A write-up of a truly wonderful event, IndieRecon, the Indie Author Fair, and the Indie fringe at London Book Fair will follow. Here, I will just say an enormous thank you to Orna Ross at the Alliance of Independent Authors who does such incredible work and despite the organisations expanding profile continues to let an obscure little poet take a place. And to the ridiculously talented and lovely Rohan Quine for letting me share a stage with him on the vital topic of literary fiction in self-publishing. For now, this is just the transcript of the poem I gave as people have been asking for the words.

With huge thanks to David Penny at the Alliance of Independent Authors, here is the footage of our session, with Rohan from 0:00-5:20 and me from 5:20-end

I asked a simple question – why should self-publishing protect and promote the full range of diverse voices in writing?


Because every day a little girl, let’s call her Sarah,

Hears the world condensed into words

And falls in love with a possibility.

That she might fold her life into a gift of syllables and sentences

And hold it out

For all the sisters, misfits, lonely souls and drifters

To open and unfold towards a beautiful horizon they’d always thought hopelessly distant.

Because her parents see the way she looks and sigh

And go to bed and cry because they know

Tomorrow they take Sarah to a place every other child she knows believes is magic –

A bookshop.

Because they know when she reaches her beautiful black hands to the mirror of the shelf

Instead of herself

She sees my white hands reflected back

Because tomorrow’s books are written by the choices we make today

Their pages penned by voices we invite to stay

Not voices that we cast away.

Because when we set our sights on our own freedom

The light we see at the end of the tunnel is just a metaphor

Systemically generated by the literary hegemony

To strengthen the advantages of an already charmed existence

To keep others at arm’s length and their chances at a manageable distance

Because what we call quality others call colony

Whose overlords behead the aspirations of others

With ceremonial swords

Of approving badges, nodding column inches, blogging and awards.

Because when we pick and choose the facts of writing right,

Dictate the tropes and tools of narrative exactitude

So Sarah loses if she enacts her life

Maybe the syntax we use is wrong.

Because if we want to uncage every song

Be fibres of a fabric where every thread belongs

It is our duty to take this microphone

And these tweets

And empty them of middle-aged white guys like me.

To hold the door as I withdraw

And Sarah takes the floor,

And unrolls a carpet woven with the warp of her words and the weft of her dreams

And waits with open pages

For all the sisters, misfits, lonely souls and drifters

As their lives unfold towards the heart-lifting, dream-shifting, gloriously glittering stage.

Women Writing Women

It has been my great pleasure over the years to meet some incredible writers, and to be part of some amazing collaborations. So when 7 of my very favourite writers I’ve met on my journey got together to produce an amazing box set of women’s literary fiction, I was positively hopping up and down to talk to them about it. Business out of the way first, though. You can find out more about the project here. And you can order the wonderful box set, bringing you 7 of the finest novels on the market today, here from Amazon UK and here from And you have just 90 days in which to snap up this wonderful offer for just £7.99.


It strikes me that the motivation for this collection could sit anywhere on a spectrum between a clever marketing idea and an important political statement. Where would you place it?

Jane: Are clever marketing and political statements at opposite ends of the same scale? 2015 has already been hailed the year of the collaboration by the likes of Mark Coker of Smashwords. The challenge for indies—as is always has been for corporate publishers—is connecting book and reader. That’s why indie collections like Outside the Box: Women Writing Women work so well for both readers and authors. Is it simply a case of clever marketing if you offer readers a genuine opportunity to discover fiction that they might not otherwise try at a very attractive price? This is far more than a seven-books-for-the-price-of-two offer. We know that readers are struggling to find their next read, one that will both entertain and challenge them. Publishers must choose from a bewildering range of genres at the point of publication, among them ‘women writers and fiction’, ‘women’s literary fiction’, ‘literary fiction’, ‘women’s popular fiction’, ‘contemporary fiction’, ‘general fiction’. The diversity under those categories is so vast that the very same labels that were designed to make life easier for readers lose all meaning. Personally, I find the sub-genres far more useful. Add the thorny issue of cover design, put together by someone who may not even have read the book, into the mix and it’s not surprising that, inevitably, some books end up in the hands of the wrong readers.

Kobo have recently published statistics showing which books readers were most likely to give up on before they reached the end – and the results were surprising, including critically acclaimed novels and prize-winners. Readers are genuinely fed up with being told what they should be reading. They want fiction that is both challenging and entertaining. As Joni Rodgers says, ‘I love stepping aside from the noise and introducing books I can highly recommend to readers who really get it—and not everyone does. These aren’t the commercial no-brainers; they’re the thoughtful books that jump the turnstile and do all sorts of things that well-behaved books don’t do.’ We are asking readers to take a risk on an author/authors they don’t know. But hopefully the pay-off will be discovering something wonderful.

As for political. Clearly, we’re a group of women writers, but that was by accident rather than design. We simply sought out a group of writers we considered to be at the forefront of indie publishing and who were producing difficult-to-pigeon-hole work. But the fact that we are an all-female group is difficult to ignore. Our aim is to showcase a diverse range of fiction from light (but never frothy) right through too darker material that delves into psychological territory, but should we feel under an obligation to take on a cause?

Personally, I would prefer to let our credentials speak for themselves – although we do happen to be holding one hell of a joker. Speaking for myself, I share Joanne Harris’s view that ‘women’s fiction’ isn’t a genre. All it does is reinforce the idea that books written by women are not for men. At a time when bookshops have been asked to do away with ‘boys’ fiction’ and ‘girls’ fiction’, this category seems highly inappropriate. There is no shortage of material to show that women authors are often overlooked. I for one would never want positive discrimination. We do know that women read books written by both men and women and that men tend to only read books written by men. Or do they? The twist in this tale is that two of our authors ghost for male writers. Which suggests that, as was the case in 1998 when Francine Prose’s wrote her essay, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” take away the gender label and it’s not all that easy to identify the author by sex.

Roz: The problem with terms like ‘political’ and ‘marketing’ is that they look dishonest. And dishonest is completely opposite to who we are, what we stand for. We are all writing the books we feel genuinely compelled to write. That’s where we all started, with a truthful connection with our characters and material. This is why we are indie.

