Creatives in profile: Ben Thomas

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Ben Thomas is editor of The Willows Magazine, author of The Cradle and the Sword, creator of TheStrangeContinent.com, and founder of the neuroscience news agency The Connectome. He travels the world as a freelance writer, and has lived in more than 40 countries. His hobbies include aquaculture, Linux customisation, tantric meditation and ink drawing.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

THOMAS

I spent my earliest years in the woodlands of Ohio — but was transplanted to the desolate steppe of West Texas at age 10. I got out of there as quickly as I could, moving to Los Angeles to study cinema. I spent most of my twenties in California — then in 2013, I made a decision to cast off my material possessions and backpack across Europe, Africa and Asia for four years. These days I’m nesting in Austin, Texas. But I’m hoping to get back to London, Paris and Rome soon; if only to collect the books and relics my friends have been kind enough to keep for me.

INTERVIEWER

Has writing always been your first love, or do you have another passion?

THOMAS

I’ve always been intrigued by mysteries of all sorts. One of my earliest memories is of staring into an aquarium at the Toledo Zoo, gazing deeply into the eyes of a fish, trying to imagine what it was like to look out from those eyes; to be that fish. And I suppose some version of that quest has fueled all my great passions: my fascination with rare and esoteric creatures, my love for mythologies and ancient languages, my research on neuroscience and the human mind, my travels around the world, and my lifelong love for weird tales.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to writing and literature?

THOMAS

Well, words are magic, aren’t they? When we present a compelling argument or conjure an imaginary scene in someone else’s mind, we’re quite literally casting spells: shaping our own (and others’) perceptions of reality through the verbal evocation of ideas. I can’t imagine a more delightful or rewarding trade to be in.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

THOMAS

Ashurbanipal, Enheduanna, Paul Atreides, Hypatia, Isaac Newton, Wu Zetian, Aleister Crowley, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, Iain Banks, Rosalind Franklin, Hülagü Khan.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

THOMAS

For the first few years of my life, my mother devoted herself almost entirely to teaching me everything I wanted to know. We’d go to the library and check out stack after stack of books, then bring them home and read them one after another in our rocking chair. If I wanted to learn a skill — say, finger-painting or guitar — we’d acquire the necessary materials and explore that area until it was time to move on to the next exploration. She was the most wonderful gardener my growing mind could have wished for.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

THOMAS

A magician of language. (Cf. my answer to the question above.)

INTERVIEWER

What research (if any) do you conduct before setting out on a new writing project?

THOMAS

I find it’s impossible to write fluently about any subject — fictional or otherwise — without a working knowledge of the world in question. But my research rarely proceeds according to any prearranged plan; each day I simply wake up and ask myself, “What do I want to know about today?” and proceed from there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

THOMAS

I believe people in all creative disciplines bear a responsibility not only to describe the world as it is, but to present compelling pictures of the world as it could be. One of my mottos is, “Remember, someone is turning sixteen every day.” — in other words, every day, new people are waking up to themselves; examining ideas in the media they read and watch; deciding which ones they want to pursue, or integrate into themselves, and which ones they’ll reject. We don’t get to decide which of our ideas will connect with these people — but we do have a responsibility to provide them with accurate and useful concepts, and not to frighten them with falsehoods for the sake of profiteering.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about ‘The Willows’ – how did you first conceive of the idea, and what are some of the challenges in running a regular literary magazine in this day and age.

THOMAS

I first conceived of The Willows in 2006. I’d been an enthusiastic reader of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood since my university days — and one evening it just occurred to me that no one was publishing fiction in that vein anymore. Right then and there I set up a small website and put out a call for stories, and the response was far beyond what I expected: authors, illustrators, marketers and supporters appeared out of the blue, all rejoicing that this magazine existed. Seems I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed a cultural void where that The Willows ought to be!

A small crew of us ran the magazine from 2007-2010. The funds came out of my own pocket — earned at a series of mind-numbing day jobs — and many contributors volunteered to provide work for free, or for significantly less than their usual fees. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to produce a magazine; I taught myself Adobe InDesign, found a local print shop that was willing to work with me, and learned the trade through (often expensive) trial and error.

Over the years, the stress and expenses took their toll — I was spending upwards of $1000 of my own money to produce each issue, and usually making only a few hundred in profit, even with the advertising space we sold. My co-editors Skadi meic Beorh and Orrin Grey picked up a lot of the slushpile work, enabling me to focus more on the production side — but even so, we’d set ourselves the task of publishing a bimonthly magazine, out of our own pockets, while simultaneously working forty hours a week or more at our office jobs.

This obviously wasn’t sustainable — and it was, perhaps, inevitable that in the spring of 2010 I suffered a nervous breakdown, stormed out of my job at at a media planning agency, and became a recluse: living off government benefits, painstakingly crafting elaborate ecosystems in garden planters on the balcony – tiny bonsai trees, grassy hills, lakes, mountains and caves – and attempting to populate them with small frogs and fish, who all hopped away, or died overnight, to my horrified dismay; stringing up fluorescent lights in the attic to grow tomatoes and soybeans, resulting in a forest of dead leaves and vines into which I frantically pumped nutrients in the vain hope of resuscitation; poring over Babylonian cuneiform texts and ancient Greek philosophical treatises.

Long story short: I was, for all practical purposes, dead to the world until 2012 or so. When the dust settled, I decided I wanted to have nothing to do with The Willows — or the weird fiction community — and I moved on to studying neuroscience; and later, to traveling to other continents. It wasn’t until the spring of 2019, when I attended the Outer Dark Symposium of the Greater Weird in Atlanta, that I reconnected with many old friends (and made new ones) in the Weird community. At that conference I floated the idea of a Willows hardcover anthology — and once again, the response was far stronger than I expected. The Kickstarter campaign flowed naturally from there.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

THOMAS

I’ve just begun a new Strange Continent series on neolithic China, which I think is a fascinating time and place. I hope eventually to bring all Strange Continent stories together into a single attractive print volume (as some readers have suggested). But since visual images play such crucial roles in the historical tales I tell, I’ll need to find a way to acquire print rights to the paintings I’ve interspersed throughout these stories — and I anticipate a labyrinthine series of bureaucratic headaches in that direction.

