Independent publishing is healthier than it has been for many years with small presses like Alma Books, Hesperus, Peirene and Puskhkin, with their diverse lists full of books in translation, undeservedly obscure gems and republished classics, seeing their books up for numerous prizes and claiming a growing proportion of book sales.
It's a trend not just confined to United Kingdom. Marion Rankine, from the Fiction Dept at our new Charing Cross Road shop, reveals how Melbourne's award-winning Text Publishing are finding new fans for many neglected Australian authors, both back home and now over here too.
How wonderful are small publishers? If any further proof were needed, Eimear McBride's debut novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing has recently won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. In case you missed its backstory (or Deputy Head of Fiction Gary Perry's interview with her here), A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was rejected by publishers for nearly a decade before the tiny Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press published it in June 2013. Since then it's firmly established itself as - in Anne Enright's words - an 'instant classic', winning several prestigious awards and international publication to boot.
While there's much to be said for encouraging bigger publishers to take more risks ('I hope it will serve as an incentive to publishers to look at difficult books and think again,' McBride said of her Baileys' win) the story is a perfect illustration of the unique role small presses play in publishing and disseminating the 'difficult', the prickly, and the most experimental of literary offerings. Small publishers don't only support authors; they also support the reading public by ensuring these works are accessible and readily available. Sam Jordison, co-director of Galley Beggar, summed it up best when he wrote, "We saw printing [A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing] as a duty. We were prepared to go bankrupt in order to get it out there."
I could go on and on about my favourite small publishers but we'd be here all day. Instead I'll confine myself to just one: Text Publishing. Founded in 1990 and clearly still flourishing, Text Publishing have won Australia's Small Publisher of the Year award for the past three years running. As an expat Australian (yes, I did move here for the weather), I was thrilled to discover they are also distributed here in the UK, with an impressive selection on the shelves at Foyles. So thrilled, in fact, that we've put together a promotional table of their titles in the Charing Cross Road branch.
Alongside their vibrant and often quirky cover designs and an impressive catalogue of local and international authors (including Ruth Ozeki, MJ Hyland, Graeme Simsion, Peter Temple, and, coincidentally, Eimear McBride), Text also run an imprint called Text Classics. Instantly recognizable on any bookshelf thanks to their distinctive yellow spines, Text Classics represent some of the finest authors in Australian history, many of whom have long been out of print. Australia is notorious for a longstanding history of anti-intellectualism (which still pervades Australian culture today; Christos Tsiolkas was eloquent on the subject in a recent interview with Foyles) and a cultural cringe vastly out of proportion to the talents of its artists, writers, and intellectuals. As Text Publishing's Michael Heyward notes, the idea that there was 'no such thing as Australian literature' persisted well into the 20th century. Even today, some of the finest Australian novels are simply not taught in universities.
Part - although not, by any means, all - of this problem is that many of these books fell out of print. It's one of the vagaries of the publishing industry that Text Classics is doing its best to redress. Michael Heyward again: 'It takes a generation or two, sometimes less, for us to... put our books and writers on the high shelf of the past, where we forget about them. Imagine if our art galleries decided to banish the works of Brett Whiteley or Fred Williams to their darkened basements for a decade or two. That's what we routinely do to so many significant writers whose books are out of print.'
Text Classics now have 72 titles (and counting) on their catalogue, with 5 more due out this year alone. From Barbara Baynton's unsettling short stories on life in the Australian bush to contemporary classics like Helen Garner's Cosmo Cosmolino and Stiff by Shane Maloney, Text Classics titles prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the brilliance, strength and vitality of Australian literature over the past couple of centuries - while ensuring that it continues to be felt and experienced by readers today.
I've been steadily reading my way through Text's catalogue, so by way of introduction - and in celebration of the Text display at the Charing Cross branch - here are some of my favourites. If you're already acquainted,
do tell us yours.
Swords and Crowns and Rings by Ruth Park
Please don't dismiss this book if I tell you that its author wrote a delightful children's series called The Muddleheaded Wombat. I nearly did, to my great cost and lasting humblement. Winner of the prestigious Miles Franklin Award in 1977, this astonishing novel charts the course of two young lives in Depression-era Australia. Jackie Hanna is poor, and a dwarf. Cushie Moy is from a wealthy upper-class family. They are deeply and irrevocably in love. Contrary to popular opinion, love does not 'conquer all'. It doesn't negate one's social and moral obligations to others, or snap the ties of class and poverty. Sometimes it must endure long separation or marriage to others. Jacky & Cushie will encounter the purest and foulest aspects of human nature in their struggle to live truthfully in a society which is antipathetic to their choices and, sometimes, their very existence. Brilliant and beautifully written, it's the story of a country in despair, and the characters who refuse to give in to it.
In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower
This book was originally scheduled for publication in 1971, but at the eleventh hour Harrower withdrew it. 'There are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don't need to be written,' she said afterwards. Luckily for the world, she's reconsidered. This is an elegant and intensely alive novel about two sets of siblings who first meet as teenagers in post-war Australia. Over the years their paths diverge and recombine, the course of each moulded subtly but indisputably by their backgrounds. A nuanced exploration of class in supposedly egalitarian circles, with finely-drawn characters and an impeccable sense of the drama inherent in everyday life.
The Young Desire It by Kenneth MacKenzie
Published to great acclaim in 1937 and out of print for years, this novel was re-issued just last year to, possibly, even greater acclaim. This is the story of one boy's coming-of-age as he faces the peculiar torments of boarding school and his awakening adult consciousness. Amidst the demands of educational, familial and social responsibilities arrives a young woman he is fiercely attracted to. As they grow closer he must negotiate the conflicting needs of his mother, the lonely young schoolmaster who has singled him out for attention, and his own heart. Evocative, erotic, and shimmering with the heat and colours of the Australian landscape.