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There are clearly common threads through the work of the authors in this collection. What, for you, are the most important ones?

Roz: What unites us is our desire to craft our fiction to be as good as possible while pushing boundaries. We’ve each of us proved our worth with awards, fellowships, teaching posts and commercial success. We’ve all self-published to keep our hard-earned independence and our artistic identity. Our set of novels features strong, idiosyncratic female protagonists – characters traditional publishing might shy away from. So we’re presenting a new breed of female characters, and they’re a diverse and unconventional bunch. As are we.

Jessica: Unconventional women trying to navigate (and at the same time, break free from) the conformist ideologies of a submissive society.


Was it these commonalities that drew you to each other as writers?

Jane: We looked for authors whose work we knew had been pigeonholed to their detriment by the traditional publishing industry, or whose work is difficult to define by traditional parameters. My second novel was turned down by my publisher because it wasn’t women’s fiction – they had published Half-truths and White Lies under their Black Swan imprint, but I had never set out to write only for women. Roz Morris describes My Memories of a Future Life as ‘stubborn and strange’, which I think is a fabulous marketing strategy. It certainly made me track it down immediately. As a group, we have been tagged as ‘literary’ but the novels in our collection also have a strong contemporary leaning.

Jessica: I believe so, but perhaps on a more subconscious level. I hadn’t read the authors’ books before realising I had a lot in common with them. But it certainly came to no surprise, when I did read their books, that they were of a similar nature to mine. Perhaps it was the power of female intuition?

Roz: Funnily enough, the ‘stubborn and strange’ description came from a reviewer, not from me. It’s actually very hard to know how to describe your own work. You need others to be your mirror. I’d say our most important common traits are a similarity in outlook. We’re independent minded. We embrace control and we have a strong vision of our own art. I echo Jane’s point about pigeonholing. Many of us have been encouraged to fit market trends and have resisted because it would compromise our books. We’ve all got our eye on the long term – to make books that are true to who we are. I like being in the company of such writers.


Do they help you to come up with any kind of a label for your books? I say that with one eye on the general problematicity of the label “literary fiction” and the other eye on the well-rehearsed spat between Jodi Picoult and Jonathan Franzen over women writers and literary fiction.

Jessica: Though I list my books under specific genres, because I’m obligated to do so due to the structure of retailer catalogues, I do my best not to focus on those genres when promoting my work on social media. I generally focus on what the book is about, or refer to my tag line. (I’ll let readers find the tag line on my website, as I’m not sure it’s appropriate for this interview! Ha!) This way I give readers the opportunity to see whether the story is right for them without having to lump myself into a specific category, which, let’s face it, is most likely perceived in an entirely different way by each individual anyway. Take this as a real-life example: I say “women’s fiction,” and one reader immediately thinks “fun chick lit, a quick light read,” and another immediately thinks “contemporary women’s fiction, a deep and thought-provoking read.” How am I supposed to let readers know that they may enjoy my work, when they have completely different ideas about the genre it’s listed under? I think genres should be regarded merely as stepping stones, because to some extent, they limit the visibility of unconventional work.

Roz: I didn’t know how to label my novels when I wrote them. I submerged in the characters and followed my instincts. I published them with little idea of where they fitted, market wise, so I let feedback from readers guide me. I never set out to be deliberately literary; I was told I was after the event. Indeed, I see myself most of all as a storyteller who likes a resonant metaphor. Story and pacing are just as important to me as elegant language and thought.

As for the spat between Picoult and Franzen? Honestly, life’s too short. Their argument doesn’t affect what I do. I don’t feel I am a representative of anything. That seems too simplistic – and anyway, it doesn’t matter to me, although I realise it matters to some. I’d rather spend my energy writing honest books than following two writers arguing in the public eye.

Jane: The irony of fighting against labels is that, ultimately, it was necessary to define what the box-set was about. Our decision was to focus on our characters and the boundary-breaking nature of our fiction.


What do you think the dangers are, as a writer, with box set collaborations? How have you avoided them?

Jane: The main danger is that each author within the group will have a different agenda. Put your first question to each participant and you might find that one of us has a highly political agenda. I must admit that before I accepted Jessica’s invitation, I had already decided to release my own three-book box-set and was looking for two other authors to collaborate with on a mixed box-set. Outside the Box is far more ambitious than what I originally had in mind! But we are totally a democracy. I felt have felt free to express my opinions and have, on occasion, been outvoted – just as I’d expect to be. I served on a board of directors for twenty-three years, so I am more than used to compromise. But, seriously, working with this team has been a complete eye opener.  The talent and experience within this small team meant that within a week we had a title, cover artwork and a website. Our vision was almost complete. Any minor niggles far outweigh the pros. Roz Morris blogged today: ‘Now here’s where we can explore the power of the group. We’ve already been interviewed by The Guardianbooks pages, Books + Publishing (the Australian counterpart of Publisher’s Weekly) and have interest from the arts programmes of BBC Radio 4. If any of us had approached them on our own – impressive though our CVs might look – we probably wouldn’t have got even a reply.’

Jessica: Dangers? I do not see any dangers. I dove into this project as an experiment and do not have any expectations. It is what it is, and it will be what it will be. And I’m completely open to any result in any shape or form. If it’s a flop (and what’s a flop nowadays anyway?) I had a good time, and honed my organisational skills. If it’s a success (in my own view), erm … I’ll drink a bottle of my favourite wine with a smile on my face and move onto achieving my next goal.

To give my own answer to an earlier question, I would say that the threads I see running through the books in this collection with which I am familiar are a reality that sits on a line between bent out of shape and porous (sometimes approaching magic realism), and the employment of big metaphors. Both of these point to the search for a truth that is “more true” somehow than the one we perceive with our senses. Succeeding with those ambitions takes a lot of control and confidence as a writer. How do you manage it?

Roz: Oh I do love a good metaphor. When I get an idea, it’s usually strange. For instance, what if a character was hypnotised and experienced a different life, but instead of going to the past, as is conventional, she went to the future? This became My Memories of a Future Life. What if, in decades to come, all the countryside had gone and we lived in a cocoon of helpful software and social rules – and somebody started dreaming they were riding horses? This was the germ of Lifeform Three.