In the meantime, I’ve been getting back to my roots, writing weird tales in the classic tradition of Machen and Blackwood (though some are set in the present day). I hope to find welcoming homes for some of these stories over the coming months.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

THOMAS

Absolutely impossible to pick just one. Here are my top nine.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

THOMAS

Cult classic. Fashion is fleeting, but style is timeless.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

THOMAS

Brian Evenson. He’s our century’s Kafka.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

THOMAS

The Apostle Paul. We should’ve tossed him out and kept the rest.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

THOMAS

My friend Orrin Grey. He’s a skeleton who writes more about monsters before nine a.m. than most people do all day.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

THOMAS

All my talents remain hidden until the right time comes.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

THOMAS

Hmm… probably that time on a cruise to Mexico when I had a catastrophic panic attack (because it was impossible to get away from the throngs of loud drunk people) and locked myself in our cabin’s bathroom while my girlfriend screamed at me to stop being a psychotic infant. I’ve never set foot on a cruise ship since.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

THOMAS

I’ve done my level best to share everything I have with my friends.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

THOMAS

Nobody’s going to do this for you. If you want it, you’re going to have to build it yourself.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

THOMAS

She’s just my student!

Honey…

Seen.

 

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The research is clear: we need to put down our phones and pick up our pens (and our books)

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With 66% of us claiming we don’t have time to read because we’re distracted by our phones, why not put them down and find distractions in the world of books?

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity,” so opined Henry Beston in what is a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology.

Beston was writing in the late 1940s; but his remarks about our relationship with technology – and the potential pitfalls between our ever-closer relationship with it – are perhaps more pertinent today than ever before, especially as new research is published showing the vast majority of us claim to be distracted by near-constant, often idle, scrolling on our Smartphone devices.

This isn’t to advocate the luddites, but simply to draw attention to a remarkable trend that has been emerging in recent years as the use of mobile technology has proliferated among our society. Indeed, since 2012, when for the first time over half of all US citizens owned a smartphone, there has been a rapid change in not only our technological usage, but even in our characteristics as individuals and as a society. A new generational divide has even been seen to open up, as Jean Twenge points out in their work, iGen, which sees the generation born after millennials as being increasingly dependent upon their smartphones – using them to derive pleasure, to communicate with one another, form and maintain relationships, even while use of these devices is linked to poorer mental health and increased feelings of loneliness and decreased productivity.

Few, perhaps, will be surprised by findings that suggest our reliance on smartphone technology has come at a cost. As Rebecca Solnit notes in this wonderful analysis, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.”

Indeed, to build upon this, and to explore why increases in smartphone usage seem to be linked to feelings of loneliness and poor mental health, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

The impact of smartphones on creativity

So what does all this mean for aspiring and established creatives out there? Well, apart from ensuring we all do what we can to support ourselves and one another – looking out for signs of depression and doing what we can to protect our mental health and wellbeing (creative types, after all, may be more likely to experience mental health problems).

But it also means making a conscious effort to switch off our phones and minimise the distractions we face from them. Some of this has a simple reason behind it: with 66% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by their phones, and 31% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by streaming services like Netflix (source), and since we know that reading more and widely helps to improve our writing and creative abilities, switching off our phones and picking up a book would likely spur the creative juices needed to produce original pieces of work.

Indeed, this in part is just common sense. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan has said, in an interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

In fact, cutting ourselves off completely may be the only way to truly minimise the impact of modern technology. As a study by the University of Texas at Austin published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found, a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent — or even when powered off and tucked away in a purse, briefcase or backpack. Putting these distracting devices out of sight does not necessarily put them out of mind, in other words.

But perhaps there’s also something more here. A battle not between ourselves and our urges to distract ourselves from reality (perhaps an understandable impulse given our reality is currently catastrophic climate breakdown amid a geopolitical maelstrom of inaction and the rise of the far right); but rather a battle between society and the Tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg who make billions of dollars precisely from our distraction; and in turn a battle between us and the politicians whose interests it’s in to keep us distracted, to keep us disengaged with reality, because they know (and fear) the potential impact a suddenly creatively energised society could have upon the world.

The art of waiting

What this all ultimately comes down to, perhaps, is patience. The patience needed to work with feelings of boredom and frustration, rather than against them. The patience needed between conversations and meetings with friends to appreciate them all the more (and so much more than you can ever appreciate a simple snapchat streak). The patience needed to properly read a book and appreciate it, rather than simply scanning the pages as one might a smartphone webpage or app. As the brilliant novelist Tim Leach has written, “The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.”

Perhaps if we are able to put down our phones, the wait for the lightning that changes the system will be shorter than we think.

 

 

 

So alternative: 50 independent and alternative publishers to support, buy books from, and submit your work to

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We live in an era where the biggest publishing companies and media organisations are only concerned with stabilising profits for shareholders – and are prioritising making money over supporting originality and new creative ideas. This is strangling our modern culture – limiting us to a devastating cycle of reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises; where the only novels we read are copies of novels that are themselves copies of commercially successful novels. This risk-averse and profit-focussed approach in turn risks homogenising our culture; and limiting our exposure to new ways of thinking.

At a time when we need new ideas and voices to counter the prevailing cultural winds, which tell us creativity is only of value if it sells, we need independent publishers to continue their fine work. We need diversity and originality in our publishing; not ceaseless imitation and repetition in pursuit of a fast buck. We need books that experiment and take risks; not those that seem afraid to be different. We need independent publishers; not corporate monopolies.

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Looking to add to your ‘To Be Read’ pile of books? Or looking to get your own work published and added to somebody else’s reading list? The following list of independent publishers should help!

But independent publishers need us, as readers and writers, too. They need us to buy their books and support their projects; and they need writers to keep submitting books and poetry collections to them, so that they can keep discovering and publishing new, unique, and inspiring new voices and stories.

It’s a reciprocal relationship, then, and one that we hope we can help support ourselves by bringing you the following list of independent and alternative publishing houses where you can find inspiration and submit your own work to.

Put together alongside our other writing resources, including our list of literary magazines that are always open to unsolicited submissions, the list below provides all the handy details readers and writers alike might need. But of course, we are fortunate to live in a world abounding with creative entrepreneurs, so, if there’s a great indie publisher that we’ve missed, or if you own or run an independent publishing house yourself and you’d like to see if listed here, please get in touch and let us know.

Happy reading, comrades!

404 Ink

About 404 Ink: 404 Ink is the award-winning alternative, independent publisher of books and literary magazines.

Books: A wonderful collection of books available from their online store, including ‘The Goldblum Variations: The Adventures of Jeff Goldblum”.

