Novels about Lucia Joyce and Alan Turing win Republic of Consciousness Prize

Will Eaves and Alex Pheby share prize as founder rejects single winner convention


The founder of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses, Niall Griffiths, has challenged the convention that prize shortlists should produce only one winner, as this year’s award was shared between Will Eaves for Murmur (CB Editions) and Alex Pheby for Lucia (Galley Beggar Press).

Murmur and Lucia will both be awarded £3,500, to be split between the press (£2,500) and the author (£1,000). The entire shortlist, which included Belfast author Wendy Erskine and her Dublin publisher Stinging Fly, will be awarded £1,500 each, also split between press (£1,000) and author (£500). They are:
Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (Stinging Fly)
Dedalus by Chris McCabe (Henningham Family Press)
Doppelgänger by Daša Drndic, tr. Celia Hawkesworth & SD Curtis (Istros)
Kitch by Anthony Joseph (Peepal Tree Press)

The prize organisers announced that “prize judges will not be restricted to choosing a sole winner each year. This is a prize designed to celebrate small presses, and while the competitive dynamic of prizes points readers towards ‘the best books’, they also create a false hierarchy where ‘the best’ becomes a valid category. From now the prize will focus on the celebration, and the financial support that can be given, rather than the competition.”

Taking its cue from the arrest and legally enforced chemical castration of the mathematician Alan Turing, Murmur is the account of a man who responds to intolerable physical and mental stress with love, honour and a rigorous, unsentimental curiosity about the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the world. Judge Catherine Taylor said: “Murmur is a transfixing work, an epic despite its 176 pages, which, while examining the uncomfortable truths about a past of discrimination and prejudice, is also a novel of the future. Will Eaves’s playful, fiercely intelligent interpretation of aspects of the life of a character who closely resembles the brilliant, multifaceted Alan Turing is a dreamlike wonder of memory and consciousness. Its ways are mysterious, its effect deepens with every reading.’

In sharp, cutting shards of narrative, Lucia evokes the things that may have been done to Lucia Joyce. And while it presents these stories in vivid and heart-breaking detail, it also questions what it means to recreate a life. It is not an attempt to speak for Lucia. Rather, it is an act of empathy and contrition that constantly questions what it means to speak for other people. Judge David Collard said: “A mesmerising account of James Joyce’s troubled daughter Lucia. She spent much of her life locked away in grim institutions. Pheby is a magician and – quite literally and breathtakingly – ushers Lucia’s restless spirit into a serene afterlife through the careful application of Egyptian funerary rituals. A very rich and strange novel that investigates consciousness, agency, selfhood, mental disorder, medical callousness and misogyny.”

Griffiths said: “Games have winners; competitions have winners. Prizes for the arts are a celebration of the best work within a certain time frame. The ‘winner’ bit is about creating an event horizon, providing easy digestible copy. Everyone knows when it comes to art picking winner is a nonsense. If the short list is strong enough then there will be strong arguments for each of them to be the winner.

“From this year onwards the judges of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses will be instructed to select the winning book(s) on the criteria that book x or y cannot not win. Yes, it’s a double negative, but a minus plus a minus is a positive. This is what we did in the first year. We had an outright winner because it was loved most. But we gave three other awards because these books were loved enough to win. But then in year two we followed advice and followed convention. I would have had two winners last year. And I’m pleased to say we have two this year.

“If we raise more money next year, there could be more: it may be that a single book wins, it may be that four do. We want to get to a place where we don’t have choose between books that we can’t choose between. What I really want is that we don’t have winners at all, but a celebration of the best work of small presses. But I’m not foolish enough to think a short list will work on its own. But it’s not a winner or no winner. It’s about not being made into a false choice. Giving three writers an award might be split the pecuniary upside by three, but it triples the good feeling.”

The prize money is provided by sponsors at the University of East Anglia, through the UEA Publishing Project, and the Times Literary Supplement, as well as through crowdfunding and private donors. The prize was set up by author Neil Griffiths. The judges this year were the literary critics David Collard and Catherine Taylor, and the novelist Niven Govinden, alongside a student panel from the UEA Creative Writing programme.

The submission criteria are fewer than five full time staff and a commitment to “hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose”. Previous winners have been Fitzcarraldo Editions’ Counternarratives by John Keene and Influx Press’s Attrib & Other Stories by Eley Williams.

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