I love your description there of ‘the truth that is more true’. That’s exactly it. These ideas arrive full of freight – although, like dreams, they keep it locked away. Confidence is needed to do justice to them, certainly – although not just in craft. I also have to be patient, to keep working so that the idea will reveal how it needs to be treated. My writing process is part research and part search; a labyrinthine route of interpretation and guesswork that sometimes take years. I’m searching for answers, but really I’m also searching for the right questions to ask, the way to unlock the metaphor, the hyper-truth if you like.

Jessica: I’ve never thought of being able to “manage.” I write what I’m inspired to write, and inspiration comes in various forms, and often in no form at all, but as a mere sweep of energy that tempts me to sit down and type. Sometimes I type not knowing my intention, creating characters out of thin air who eventually become fully-developed creatures who star in the show. Sometimes, like with White Lady, the star of the show doesn’t show her face until the third draft and I am forced to reshape the entire book around her. I hate to sound clichéd, but writing, for me, is something I do because I would dissolve into nothing if I didn’t. I really hate saying something like that. I know so many writers play the “I can’t not write” card, but I truly think it’s because it’s so irrevocably true. We work so hard for very little return when you compare the hours we put in with the money we make. Any logical person would think thrice about diving into such a profession. But we don’t. And that determination can only come from a deep desire to fulfil ourselves creatively. It’s not “managing,” it’s “being alive.”

Which leads to whether you think it is better for an author to be ambitious in their scope even if they fall short, or to succeed on more limited terms?

Jane: When you say ‘succeed on more limited terms’, I assume you mean ‘limited’ in terms of commercial or monetary success.

For me, self-publishing is the mechanism that freed me to be more ambitious in terms of where I wanted to take my fiction. Instead of being dictated to, I am free to write about what I want to write about. Remove the pressure of trying of tying to mould something to fit the current publishing market – which agents admit is risk-adverse and overly-commercialised – and it grows wings. I have been told that my fiction delves into deeper psychological territory than most fiction dares. Would I have been allowed to write An Unchoreographed Life if I was under contract? I don’t think so.

So does it always have to come down to a choice between artistic integrity and commercial success? Even though it didn’t come from independent publishing, I am grateful for The Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and the way in which Eimear McBride used her acceptance speech as a platform from which to challenge the industry to meet the needs of reader.

Before the e-book revolution, one of our other contributors, Joni Rodgers, was told by her agent, “Don’t waste your time. The midlist is dead.” The bottom line is that if a publisher can’t make money from a book, neither can the agent or the author. An author devotes thousands of hours to a book out of whatever it is that drives us to create, but agents and publishers quite reasonably funnel the lion’s share of their resources to projects that are less risky or commercial no-brainers. The indie publishing revolution rewrote the balance sheet by sweeping aside the crowd of people who used to stand between author and reader. Less than ten years later, we’re operating in a new publishing universe. Literary fiction, which had always been difficult to place, is on the rise, because it’s created within the artistic values systems of authors rather than the commercial values systems of corporate publishing.

Jessica: If a writer “falls short” as you say, isn’t that something completely subjective? One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, is it not? And I don’t think it does any writer any good to wish to succeed in a way that is perceived as success by the average Joe (worldwide recognition and lots of money). I think it’s too overwhelming and stunts creativity. I definitely would not be perceived as a success by someone like Stephen King. But I am perceived as a success by my peers, and by readers who enjoy my work. I have defined my own version of success, and worked towards achieving that. And every day, that definition changes, and I grow with it. I think the fact that I am constantly growing is a success in itself, too. Perhaps I am, what you call, a success on limited terms. But again, that is a completely subjective view. And I’ve never been one to care much about what other people think of me. If I’m happy with where I’m at, and what I’m doing, then nothing can stop me.

Roz: this is an interesting question. Jenny Diski was writing recently in the London Review of Books about growing up with Doris Lessing. She was intimidated by Lessing’s friends because they would always be discussing books or plays or films, and the chief subject was whether something ‘worked’ or not. Usually, even the most accomplished pieces had something that didn’t quite ‘work’.

This is how I talk with my writer friends. It’s our chief curiosity: whatever it is, does it work? And then: could it have been more ambitious? This is how artistes are, how we keep ourselves challenged. We learn by what works but also by what doesn’t – especially the brave failures. This doesn’t destroy the joy of a work, or our admiration for it.

On the one hand we need artistes who dare, even if they don’t quite succeed. They move us on, keep our artform fresh. They make all of us raise our game. But as a writer trying to do her very best, I value craft immensely. It matters a lot to me that something ‘works’. Some novel concepts seem to me to be little more than whacky conceptual art. The idea may be clever, but as soon as you’ve read the description you’ve had the best of it. I’m very disappointed if the execution doesn’t deliver on that anticipation.

So I love it for writers to have vision and scope. Absolutely – otherwise we drown in the ordinary. But the idea is only the beginning. Skill, craft, dedication and patience makes up the rest. And some writers are so accomplished that if their novel works only 70%, it will still be a lot more powerful than that of another writer whose safer idea works 100%.

Dan, you ask questions of ambition and scope. Well done, sir.

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What would success look like for you with this collection?

Jane: One of our aims is to persuade new readers to take a risk on authors they may not have heard of before and so, with such a short period of time in which to achieve our aims, naturally, we have to look at book sales. It would be amazing to hit number 1 in the rankings.

But I would also like to change readers’ perception of self-published fiction, particularly those who are clinging to the belief that it is the preserve of amateurs. I too was sold that line. Apparently no self-respecting writer should consider it. Any yet when I explored the option for myself, I found a diverse group, including authors who had walked away from six-figure deals, established authors who’d been dropped by their publishers after their latest book didn’t sell quite so well, talented newcomers building a readership, innovative authors whose work doesn’t fit the market, cross-genre authors who sell themselves as a brand and best-selling authors who have never tried the traditional route, but were there at the start of a publishing revolution. In fact, in a recent survey of over 2,500 authors, 25% of those who had traditional deals had also self-published and, of those who had self-published, 89% would do so again. There is a new breed of hybrid authors who look at each writing project and decide if it is one to submit to their publisher or one to go it alone. With the Society of Authors advising their members that publishing contracts are no longer fair or sustainable, my belief is that the predicted growth in self-publishing will now come from authors who are currently under contract.