Submissions: 404 Ink regularly accept unsolicited submissions during their submissions windows. Check online for more information.

The 87 Press

About The 87 Press: The 87 is a small press, publishing collective, events organiser, and platform for discussion, committed to publishing the very best of bold, innovative and experimental writing from emerging and established writers.

87 Press Books: Check out their online store featuring books by Caspar Heinemann, Callie Gardener and others.

Submissions: The 87 Press accept unsolicited submissions during defined submissions periods. Check online for more information.

Biteback Publishing

Described as ‘Britain’s leading political publisher’ by Charles Moore, Biteback Publishing is one of Britain’s leading independent publishers of political and current affairs titles. They also publish espionage, general non fiction and sport.

Submissions: Always up for considering new writing proposals, you can find out more about Biteback’s submissions guidelines here.

Birlinn Ltd

About Birlinn Ltd: Described as “passionately independent”, Birlinn Ltd is made up of a number of imprints, including Origin, Polygon, BC Books, and Arena Sports. Polygon is known for publishing literary fiction and poetry, including by acclaimed authors like James Kelman and Liz Lochhead. With so many imprints, their catalogue provides an opportunity to lose yourself browsing the digital bookshelves. Worth checking out!

Submissions: If you have a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that you strongly believe would suit their list, Berlinn want to hear from you. You should post a synopsis and three sample chapters, or half a dozen poems, with some biographical information about yourself (including contact details), a stamped addressed envelope (should you wish the material returned) and a brief explanation of why you have chosen to submit your work. More information via their contact page.

Boiler House Press

 About Boiler House Press: BHP is a new publisher of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and everything in-between. Based out of the University of East Anglia, they accept unsolicited writing submissions.

Boldwood Books

About Boldwood Books: A new global publisher founded in 2019 in London, UK. Promises to be innovative and fearless.

Boldwood Submissions: Actively seeking unsolicited manuscripts (praise the day!) Check out their website above or Twitter @BoldwoodBooks for more info, then send manuscript directly to submissions@boldwoodbooks.com

Burning Chair Publishing

About Burning Chair Publishing: From first class editing to cutting edge marketing and promotion, Burning Chair are an exciting new independent publishers that look to provide authors with the support they need to make sure their book fulfils its potential. Check out some of their books published so far via their store.

Burning Chair Submissions: This indie publishers is open for submissions and accepting unsolicited manuscripts from a variety of different genres. Information about what they’re looking for, and how to submit, is available online.

Burning Eye Books

 “Poetry for the people, not just professors.” Burning Eye Books are all about putting Slam/Stand Up/Performance & Spoken Word Poetry on the page. Something that arguably hasn’t been done enough. They have a bookstore where you can purchase their titles, but perhaps of more interest are the free (yes, FREE) book samples you can read right now through their website.

These guys do open every now and then for submissions, but they also charge a small £5 fee (which goes to charity). Check their website for information about when to submit, as well as submission guidelines.

Carcanet Press

Described as “the most courageous publisher” by Charles Tomlinson, Carcanet has been publishing poetry, inventive fiction and literary criticism for decades. They’re a massive name in the world of independent publishing and have a dizzying array of excellent and unique books to choose from, including work from Will Eaves (read our interview with Eaves here), who won the Republic of Consciousness Prize this year.

Carcanet Press Submissions: considering the reputation of this publisher, it’s a sign of their core values that they’re still keen to accept unsolicited manuscript submissions. Carcanet considers submissions and book proposals sent electronically as emailed attachments – and does have strict reading periods for when these submissions can be sent in. Check their website for more information.

Copy Press

Copy Press is an independent publishing company, dedicated to extending ideas of writing, pictures and readability. They have a number of publishing products and welcome proposals of new writing to fit within these.

Cranachan Publishing

Cranachan Publishing we focus on sourcing the finest, freshest writing so that we can produce books that our readers will want to devour in one sitting.

Submitting to Cranachan Publishing: These guys are always open to new proposals but they receive loads of submissions so you need to send a query email first. More information online.

Dahlia Books

About Dahlia Books: A small press publisher, championing regional and diverse voices in literature. They publish a range of different genres and styles of literature (all of it good), and are open to unsolicited submissions twice a year, in March and September.

Damaged Goods Press

Damaged Goods is a queer & trans owned press specializing in poetry & creative nonfiction by queer & trans writers. They’re actively seeking new writing so get submitting!

Dancing Bear Books

Dancing Bear Books have a clear mission and they chose to embark on it because of the lack of diversity in fantasy and fairytale literature within commercial fiction. They are a publisher of Folklore, Fairytales and Fantasy and specifically are after tales that feature BAME, LGBT and disabled protagonists. They have bases in both Newcastle and London, UK, and perhaps more importantly, they are very keen to hear your stories.

Submitting to Dancing Bear Books: With their focus on diversity in literature (and the stories we read), they have some specific rules that manuscripts must meet in order to be considered for publication. Information about this is all online. Importantly, they accept both agented and non-agented submissions and you should feel free to submit your manuscripts directly to them!

Daunt Books Publishing

Founded in 2010, the Daunt Books imprint is dedicated to publishing brilliant works by talented authors from around the world. Whether reissuing beautiful new editions of lost classics or publishing debut works by fresh voices, our titles are inspired by the Daunt Books shops themselves and the exciting atmosphere of discovery to be found in a good bookshop.

Submitting to Daunt Books: DB welcome unsolicited submissions via email or post.

With their roots as a travel bookshop, the titles they publish are inspired by the Daunt shops themselves. They’re interested in writing that evokes a strong sense of place — literary fiction (novels and short stories) and narrative non-fiction with a lingering atmosphere, a thrilling story, and a distinctive style. Further submissions information is available online.

Elsewhen Press

Ahoy there, speculative fiction fans! Elsewhen Press seeks to publish new exciting titles in the Speculative Fiction genre, especially (but not exclusively) from previously unpublished authors. We are looking for high quality manuscripts that tell a compelling story, ideally developed around a strong underlying theme which adds something significant and novel to the genre. Manuscripts must be of book-length, can be an individual story or (first in) a series of stories. More info online!

Epoque Press

About Epoque Press: époque press is an independent publisher based between Brighton and Dublin established to promote and represent the very best in new literary talent. Through a combination of their main publishing imprint and their online ezine, they aim to bring inspirational and thought provoking work to a wider audience.

Submit to Epoque Press: Open to submissions from new and established writers. More information online.

