There are many reasons why the success of Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is wonderful news. It is a brilliant book. Quite possibly the best book to win a major literary prize in a decade or more. It will inevitably mean other publishers raise their eyebrows, and have a little “hmm, let’s have a think about that moment.”
But what interests me most is that it has changed, in a single, scalpel-sharp focused scything swoop, the discourse around self-publishing.
Many of us have long argued that self-publishing is of greatest value to readers because it offers daring, original, undefinable fiction they could not get elsewhere. We have pointed to the conservative tendencies of traditional publishers, the dropping of the midlist, the impossibility of getting the awkward and experimental even seen. By contrast self-publishing is an unfettered land of artistic freedom, burgeoning with a billion blossoms of brilliance.
Of late, many of us have had our original enthusiasm somewhat dampened by the incessant droning on on the one hand in the media about self-publishing’s bestselling icons and genre fiction superstars, leaving large parts of the landscape uncharted, and on the other hand by self-publishers themselves pleading that their books are “as good as those in the mainstream” as though the prospect of being as good as something already overly-abundant was somehow an irresistible, intoxicating prospect.
Where, we have cried out, is the art? Where is the recognition of the difficult, the experimental, and the groundbreaking? Increasingly I have felt that actually these things are more to be found in small presses and not in self-publishing.
What A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing has done is to throw down the gauntlet. “Publishers don’t publish…” is patently not true. What we need to show now is that “self-publishing does produce…” IS true. The new venture between the Guardian and Legend Press to find a self-published book of the month is a brilliant opportunity to do just this.
But it’s not just an opportunity. It’s an imperative. This is a competition that Legend’s Tom Chalmers, an indefatigable campaigner for self-publishing quality, has set up specifically to redress the balance of self-publishing coverage towards quality. He states:
“My concern is not that quality doesn’t exist, but that there’s no mechanism for it to surface; that a hugely talented writer without self-marketing skills could be missed in the sales clatter.
And it was with this in mind that we set up the Self-published book of the month”
That’s a wonderful objective. But it HAS to deliver. And it has to deliver not just books that are as good as those in the mainstream. If self-publishing is to continue to make the case that it is the true home of the daring and the experimental, then this prize has to deliver a book that can sit alongside A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. If it does not, then we have to have a post mortem that will conclude either “shame on the judges” or “shame on the writers”. But whichever we decide, it will be shame on someone.
So I make three pleas.
– Writers, please submit your boldest and most daring work.
– Tom, please make the rules more flexible in terms of the length of work to avoid missing things.
and most crucial of all
– judges and readers, please do your duty and foreground not the excellent and the polished, not the “good enough to be published” and the accomplished, but the daring and the sui generis and the flawed but brilliant.
Only if all of these converge can self-publishing hope to continue its claim to be the true home of creative originality.