Jessica: I think I’ve pretty much summed that up in my previous answers. Of course, there is a part of me that wishes to make a prestigious bestseller list. But that is not the be all and end all.

Roz: I have simple aims, really. I’d like to prove that fine, original authors are self-publishing as a mark of independence and integrity, and doing work of value. To prove that indie publishing is a positive choice for writers of quality, to show that writers can make good publishing decisions and lead the creative process. And if you’re happy with traditional publishing, we hope to add more power to your arm, by demonstrating that authors should be included in business and promotion decisions, treated as partners and offered fair deals.

My Memories of a Future Life

Finally, why do you think the media has such a big problem writing about literary fiction by women and is so nervous about its response to events like A Year Of Reading Women? What needs to change?

Jane: The great thing about the growth of social media is that people don’t have to rely on traditional publications for information and recommendations. Social media is democracy in action. It grew because of there was need for a medium by which intelligence could be shared. Traditional commentators should be concerned that they are fast becoming irrelevant. I became aware of the Year of Reading Women through their Twitter campaign.

2014 was a year in which women out-performed men in literary awards. Eimear McBride may have won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but she also won the inaugural Goldsmiths Award, The Desmond Elliott Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Award, whose judges said she had opened a new door for literature. Her novel The Girl is a Half-formed Thing was not just judged to be the best novel by a woman, but the best novel full stop. Ali Smith took the Goldsmiths ward for her dual narrative novel, How to be Both. The Pulitzer Prize for fiction was won by Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch. Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk took the Costa ward for memoirs. Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing took the Costa Award for a new novel. Amy Mason won the Dundee International Book Prize for The Other Ida. The list goes on…

I certainly didn’t have to go searching for great fiction written by women writers, but neither do I deliberately seek out novels written by women. I simply look for great novels. That said, I’m positive that the balance has begun to shift in the past year and will continue to do so. Publishing is a rapidly developing industry. While it is difficult not to take offence at the comment, “And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS,” or by the college lecturer who refuses to teach fiction written by women because it will be of no interest to his male students, there is little point in quoting statistics that were compiled two years ago.

And since the focus of your question was literary fiction, let’s not forget that it is not only women writers who feel that the golden age is over. Last May, Booker-nominated novelist Will Self mourned the death of literary fiction, writing. “How do you think it feels to have dedicated your entire adult life to an art form, only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?”

I’ve always been nervous of the literary tag with its high-brow connotations, but it’s interesting to see a household name such as Kate Mosse distance herself by talking about getting back to her roots as a storyteller. That, to me, is smart marketing. A return to the story being the focus, just as it should be.

Jessica: I can only speak for myself on this matter. I’m all for supporting campaigns like A Year of Reading Women and I think they’re a lovely idea if they’re going to draw attention to great books. But I can’t help thinking that singling women out is just going to cause more segregation. If we really want to support gender equality, shouldn’t we be aiming to read books from an equal amount of men as women? Or even better still, read a book because you want to read the book based on the merits of the story, not because it was written by a specific gender. The fact that this box set contains books all written by women, and the books are all about women, has to do with the fact that it makes a striking thematic link. For me, this box set aims to expose literature that is diverse and pushes boundaries. We are all women? So what? I want people to read and support the books we have written, not the fact that we lack the Y chromosome.

Roz: I support any campaign that aims to introduce readers to great books they may not otherwise have found. However you dress it up, that’s what matters.

What is shock?

Shock in art is a subject that endlessly fascinates me. The Guardian recently ran a very interesting piece on the subject. That, the recent debates around free speech that have followed in the wake of the events in Paris, and the fact that I am beginning to emerge to a place where I am considering setting pen to paper, make it time to put some thoughts in order. It’s more than 5 years since I first wrote about “the new” in literature and art, and so much has changed in that time.

My take on shock, that is the mechanics of what makes something shocking, tends to be that it is rooted in one of two things – something that is too progressive, or something that is too regressive – which is to say,

1. it embodies an idea for which society is not yet ready and may never be ready (of course, “society” is a nebulous term and these discourses are circular, and certainly many hundreds of years ago people were “ready” for things that we would deem too progressive for our own environs). Picasso’s Desmoielles D’Avignon, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, , or Delta of Venus or Howl might fall into this category

or embodies an idea we consider ourselves to have left behind and whose representation with any kind of seriousness is considered aberrant or culturally atavistic. This is why we are shocked by Katie Hopkins, and on an artistic level it is a camp into which Frankie Boyle and the hugely controversial recent Exhibit B at the Barbican fall.

On the face of it this dichotomy makes things nice and easy. It follows a line that broadly represents “punching up” vs “punching down”. The first kind of shock is one that, natch, progressives can get fully behind – it wrestles the status quo and seeks to pull down inhibition and hasten a Hegelian paradise. The second kind serves to uphold privilege and merits nothing but the progressive’s bile, whilst a converse is also, broadly, applicable amongst a kind of conventional libertarian for whom anything must be permitted provided it falls within a certain box of traditionally-informed discourse.


But suggesting a single line on which art moves from shock through vanilla and back to shock misses some points that would worry both libertarian conservatives and progressive radicals alike. It ignores the transgressive as something valid on its own terms – a metashock that questions the whole notion of what shocks and whether we should, ever, be shocked by the possible. Take even mild-by-comparison works like American Psycho and Fight Club. Both are shocking. But are they shocking because they are regressive, or because they are transgressive? Angry divisions tend to cluster around such works. Authors claim that they are critiquing the things they portray, whilst activist critics will point out that by rehearsing the things they claim to critique they are contributing to rather than tearing down a culture in which those acts are permissible. Such works provoke a double shock, but the confusion over why it is we are shocked by them can render them less shocking so that the shock spectrum collapses from that of transgressive critique to activist outrage to one of caricature to resigned disappointment.