Eyrie Press

About Eyrie Press: A small indie publisher focused on peculative & historical fiction. Especially keen on featuring underrepresented groups, and supporting regional writers from UK. Info about what they’re looking for in submissions – as well as when they will open their inbox to unsolicited submissions, is all online.

Fairlight Books

Fairlight publish literary fiction and books that promote quality writing. For readers, they have an interesting shop where you can buy bundles of their books together (check it out). For writers, these fabulous folk are accepting submissions of literary fiction (short story collections, novellas and novels). Guidelines here.

Fly on the Wall Press

A really lovely indie publishing press with a commitment to discovering (and, importantly, printing) new writing. Have a great collection of books available through their online store, which readers can peruse at their leisure. Meanwhile, writers interested in submitting their work to the press can find out more online.

Four Corners Books

Four Corners make art books that have a story to tell, with a special focus on art outside traditional gallery contexts. In their ‘Familiars’ series – in which they invite artists to reimagine classic works of literature – or their new series, the Irregulars – about fascinating pockets of British visual culture – they try to find art in the most intriguing and unusual places.

Submitting to Four Corners Books: These fine literary folks are always happy to hear from artists and writers with proposals for books, but ideally they should fit within their current remit: art history, with an emphasis on art made outside the traditional gallery system, and especially on culture in Britain after 1945. Email with a brief enquiry in the first instance.

Galley Beggar Press

Galley Beggar Press is an independent publisher from the UK – they publish innovative writing and all all-round fine folk. Importantly, despite their esteemed reputation, they also accept unsolicited manuscripts once a year (in 2019, this period is July). More information about their submissions processes is available online.

Guppy Books

About Guppy Books: New independent publisher of fabulous fiction for children of all ages, tweeting as @guppybooks. Various new children’s books available online.

Submitting to Guppy Books: Guppy Books welcomes fiction submissions from agents and previously published authors. They remain open as a publisher, and twice a year they will be accepting unsolicited manuscript submissions from unpublished writers over a specific period of time. They will put up these dates on the Guppy quarterly newsletter and via Twitter and social media.

Handheld Press

Based in the lovely, limestone-clad city of Bath in the UK, Handheld Press sells stories, handpicked tales from the past and the present, because they are remarkable and wonderful. They publish books to be books; creating beautiful objects that are designed and laid out with care. They were the regional finalist for The Bookseller Small Press Award in 2018. Importantly, they accept not only manuscript submissions from new and established authors, but also simply ideas for new fiction. So drop them a line and pitch them your story (what are you waiting for? Check out their submissions page for more info).

Head of Zeus

Winner of the 2017 Independent Publisher of the Year award, Head of Zeus are an acclaimed indie publisher dedicated to beautiful books and great storytelling.

Head of Zeus books: A host of excellent titles are available through their online store, including novels by the equally excellent Tim Leach (who we’ve interviewed on our site).

Submitting to Head of Zeus: These guys are immensely popular and, as such, receive an overwhelming number of submissions. That said, they do try to open their submissions portal to unsolicited manuscript submissions whenever possible, so keep up to date with them online.

Henningham Family Press

HFP are a book publisher with a difference, creating award-winning and critically acclaimed books that are in themselves works of art, created through fine art print making and book binding. Their books are each unique and worthy of entire webpages in themselves, so suffice to say we’d urge you all to spend some time checking out their online store and picking up a couple of copies for your friends and family (as well as yourself, of course).

Submitting to Henningham Family Press: HFP, in their own words currently “have enough manuscripts written by white males to keep [them] occupied for ten years”. So their focus is on considering unsolicited material from women and BAME authors. Further information about what they’re looking for and how to submit is available online.

Hera Books

About Hera Books: An independent digital publisher bringing readers the very best in commercial fiction.

Submitting to Hera Books: Actively seeking submissions of new writing, the team behind Hera Books also offer hands-on editorial services, so check them out and get submitting!

HopeRoad Publishing

HopeRoad promotes inclusive literature with a focus on Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. They vigorously support often neglected voices and many of their YA titles (featured in their lovely bookstore) focus on issues dealing with identity, cultural stereotyping and disability. It’s unclear whether they accept submissions but they encourage people interested in the press to get in touch with any enquiries.

Inkandescent

Apart from being a wonderful pun, Inkandescent is also a new publishing venture committed to promoting ideas, subjects and voices underrepresented by mainstream publishing. They hope to discover and celebrate original, diverse and transgressive literature and art, to challenge the status quo.

Lilliput Press

The Lilliput Press is one of Ireland’s smallest and most prestigious publishing houses. They publish a wide variety of Irish interest books and represent authors such as James Joyce, John Moriarty, J.P. Donleavy and many others.

Submissions policy: The Lilliput Press still accept unsolicited manuscript submissions; but only by post (email submissions will not be considered). They offer a range of guidelines and processes for submitting, including what to submit alongside your manuscript.

Linen Press

Linen Press is a small, independent publisher run by women, for women. They are now the only indie women’s press in the UK.

They have dozens and dozens of exceptional books available to readers through their lovely online bookshop.

And, good news, sports fans, Linen Press are looking for submissions. Specifically, they are after ‘beautifully written manuscripts which are relevant to women’s lives and which surprise us with their style and content.’ This can be literary fiction, top-end contemporary fiction and memoir. Check out submissions guidelines online.

Maytree Press

Maytree Press are a new, budding indie press from the UK. They have a small but cool catalogue which they’re currently building and adding to (which means readers can pick up one of their books they’ve already published from their shop, and writers seeking to get published themselves can submit their work for consideration).

New Island Books

About New Island Books: New Island Books are an independent Irish publisher, printing groundbreaking writing from both established and emerging writers. Featuring beautiful writing (often with stunning illustrations on the cover, as with Antony Cronin’s No Laughing Matter), their bookshop is well worth a browse.

Submissions: these guys are all about reading and discovering new writing and new voices. They regularly open their inboxes to unsolicited manuscripts, so check online for information about their submission windows and how and what to submit.

Nine Arches Press

About Nine Arches Press: Founded in 2008, this lovely publishing house based in the midlands, UK, are about more than just printing (award-winning) literature. They are all about the wider literary and social community and help organise events, readings, workshops and open mic nights.

