make books brilliant.”

He speaks of larger publishers not wanting to take risks, likening it to “not wanting to get your ears pierced and wearing clip-on earrings instead”.

The Bluemoose published book, Nod, by Adrian Barnes (a clever novel about a dystopia where hardly anyone can sleep) has just sold to Bulgaria and there’s interest from Hollywood producers. It was short listed for the prestigious Arthur C Clarke sci-fi prize this year.

So it would appear that self-publishing is not the be all and end all as northern presses offer a viable alternative for would-be authors. No need to be in London, either.

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