And on the other end, what of Gabrielle Wittkop’s The Necrophiliac? Is necrophilia as something beautiful an idea for which we are not yet ready, or an idea that is utterly beyond the spectrum of social moral trajectory? Is it always true that unacceptable and largely unrehearsed ideas are unacceptable because they are new, at least to the mainstream of culture? Or are some ideas never going to be acceptable? What is it that renders sex between classes, or love between members of the same sex taboos that must be tackled and broken down whilst sex between human and dead body, say, a taboo that must remain such? The regressive-progressive spectrum will not allow us to ask such a question however much we feel we want to ask it. The acknowledgement of transgression as a separate trajectory will allow these questions to be posed, will allow us to shock in the name of tearing down a stigma, to shock in the name of questionning a stigma, and to shock, ultimately, in the name of confirming a stigma.

There is an ideology with which I am hugely sympathetic and which, if I had to build a utopia, I would quite probably espouse, that wants a spectrum from regressive to progressive, that wants to see art as the tool that moves us from oppression to equality, as a tool for untangling privilege and dismantling all prevailing discourses (apart, of course, from its own). On the other hand I am aware that the discourses I personally want to include in the metanarrative of privilege-oppression-dismantling are limited – I do not know whether I want to include necrophilia, for example. And I am aware that this is deeply problematic. And that the answer to the problem is allowing a freer axis for shock, one of transgression, one that tests all narratives and metanarratives by pushing at their edges and asking what and why. On the other hand again, the regression-progression line, if it holds, dismisses transgression as a tool of privilege.

All of which creates the question of whether there is such a thing as good shock or bad shock, necessary shock or shock that must be avoided. Whether questionning a foundation that we already know to be infinitely fragile and frangible is more valuable than preserving the lives of the oppressed from actual harm, and if the latter then which oppressed? If we are going to pin our colours to an axiomatic mast at some point, does it really matter that we exhaust all other possibilities before we do so, or should we be content to stand where we stand?

In other words, are there some shocks that art should not deliver for the greater good, some shocks we should not be free to deliver? In the current climate maybe this, the notion that the artist has a greater duty than the duty to freedom, is the most shocking suggestion of all.




In 2011, I held a lovely gig in the basement of Modern Art Oxford. We called it Lyrical Badlads and featured a dazzling array of poets and musicians, award-winners like Lucy Ayrton, Claire Trevien, and Anjan Saha, multimedia genius Dave Griffiths and the band To The Moon, art from the wonderful Anna Hobson. At the end of the show, as I like to do, we had an open mic. Anyone fancy reading, I asked. A hand shot up. Just one. A tubby, bearded shambles of an old guy. A bit like me, in fact. I waved him up and he picked up the mic, adjusted his glasses, and blasted the room away with this

“Do you remember the good old days before 2008 when the low paid got thirty five grand a year tax free personal expenses? No? Come on, you must remember when those on Workfare got three hundred quid a day, just for turning up, or when you couldHn’t move in Aspinal’s or Stringfellow’s for pensioners blowing their annual million quid bonus on Krystal and Krug? No? Funny that I don’t either.

Yet we’re all in it together says ‘Call me Dave’ while his next door neighbour wields the axe, but it’s not their necks on the cutting edge, it’s ours: The flotsam and the jetsam, the detritus and dregs who live in the margins or out on the edge. I speak of my family the generation lost, sometimes remembered, more often forgot. Except, after a boom there’s always a bust, ask who’s to blame and they’ll tell you it’s us! It’s not greedy bankers or embezzling elites, it’s somehow the fault of those with the least; the old, the disabled, and us on the streets; who didn’t see the Olympics or feel the effects of any feel good factors, just the bite of the cuts, but, why should I worry, why should I care, I’m not pessimistic, but I’m gettin’ there.

Squeezin’ the last cup of tea from a tea bag, last of the milk, no sugar, stale bread, scrapin’ the last of the marge from the tub; just about breakfast, hungry to bed. It won’t be the first time, won’t be the last the good books all tell us that it’s blessed to fast, but does it still count when you don’t have a choice  ain’t seen the light or heard the big voice? Me pockets are empty, the leccies on emergency, the last strands of baccy have just gone up in smoke, but the tabloids all tell me I’m living the life of Riley,  in a poxy little bed-sit and flat stony broke. To say that we choose to live life like this is sheer discrimination and taking the piss, by those who’ve never had to survive on fresh air and water till a Giro arrives, but,  why should I worry, why should I care, I’m not downhearted.  No I’m not downhearted. I am not downhearted; but I’m gettin’ there! “


From that moment, Davy Mac was the first name on the list every time I was putting a gig together. It was my privilege to share the stage with him not only in Oxford but at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, and most recently, earlier this year, as part of the blues-soaked The Age of Absinthe at Chipping Norton Literary Festival.

Davy’s was one of the best performers, and the best poets, I’ve ever known. But he was also just about the best man I’ve ever met. His remarkable life saw him married as a teenager, running away to the army which he was forced to leave because he was gay, homeless, an addict, cruising the bars of Amsterdam, eventually winding up in a Japanese prison where he wrote, and won an award for his poetry. On his release, he worked with homeless charities, wrote the poetry for the Homeless Oratorio, and came to Oxford to study creative writing at Ruskin College as he entered his 7th decade. Which is where our paths crossed, where he became a multiple slam champion, where I got to know the biggest hearted man you could ever meet. Cantankerous is an overused word but it is perfect for a man whose humour and anger blazed brilliantly and so often in synch or syncopation. He was relentlessly committed to socialism in a way too few are today, he would draw a line in the sawdust by any bar beyond which he refused to let any bullshit pass. And he gave the biggest and best bear hugs you could find.

As the cancer that killed him affected him more, he managed fewer of those hugs but more than ever of his remarkable stories.