Nine Arches Books: They’ve published over 70 collections, which is pretty great going. Two of their pamphlets. Mark Goodwin’s book Shod stands out after it won the 2011 East Midlands Book Award. All My Mad Mothers by Jacqueline Saphra is also a great read and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Poetry Prize, while David Clarke’s debut poems, Arc, was longlisted for the Polari Prize.

Submitting to Nine Arches Press: They have a couple of steps that interested writers should familiarise themselves with before submitting, but the important thing to remember is that these guys are very open to publishing new writing (it’s sort of what they do), so, if you have a cracking collection of poems burning a hole in your pocket, do consider submitting a sample of poems during one of their regular open submission windows.

No Alibis Press

About No Alibis: Based in a small corner of Belfast, No Alibis Press is a small publishing company with a big shouty attitude. As an independent press they’re relatively new on the scene, but for some time now they’ve been quietly incubating among the shelves of No Alibis bookstore where David Torrans and his team have been selling books for more than twenty years. One of their first books – December Stories I by Ian Samson – has already received praise from critics (including ourselves).

Submitting to No Alibis Press: These lovely folk are real champions of new and exciting writing and welcome submissions from authors (unsolicited or otherwise) at different times during the year. Check their website for information about how and when to submit.

Obliterati Press

Obliterati Press is a publisher for writers set up by writers keen to use the experience they have gained to unveil great new voices.

Obliterati Press Submissions: This indie press is particularly keen to receive submissions from new and emerging writers – so keep an eye on their various channels for news about their reading periods.

Onwe Press

About Onwe Press: UK publishers committed to discovering unforgettable stories and highlighting diverse voices. They’re a new publishing house, so drop them an email for information about their books and submissions via info@onwepress.com.

Panther Publishing

About Panther Publishing: Publisher of crime, mystery, thriller, paranormal and horror novels, based in Wales.

Panther Publishing submissions: These guys are OPEN for unsolicited manuscripts and are looking forward to reading your work. More info online.

Peepal Tree Press

About Peepal Tree Press: Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press is home to some of the finest Caribbean and Black British fiction, poetry, literary criticism, memoirs and historical studies. Discover some of their stunning and unique reads through their online catalogue featuring dozens of excellent writers.

Peepal Tree Press submissions: despite receiving a high volume of submissions, Peepal Tree Press are still open to unsolicited manuscript submissions year-round, and promise to respond to 90% of submissions within 12 weeks. Submit via submittable.

Peninsula Press

This quirky publishing house launched following a successful Kickstarter campaign (oh the things you can do with CrowdFunding!). As they build a following they are keen to receive submissions from new writers, so check out their website for information about how, when and what to submit.

Pool Publishing

A publishing house based out of Vienna, Austria. They primarily focus on illustration, graphic design and photography, working with creatives (being a creative collective ourselves, this is something we strongly endorse) from around the world, they look to create new and interesting publications. They are open to new ideas and submissions so you should check out their website and drop them a line to introduce yourself.

Red Squirrel Press

Red Squirrel Press is a self-funded independent press based in Scotland. It was founded in April 2006 and has published over 190 titles to date.  It publishes poetry pamphlets and full collections.

While they have a full production plan in place until 2021, you can still submit your work by following the press submissions guidelines online.

Salt publishing

About Salt: Salt is one of UK’s foremost independent publishers, committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature. Advocates for writers at all stages of their careers, the company help ensure that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.

Salt books – huge number of books available at reasonable prices directly from their online store. Two of their books, by Eleanor Anstruther and Samuel Fisher, have been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2019.

Salt Submissions – information about Salt’s submissions processes, including when they are open and closed for manuscript submissions, is available online.

Seren Books

About Seren Books: Wales’ leading independent book publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales. With a list spanning poetry, fiction and non-fiction, many of their books are shortlisted for – and win – major literary prizes across the UK and America. You can check out some of their great book titles online via their store – and you can usually nab yourself some nifty discount by registering with their website and newsletter.

Submitting your work to Seren Books: Seren Books are keen to publish new and exciting writing – so don’t be afraid to submit. They have a clear set of submissions guidelines you should read through first, though, so head to their website for information on how to submit your manuscript.

Serpentine Books

Serpentine Books set themselves our as genuinely seeking new, alternative fiction that doesn’t simply “follow trends” (as the majority of the publishing industry seems to try and do). They’re building their first list of books, which will no doubt build the anticipation among readers; while also providing an opportunity for writers with a new story to tell to get published. Check out their submissions guidelines if you’re interested in submitting your manuscript.

Silvertail Books

Publishing fiction and non-fiction, based in the UK. Open for submissions, importantly.

Stewed Rhubarb Press

About Stewed Rhubarb Press: SRP are an independent publisher specialising in spoken-word poetry. Its mission is to treat spoken-word poetry and novellas with the enthusiasm and respect they deserve. They advertise opportunities for submitting unsolicited manuscripts online, via Twitter and through their mailing list.

Swan River Press

Ireland’s only publishing house dedicated to literature of the gothic, fantastic, strange and supernatural. They have a range of beautiful books that are all worth checking out, popping in your shopping baskets and purchasing. Check out their list of titles via their online store.

Tangent Books

Deliberately and resolutely independent, Tangent Books maintains close relationships with the authors, designers and printers they work with to ensure that everyone involved in the production of one of their volumes gets a fair deal, as well as supporting local, independent business. A fine ethos to be celebrated, championed and supported – which you can do so by purchasing one of their wonderful books from their digital shop.

Ugly Duckling Presse

UDP is a nonprofit publisher based in Brooklyn, NYC, focusing on new poetry, translation, lost works, and books by artists. They have a swanky website featuring a host of equally swanky-looking book titles; and, what’s more, they’re open to new ideas and submissions at different points in time (for instance, they’re open to unsolicited submissions of new writing during May 2019).

Unthank Books

Unthank Books is an independent publisher founded in 2010. Historically, the Unthank is the unclaimed land at the edge of town, and that’s where this printing press resides, nurturing distinct and vibrant literature, both in the novel and short form.

Submitting to Unthank Books: To submit, in the first instance, you need to check online or via social media whether they are currently open for unsolicited submissions. If they are, and you have a piece of work no more than 80,000 words long, you should email the first 50 pages and a synopsis and covering letter to ashley.stokes@unthankbooks.com.

Verve Books

About Verve Books: A dynamic digital publisher, inspired by a love of great, original, page-turning fiction led by a team of passionate book lovers.

Verve Books Submissions: these fine folk accept new book submissions from new and established authors. Check out their guidance.