New Libertines August 1


Davy was due to take the stage beside me one last time this August as I put together my very last show. In the event, he was fading too fast, and everyone there took him a signed poster while I read my favourite of all his poems, Almost Blue

Paris, post-Christmas another one night stand.
A gay cafe, a cheap hotel, Thallys booked to Amsterdam
tomorrow’s dreams on sale today, Coffeeshop smoke, and bullshit.
‘Hey who’s the white guy blowin’ horn? Damn! He’s good.’
Hank’s back, slick and slack caressing keys with New Jersey panache
shame he’s got that new guy in tow.
‘Jealous? Hell yeah, but I burned those bridges long ago.’
New Year’s Eve. Wandering streets with the Amsterdamned, Champagne bottles
hand to hand, tasted, wasted. Desperate times call for double measures. A good time
Will be had by all. Spliff enough, sniff enough – here today, gone tomorrow. Bareback
guys like Aids don’t matter ‘cause Armageddon’s on the way. Hell, its Armageddon every
day, for some poor schmuck. So, suck, fuck and cry havoc for tomorrow we die;
in the Arena, Paradiso, or OD’d in some deep, dark dive, ‘cause seeing you split
my heart in two; bled me like a sweet blood orange.
In the black coffee cold light of sobriety when my wrung-out emotions finally
accept you’re gone for good, I write this listening to Chet, thinking of you.

Davy died last month. Oxford’s slammers said goodbye to him in wonderful fashion when Andie Berryman, the best friend a beautiful, balding, brilliant poet could ever have wished for, read his last poem at Hammer and Tongue, the event he loved so much.

Sadly, Davy dies as he had lived for too long. In poverty. Without the money for a funeral. The poetry community, led by Andie, has done an amazing job of raising money so that he can have the send off he truly deserves. You can donate on this page.

I don’t really know how to end. End is such a horrible word, such a horrible thing to do. Maybe I’ll just leave this post hanging there, like an empty mic, an empty stool at the bar, waiting till the hubbub’s gone to turn back on the lights for a few moments and wait for the syncopated hobble of the grumpiest, gloriousest gorilla to tap tap tap across the floor, take his rightful place, clear his throat, and begin…

Thank you for a Wonderful Ride: Why I’m Still Not Taking Yes For an Answer

Writing has been incredibly kind to me, given me more than I could ever imagine, most notably of all a host of wonderful friends. And self-publishing has been a trailblazing blistering white knuckle ride, glorious and gobby and uncomfortable and frustrating and infuriating and delicious. But it’s time to move on. From the self-publishing writing world. Not, I hope, from the friends.

In 2006, I started writing a novel. By the start of 2008, with a  thriller under my belt and a passionate desire to write something that pushed both my own creative abilities and readers’ minds, I set myself a goal – flabby and ill-formed but a goal nonetheless. Five years to see if I had what it takes. I had no idea what that might mean though I wondered if it might mean winning a Booker Prize, because I’d followed the literary world all my life and that seemed like the Big One.


It was a typical kind of a goal for me to set myself. My life’s signature has been the “extreme, time-limited flit” to coin a rather ugly but very explanatory phase. Put in more regular terms, I find something I love, launch into it with absolute single-mindedness, and see exactly what I can achieve. I always over-aim. I always want to be not my best, but the best there is. I’m not hugely competitive in daily life. Not competitive at all, really, but I’m hugely ambitious when it comes to my hobbies. I think it’s for the simple reason that I enjoy myself more when I am pushing up against, and beyond, the limiter. My first such obsession was bridge. At school it was a mild obsession. By university I was up till 4 or 5 every morning practising with anyone who was interested. I managed to spend 2 or 3 years in the Great Britain juniors. Close, but not the very best.

After that, in my mid 20s, I migrated, still in the mental sphere, to mind sports. The Mind Sports Olympiad was just getting underway. The first year it was held, I went along for a laugh, and picked up a bronze medal in the World Creative Thinking Championships. I ended up winning the World Intelligence Championships and becoming the first ever “grandmaster” of intelligence. But that wasn’t the strongest year for the event, and unlike its sibling the World Memory Championships, it is no longer staged.

By my late 20s, I launched into my first physical obsession, strength sports. I ended up competing for my university’s athletics team. Good. But not exceptional.

It was in my mid 30s that writing, which had always been there in my life, from the love of literature instilled by my mother at the earliest age, through a teenage obsession with film and endless iterations of terrible goth poetry.


image copyright Sarah E Melville


Which is where we come back in. I soon realised that, having discovered thrillers were, in my case, for reading not for writing, the things I wanted to write weren’t the kind of thing publishers wanted to publish. And so, in late 2008 and early 2009, I got together a wonderful group of writers who felt the same thing, drawn from the darkest corners of the internet (well, from Harper Collins’ website Authonomy), and we set up Year Zero Writers, a collective intended to promote self-publishing writers who refused to compromise art for commerce.

At the time, self-publishing was far from fashionable, and it was relatively easy for a very vociferous, extremely dedicated group to cause quite a stir. We ended up in the unlikeliest of places like Nylon magazine, and eventually found ourselves performing live shows blending words and music at venues like Rough Trade and the Poetry Café.



It was a really exciting time to be a self-publisher, and we had incredible adventures. But all the time the self-publishing world was changing. It was becoming acceptable. It was becoming commercial. The place allotted to a bunch of misfits who wanted to smash down the walls and accost the world with their misfittery was shrinking.


I found myself struggling to stay on the outside. For every intimate, transgressive piece I wrote, every hand held out in the darkness to my fellow outsiders, there was a talk at a major publishing event or a piece in the Guardian or something that tried to mainstream me, to manipulate my content ever so slightly and make it just a little more palatable. I moved sideways, seeking out the wonderful outsider community of performance poets, started my own show, The New Libertines, and took it on tour to some incredible places, but acceptability seemed to follow me like a stalker.


cover for ebook

By 2012 I was spending more time writing blog posts about things that had as much edge as a buckie ball than I was writing anything that pushed me beyond my limits. What I loved was meeting wonderful writers, making incredible friends, and finding and championing some breathtaking work. But my own writing had stalled. And by 2013 it was clear my life as a slam poet was going nowhere fast.


019 Dan Holloway

I gave it one last roll of the dice and produced a book I still don’t quite know how I wrote, the single thing I have achieved creatively of which I am proudest. Evie and Guy is a novel written entirely in numbers. It is an attempt to question the way we construct narrative at its most basic level. It is intended to make us question the way we represent our own lives to ourselves. I will always be deeply proud of it. Many of the reactions I’ve had  have been truly moving, and that feels incredible. But Evie and Guy feels increasingly like a horizon moment. The culmination of my journey to the end of the rainbow. There are many places fiction can go from there. But I’m not the person who can take it there. I have reached my limits for the time being – I’m a good writer, possibly a very good writer, but the world has plenty enough of those and certainly doesn’t need another – though who knows what the distant future will bring.



I have also started to experience an increasing sense that I have been getting “comfortable” in the literary world. And, as anyone who has read my piece Never Take Yes For an Answer will know, nothing makes me as uncomfortable as getting comfortable. The final catalyst was being offered a consultancy by a self-publishing service provider. I am sure it would have been a wonderful opportunity, but I found myself seriously thinking about saying yes. And that pulled me up short. That is not the kind of comfortable opportunity that sits well with me. If I had become the kind of person who thought about saying yes to something that was so clearly saying yes to me, it was time to move on.

The thing with everything I’ve launched myself headlong into is that each of those pursuits has tapped into something that’s always been there in my life, simmering, waiting to explode. I’ve never had the sense that I wanted to be a particular thing in life, like a surgeon or a lawyer or an athlete. Just the sense that I wanted to push myself, that moving, straining, learning, excelling, discovering where the limits lay was the way I had to do everything. And each of the things I’ve tilted after in this fashion has stayed with me, left deep trackmarks of passion in my veins.

I wouldn’t be without any of them. And that in itself is the fatal flaw of the “too many aptitudes” character as Hank Pfeffer calls it in his wonderful article Danger: High Voltage (read it, I know so many of you for whom it will, as it did with me, create an “aha!” moment). I get really good at something really quickly. But I will never have the focus to get truly exceptional at any one thing. There are too many other things I’m itching to push at for that. Which is unfortunate, because I am also driven by a deep sense of competitiveness. I don’t really want to be “good” at something. If I take something on I don’t want to do it well. I don’t want to do it exceptionally well, and I don’t even want to do my best. I want to be the best there is. Of course, it’s a target one will never reach, but it stretches you to places you would never otherwise go, and it is that stretching that turns out to be the most important part of all. The journey is always, it seems, more important than the goal. A journey that has some very simple characteristics – the sense that you are always stepping foot in uncharted territory; the sense that you are about to blow yourself apart through effort and come out the other side as something transformed; and the feeling that you are always an outsider, that being accepted, that having a “home” in a traditional milieu would be the most horrifying thing of all, that “being on the outside, straining to escape even further” is my true home, that whenever acceptance comes in any form the shocked but appropriate response is to decentre, to run for the hills.

In my case, I am literally running for the hills. The final factor in my decision to withdraw from the writing world began last summer when I went for my “40-plus” health check. Despite being mammothly (adjective used advisedly) overweight and having a family history of heart disease and a long personal history of asthma, remarkably every single test came back clear. “So I can exercise?” I asked, without really thinking why I was asking. “Yes,” said my doctor. “Is there any exercise I can’t do?” “No,” she said. “Not even extreme stuff?” (which I qualified by adding “I should warn you that what I mean when I say extreme probably isn’t what other people mean.”) “No.” No “except”s, no qualifications. A clean bill and carte blanche.

That night I set myself a challenge. Not “get fit” or “be healthy” though those would be the by-products. I was going to do an indoor row. 100 miles. In one day. That was over a year ago, and I’m now just a week or so away – you can find out more about it and the wonderful Apopo, the charity I’m doing it for, here.

apopo feeding

The truth is I felt like I’d been given my life back. I’d always assumed I was a ticking cardiovascular time bomb. I wasn’t going to throw away all the opportunities that had just opened up in the discovery that I wasn’t. So that, and the knowledge that at 42 I am still young enough but won’t be forever, was the final step that has pushed me into endurance exercise. In the year since I made that decision I have already met some incredible people, mainly writers who also push their physical boundaries, I’ve read a vast amount on the subject, and I’ve rowed a lot of miles. A LOT. And I’ve fallen in love with another journey, pushing my mind and my body to places I would never have dreamed it was capable. I want to follow that path as far as I can while I am still physically able. My target, to run the Badwater 135 – 135 miles. Non-stop. Through Death Valley. In the hottest part of summer (though very recent health and safety events are casting a shadow over the event’s future). The aim is to achieve this before I’m 50. And I’m going back to mind sports, setting myself a similar kind of endurance target of competing at the world memory championships and mental calculation world cup in 2016.

Will I still write? Of course. I may even submit something – shudder – to a publisher one day, and I look forward to blogging about my new directions – writing and presenting non-fiction is one of my true passions. I will never lose my love of literature and I will never lose my longing to provide a hand held out in the darkest, loneliest part of the night to my fellow outsiders. I hope at least some of my books, such as Songs from the Other Side of the Wall or (life) razorblades included will continue to do that, and maybe my continuing journey will also be able to. I also want to devote myself properly to essay writing, developing the love of creative and critical commentary I’ve touched the edges of in blogging and journalism, and build on my teaching and speaking experience by doing some coaching and talking on decentring, the art of thinking and acting as an outsider.

I certainly hope to remain friends with the hundreds of wonderful people I’ve met through writing. And of course you may still buy my books. I hope you do, I’m extremely proud of them. It is with regret that I will be saying goodbye to the other parts of my writing life – reviewing, championing, beta reading, blogging, writing columns, first and foremost self-publishing new books – though the regret is more sadness that I wish I could do more for the wonderful writers out there than regret at a choice badly made. My ambitions for my writing changed somewhat along the way. What I really wanted, by the end, was to make a difference, if only to one person’s life. To let someone feel they weren’t alone through my words. I don’t know if I had the skills to achieve that, but I gave it my best shot.