 

And a special shout out to a truly groundbreaking alternative publishing house…

Unbound Books

Innovative and unique in the publishing world, Unbound have a core mission to disrupt the publishing industry with fresh ideas that don’t fit the traditional mould. They combine Crowdfunding with traditional publishing expertise and processes (they have a team of editors, designers, and marketers, as well as a distribution team to ensure the books they publish reach new readers as well as those who back their projects). The end result is a publishing firm that genuinely creates radical and often unique books that readers and writers enjoy and benefit from.

Check out their list of published books via their online store; or go one better and pledge to support a couple of the fantastic projects they’re currently raising funds for. There are some really incredible ones out there, from poetic rhyming dictionaries for battle rappers, to books about Brexit, hills, feminism, deepwater diving and more – including this wonderful illustrated book, ‘Philosophers’ Dogs’, based on the idea that all human philosophers stole their ideas from their dogs.

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‘Who really is a good dog?’; ‘What even are tennis balls?’ ‘How can anyone ever be sure who ate the chocolate cake you left on the table?’ All these questions – and more – answered in ‘Philosophers’ Dogs’, just one of countless fantastic crowdfunding projects currently raising funds through innovative, award-winning publishing company, Unbound.

And, if you have an idea for a book yourself, they’re always keen to hear it. Information about how to submit your idea is available online.

 

 

Navigating Ulysses: a literary map from Nabokov

“The Joyce industry has elevated a diseased and querulous pedantry into an artform […] It is literature at its most debased.” So wrote Kevin Myers in The Telegraph in late 2001.

Few books have the effect of producing a such a strong reaction upon hearing its name that Joyce’s Ulysses.  Yet the impact of Joyce’s work on modern literature is beyond doubt. Inspiring to some and retch-inducing to others, it is a work surely every writer or creative thinker has encountered at some point or another in some form or another.

But no matter where you stand on the book, the fact is that Ulysses is, if nothing else, a prime example of the important connection between walking and creative thought.

Nabokov – a man of strong opinions that could cause no shortage of strong reactions himself – said “Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.”

You can see his own hand-drawn version here below.

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A handy visual guide to a challenging literary tome? Or indecipherable scribble based on an equally obtuse book? We’ll let you decide! And while you’re doing so, why not send us your own book maps and literary navigation aids? 

Book review: Slack-Tide by Elanor Dymott

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If you’ve ever wondered why you write, why you feel the need to create, why you feel everything constantly depends on what you are capable of creating, then you should read Elanor Dymott’s Slack-Tide.

Elizabeth is a novelist in her forties, who had a miscarriage that led her marriage to an end. When she’s set up on a blind date with Robert – who vaguely looks like Keanu Reeves and whose job is “designing cities” –  she feels it is the right time to start again, to be happy again.

From the very beginning of the book, we know this is a novel about an intense, even though only temporary, love story: at the end of the prologue, it is Elizabeth herself who says “by midsummer the thing between us was finished, and it was as if a storm had torn the roof from over me”.

Indeed, Sarah Moss’ quote on the back of the book anticipates this is “a compelling and beautiful account on the stories that hold us together and keep us apart”. Dymott’s hypnotic, sharp prose takes us on a journey where love and loss are indissolubly intertwined – and, despite already knowing it would finish, I couldn’t help it but keep on wishing that Elizabeth and Robert’s love story never ended.

It is Elizabeth’s clear voice that guides us: she is fierce, beautiful and tells her story as if she’s whispering it to a friend. The loss of her child haunts her. Flashbacks of a life that could have been and painful memories – her tears when the anaesthetist asks her to confirm she’s at the hospital for an abortion and the way Elizabeth screams “I’m not choosing this. I wanted my child. I wanted my baby. Do you understand?” – come back at her, neat and clear. These are constant reminders of how vulnerable she feels.

Robert is vulnerable, too. In his fifties, he has lived a life between the comforts of a wealthy family and a successful career as an architect, that brought him to travel around the globe. We get to know him when his marriage with Lea is already over, and he is torn between the social pressure of being a good father to Philippe and the need to share his daily life with a lover. “I want to be with someone,” he says, “When I come back from a trip, I want to have someone to talk about it […] About the stuff I see. I see so many things. I have so many things to say. […] Right before I met you, I was beginning to think I might burst with the things I’d seen.” As we read on, we begin to discover his acute selfishness. As a reader, you’ll find it impossible to feel indifferent to him: you’ll either love him or you’ll hate him.

Slack-tide is a book about love, about loss, about the details that make our lives unique. But what strikes most about this novel is Elizabeth’s attachment to the characters of her own books. She is loyal to them, and she’s firm in her decision of putting her writing first, come what may. When Robert tries to make her change her plans, claiming that there are other people involved, she explains “I have characters, waiting for me to tell them what to do. […] the only difference between my ‘other people’ and your ‘other people’ is that I have to make mine up. Every thought they think, every word they speak, and every single thing they do. You are lucky, Robert. You pack your case, get on a plane, and when you get off at the other end, your ‘people’ are waiting in arrivals, holding up a little sign with your name on.”

Elizabeth was not capable of giving birth. She was not able to create a new life. However, she is capable of bringing those characters to life, and she defends her work at every cost.

In this way, Slack-tide is, most of all, a book about the power of creating.

About the reviewer

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

 

 

 

 

Book review: Perennial, by Ben Armstrong

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In science fiction, space and time warps are a commonplace. They are used for rapid journeys around the galaxy, or for travel through time. But there is an integer at which fact and fiction collide – where the relativity of space-time comes into play – and it at this point, the writer suggests, we might find poetry.

Ben Armstrong’s searing debut poetry collection, Perennial, is laced with this relativity; a sense of warped perspectives as different narrative voices walk us through different places and different times – with different poems separated within themselves and sometimes from each other by a clear sense of distance. Distance between one object and another; between one lover and another; between the past and present; between a remembered thought and feeling and a prediction of a future life.

Yet while the idea of the space (either physical or fourth dimensional) between two set points helps drive the core narrative of the collection, Armstrong’s poetry stridently ignores rules of Euclidean geometry – embracing instead the science fiction (or fact – as Hawkin and Einstein would insist) of space-time warps and jumps. Shifts in tense, and perspectives, blur lines, all the while experimental formal structures breakdown boundaries and conventions, helping the reader rearrange language in unique and surprising ways.

And by jove does this surprise you. From the greeting that opens the poem to the sad vision of a remembered goodbye, Perennial takes us on a ride infused both with comedy and tragedy, seeped with allusions and allegory that are literary, modern, classical, punk, political and pop-culture, using faux-satirical homages to classical literary figures and Homeric journeys, as well as very specific moments in scenes that collide together like atoms in a collapsing neutron star.

Take, for example, the shift in tone and style between ‘old bar’ and ‘Coca Cola Focus Group’. The former: a rather beautiful meditation on loneliness and the risks of being consumed by one’s memories. The latter: an extremely fun, engaging, and wry skit on the failings of modern capitalism. Both are excellent – but what the hell are they doing beside one another? In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace the unpredictability and recognise the order within the otherwise apparent disorder. As Dr Ian Malcolm would say in sci-fi classic Jurassic Park, “it doesn’t obey set patterns or rules […] it’s chaos” (to be clear: in Perennial, the chaos is very much a good thing – not one likely to involve the risk of being eaten by dinosaurs, though probably best never to rule that option out completely).

In short, Perennial sets the highest of high bars as a debut collection and firmly marks Armstrong out as a poet to keep an eye on. Not least because his work reminds us just how damn fun poetry can be.

Creatives in profile: interview with K.M. Elkes

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Writing flash fiction takes skill, precision and – perhaps more than anything – hard work and dedication. When done well, these micro-stories can throw the reader in and out of the human condition in profound and unpredictable ways.

Some have said flash fiction stories are a part of our social media age, our insta-lifestyles, our shortened attention spans, our handheld devices, our micro-making of everything. Yet, in a world preciously short of big ideas, we could do with some of the big ideas contained within these short tales. And we could do with more

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with one of these writers willing to put pen to paper to bring these short tales – and their ideas – to us.

K.M. Elkes’s short fiction has won (or been placed) in a number of international writing competitions including the Manchester Fiction Prize, The Fish Publishing Flash Prize, the Bridport Prize and the PinDrop Prize, as well as appearing in more than 30 anthologies. His work has also been published in literary magazines such as UnthologyThe Lonely CrowdStructo and Litro. A flash fiction collection All That Is Between Us will be published in paperback by AdHoc Fiction in 2019. He is a short story tutor for Comma Press and his work has also been used on schools and college curriculum in USA and Hong Kong.

Elkes lives and works in the West Country, UK. A recipient of an Arts Council England award, he is currently working on a debut short story collection and a novel. As a writer with a rural working class upbringing, his work often reflects marginalised voices and liminal places.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

ELKES

In summary – writer, teacher, musician, traveller, ginger, potty-mouth. Not always in that order. I currently live in Bristol, but my background is rural working-class Shropshire.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

ELKES

Writing is one of the things, like making music, that I cannot not do. It’s more complicated than love or passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ELKES

Single-minded people – I’m too ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, so I draw inspiration from writers, particularly women or those from less privileged backgrounds, who have had the singleness of vision to succeed against the odds.
And pole vaulters – their sport is rife with symbolism.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ELKES

I went to a tiny rural primary school in Shropshire that had about 30 children and two teachers. It was stuck in a 1930s time warp – two classrooms, no inside toilets, dinners delivered lukewarm on the back of a van. But that school and those teachers instilled a hunger for reading in me that has been the catalyst for many things.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

ELKES

As a form based around concision, it combines poetry’s attention to language and rhythm with the prose tools of plot, characterisation, dialogue etc. Within that there are infinite colours, moods and stories, so what’s not to like?

INTERVIEWER

One of the joys of English is that, while its huge vocabulary can be deployed in mesmerising Joycean arpeggios, it can just as easily concentrate its meaning in a few well chosen words. In the age of Twitter, why do you think so many people are increasingly attracted to the brevity of short, flash or ‘micro’ fiction?

ELKES

I’m not a fan of the notion that people have short attention spans so they are attracted to shorter forms. Just because something is short doesn’t mean it requires less concentration and effort to read. I would hope more people are attracted to the form because they recognise it can produce genuinely good writing. The rise of social media and digital platforms for writing has no doubt helped.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a story needs in order for it to be a story?

ELKES

Movement. Not necessarily plot, but a sense that something has changed.

INTERVIEWER

How easy do you find it to move between different writing forms/mediums – can you balance writing a novel with crafting flash fiction or short stories?

ELKES

Transitioning between different forms is not difficult. Writers who claim otherwise are probably just procrastinating. In fact, changing forms is a good way to give the kaleidoscope a shake to find new ideas. What is difficult, sometimes, is the act of writing itself, whatever the form.

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

ELKES

By reflecting at length on the fact that I don’t have motivation to carry out just about any other form of gainful employment.

Also by dreaming of the day when I can walk into a bookshop and find a section devoted just to short fiction, rather than having to play ‘hunt the collections’ among the general fiction…

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel writers should feel any ethical responsibility in their roles?

ELKES

I don’t think it is ethical for a writer to create ethical responsibilities for other writers – they need to deal with their own shit.

Having said that it grinds my gears when well-established writers phone it in for cash. Such as when novelists supply distinctly average ‘been-in-the-bottom-drawer-awhile’ pieces for occasional short story specials in newspapers or magazines. In this case, maybe the ethical motto should be: ‘Do your best or don’t bother’.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

ELKES

No. Except that maybe the fantastic audience who came to a live literary event I did in Bath last year and laughed like drains at my funny stuff and emoted all over my sad pieces. They can come and sit in the room while I’m writing (if they bring their own chairs).

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry (if we can call it thus)? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

ELKES

The trend to encourage more diversity in writing and publishing is something I would like to see continuing. As someone from a working-class background, I know there are barriers still in place. But I also know I have to check what privileges I have as a white male. Even those at the epicentre of the white, male, middle-class, London-dominated and Oxbridge educated system must acknowledge there’s a better way. Done right, I think more diversity would mean more readers, more books sold, a more robust industry.

Another big challenge is how writers, whose average income from books continues to decline, can earn enough to keep creating. There is an unrealistic expectation in society that creative work should merely be another form of free content.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

ELKES

I’m editing a collection of flash fiction called All That Is Between Us which will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in Spring 2019. I’m also working on finishing a short story collection and starting a novel.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5-10 top tips for writers of flash fiction?

ELKES

  1. Give yourself permission to write crap, then use that freedom to write well.
  2. Read lots of short fiction in collections and online to learn more about what works and what doesn’t
  3. Don’t grab at the first idea for a story, let things brew for just a little while longer.
  4. Write hot, edit cold
  5. Ignore lists of top tips for short fiction writers and write whatever feels risky and surprises you.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ELKES

Instagram and Twitter allow this:  #Thewomandreamedofstrollingdampwintermeadowswithherlatehusbandbefore wakingtofindherloverwashingherfeet

 

 

Originality and self-discovery through reading

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Writers are always told they ought to read more: to learn the rules, to understand the language better, to figure out which stories work and which don’t. As Stephen King notes, you need to “read widely, and constantly work to refine and redefine your own work as you do so.”

Yet is there a greater power literature has that can help improve a writer’s skills? Something that goes beyond a simple ‘monkey see; monkey do’ instruction tool?

German born poet, novelist, and painter Herman Hesse touched upon this power in a 1920 essay simply titled ‘on reading books’. Arguing that reading books helps spark something within our minds that other form of media fail to do, he suggests that the act of reading helps improve our associative thinking that turns the reading material into a springboard for indiscriminate curiosity from which to leap far beyond the particular substance of the particular book. He writes:

At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”

Reading, then, can spark a person’s imagination in such a way that genuinely new and unique ideas can flourish. Just as solitary exercise can stimulate the creative energy required to produce original pieces of work (as we’ve detailed here), reading is important to writing, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us grow – to better understand the world. Our minds are free to linger on thoughts they otherwise would not; in a kind of simulated – but nonetheless stimulating – solitude that helps us better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

As US President Theodore Roosevelt opined when asked whether he saw there to be any ‘rules’ for the act of reading himself:

“[We] all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”

Intriguingly, though reading is a solitary act, it can make a person feel less alone. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay ‘Flight’:

“Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others.”

If it is true that the most important qualities to be a writer are imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus, reading avidly helps curate and foster these skills. Yet in the process of reading so much, we can step beyond simply doing what we ought to be doing, and discover more about the world; and also ourselves.

 

 

Crime and punishment: rehabilitation through reading

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“In your cell reading, it’s like meditation. You can shut off the rest of the world, your problems, and just focus.” – Anonymous prisoner, HMP Pentonville, UK.

3 years ago, the UK High Court overturned a Conservative government-imposed ban on books inside prisons. Campaigners argued that books were an integral part of the rehabilitation process for prisoners, and a number of charities, notably The Reading Agency and Books to Prisoners have long championed literature as a tool of redemption and education.

Let’s explore this in more detail.

Transformation and metamorphosis

Books that seem to be popular among many prisoners are those that hold pertinent messages of transformation, like Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. These stories seem to help inmates craft a new identity for themselves – convincing them of the possibility of not only surviving but even thriving within the tough environment of prison.

And, with an estimated 50% of UK prisoners unable to read or write, the ability to access books, or participate in reading groups, provides not just motivation; but other practical skills, too.

Rod Clark, Chief Executive of Prisoners’ Education Trust, explains: “a seemingly simple book can be incredibly valuable to someone serving a prison sentence – from teaching him or her to read, to developing a love of learning, to feeling empathy for characters to encouraging people to tell their own stories”.

A great escape

An age-old, oft-made joke is that you can escape prison by reading a book. But it’s not simple escapism that literature offers those serving hard time; but something far more important – hope. For prisoners who are able to access and engage with literature – at whatever level, freedom doesn’t have to begin for them when their cell doors are opened and they are finally allowed to walk back out onto the streets in some distant future. It can begin immediately – whenever they open up the pages of a book.

This isn’t simple idealism. Rather, it is based on hard evidence that reading can dramatically improve the lives of prisoners. In the Critical Survey, ‘Reading for Life’: Prison Reading Groups in Practice and Theory, research concluded that another vital benefit of providing prisoners with books to read was that it helped alleviate feelings of depression. The author of the survey, Josie Billington, explains:

“A rich, varied, non-prescriptive diet of serious literature […] proved especially important in encouraging participants to engage in discussion and address their depression directly.”

The survey found that, not only were inmates starting to claim direct benefits of feeling happier, more content as a result of the literature they were reading; but that they were becoming more self-aware as a result of reading it. The authors note that there was “a significant proportion” of prisoners who found that, by engaging with specific set texts, they were able to rediscover old or forgotten, suppressed or inaccessible modes of thought, feeling and experience.

That prisoners, then, are often drawn to books about transformation may not be so surprising. For through their engagement with literature, many are undergoing a personal metamorphosis of their own.

As Wolfgang Iser recognised long ago, literature has the power to change and restore. This is because when you read a story, you can find yourself temporarily transported from bad, anxious, troubling or unhappy thoughts because of your absorption in a story. In this way, the relationship between a reader and a fictional work is different from that between an observer and an object – it is different from that between a viewer and a television set, also. It is an active relationship that requires the reader to possess a moving viewpoint which travels along inside that which it has to apprehend. Readers have to create worlds and characters for themselves, partly through their imagination, and partly guided by the author of any given text.

This is why readers become “caught up in the very thing they are producing,” as Henry James put it, which means “they have the illusion of having lived another life.”

Real rehabilitation

This is a powerful reaction to produce in a human being – and one that helps readers discover new awareness of empathy for others. When readers empathise with people in books, they are mimicking the same empathy they would feel for people in similar situations in real life. For prisoners who have often struggled with notions of the impact their actions have on others, this is a critical part of their rehabilitation.

Again, this proposition is based on hard evidence. In 2014, the UK Ministry of Justice produced a report that indicated prison inmates who had access to educational courses that focused heavily on literature and reading were 8% less likely to reoffend than those who did not have access to such courses.

Freedom through literature

What all this seems to come down to is the way prison, in its current form, is designed not only to keep inmates physically confined; but mentally restricted, too. Yet by closing down the thoughts of prisoners, you restrict the opportunity for their minds to perceive of the world as a land of opportunity and freedom; and instead only as a place of narrow paths that likely follow the same routes that ultimately lead back to prison.

Literature – and access to it – changes such a worldview. Reading helps support the inquisitive mind of the individual human to discover new ways of looking at the world. As John Steinbeck wrote:

“The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”

So, let’s make the case to help prisoners free their minds through books; let’s make this the moment when prison libraries are given due attention, improved where necessary, made much more accessible for all prisoners and put at the heart of a learning culture in prisons. Through prison libraries and reading groups, it might be possible to create an oasis of sanity and a door to a new world.

 

 

 

 

Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

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“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.