I very much hope some of you will come with me on my new journey, that others will continue to discover my books, that others still will read the exploits of a crazy man and set out on their own journeys. It would be impossible to thank everyone here by name who has helped me on this remarkable literary adventure, and if I try I will leave out people who should be there, which would be unforgivable. But thank you all. Making literally hundreds of wonderful writer friends has been the most remarkable thing of all. I hope many of you will carry on being friends with me now I’m on civvy street.

A final piece of advice to the literary media, if anyone is listening – it is your duty to seek out the strange and unexpected, the unheralded and unknown, to overground the underground, and to champion what everyone else hates, and to do so because you love it and shrug off the ridicule. Please stop letting your readers down.

And to writers, and everyone else, I’ll leave you with what continue to be my mottos:

– As writers, it is often our duty to speak when with our every fibre we long to hold our peace, but as human beings, it is often our duty to listen when with our every fibre we long to have our say.


– it is better to try to be extraordinary and fail than to try to be ordinary and succeed.

– never be afraid to draw a line and move on. People will tell you over and over “keep going, you’ll get there.” But most of us won’t. If the goal isn’t going to happen and the journey has stopped being a joy, sometimes the answer is to start another journey before it’s too late.



Cured Meat

cured meat

Last time, I argued that A Girl is a Half-formed Thing had thrown down a challenge that self-publishing would find it hard to meet. Little did I know when I posted that and faced the inevitable barrage on Facebook that within a few days I would read a book whose raw lyrical genius made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Cured Meat is the best book I’ve read this year. A dark urban semi-autobiographical retelling of The Odyssey it is one of those books that celebrates the glorious triumph of the human spirit on even the darkest of journeys. I cannot implore you enough – buy this book. Please. A perfect companion to Tony O’Neill’s Digging the Vein, Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys and the very finest films of Derek Jarman, this is what self-publishing should be – brave, beautiful, lyrical, edgy, daring, with an emotional punch that will leave you breathless. But first, let’s meet its brilliant author, Polly Trope.

Polly Trope. I get the Odysseus reference. But I’m also thinking of Poly Styrene and The Slits…

Polly Trope and you get the reference : congratulations, you’re only the second to notice. I think i was too geeky for my own good when I thought everyone would get it. But people have had a variety of wonderful and exhilarating reactions to the name, associations I never even thought of, such as polymers, and TV tropes.

2) The Odyssey is a story that still has an intoxicating appeal. Why do you think that is?

 Why does the Odyssey continue to appeal and delight — I think that is the question every classicist is secretly pondering. If you take a step back and think about books, literature, and possible plot lines, the Odyssey represents an archetypal kind of narrative that traces the return home from a faraway place, so it taps into nostalgia and a desire to go back to the past, but, like a surreal road movie, it features many monsters and snares along the way; it features magic, myth, monsters, gods and humans and it’s nautical tale, too, and ships, shipwrecks and the winds and the sea as imagery speak to almost everybody in some way. Also there is an element of the explorer’s bravado and a sense of adventure in this great tale of the great unknown that lies beyond the familiar ports, and the unknown is obviously a fascination– especially with the frisson of supernatural creatures, the high risks and narrow escapes.

3)  More specifically, how does the notion of home, wandering, rootedness and rootlessness resonate with you. You have moved about a huge amount in your life – at what stage did you feel as though you were lost and looking for home, and do you ever think you will feel that you have come home? 

it sounds cheesy but I think home is where the heart is. My heart is with the people I love.Already as a child, I grew up moving house and country a lot and I spoke three languages from the beginning. This has probably made me a very good linguist, but I never developed a strong feeling of belonging anywhere. It bugged me when I was a child coming into my teens, because I felt rejected for other reasons, too. But in the meantime, I’ve found people and activities to make me very happy indeed. Whilst I’ve acquired the ability to make myself at home in many different places, I am still wondering if there is somewhere really “right for me”, so to speak. I have high hopes for New Orleans, maybe, but I’ve never even been there.

4)  You have written very candidly about how your addiction began through your experience of mental health and the medication thereof. It’s a hugely divisive subject – sometimes it feels like a battle for control over someone’s body. How do you feel in general about the way we handle mental health and medication as a society? 

I feel awful about the way we as a society handle mental health and medication. But that “we” is really quite a broken down and splintered we, I’d say. I think, in society now there is simply less and less room for individuals to voice their inner feelings and, sometimes, inner desperation or anger, even though the desperation or anger might in many cases be quite legitimate. I think everyone nowadays is a bit stressed, and only very few people expend the time to take notice of their friends/relatives’ mental wellbeing or illness. And also, I notice many individuals are not listening to the early signs their own body and mind give them — they let themselves get over-tired, they over-do drink or drugs, or let bad relationships or bad situations of other kinds go on for too long. Ultimately I think this is how many people end up going crazy. I don’t think it’s very much to do with genes. maybe 5% is genes, the rest i would say is bad nurture. Because nobody really knows how to handle it, it gets sent to this obscure place, the shrink’s, where nobody really wants to look or see. I think that’s bloody lame. I think if an individual has a problem and goes psychotic, everyone who is in the surroundings of this individual and his circles and network, has a problem too. it’s just the one that’s pulling down the dirty curtains, but it’s not fair to say that’s the only person with a problem.

5) In fact, much of your story feels like a battle for control of your body. Does that resonate at all with how you feel, looking back, and do you feel now that you have reached a position where you have taken back control completely? 

a battle for control of my body — neat, I never thought of it that way. It is a battle of some sort. But I don’t know what for. For unsticking myself from society and its inane prejudices, and at the same time, to create something beautiful from the pain that could, in turn, be appreciated and understood. No, I’ve not taken control back completely, but I think people who do that die trying. Still, I try

6) Your storytelling technique is fragmentary. You say that you would like Cured Meat to be able to be read in any order. In a way this reminded me of David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. Do you think the literary establishment is too hung up on narrative, linearity, and the need for things to flow in a recognisable arc?

 The literary establishment… Hmm. I don’t know. It probably is rather hung up, yes. The whole mainstream media — music, television, corporate youtube channels, bestselling books — is a major bore to me. But some writers succeed admirably within the given parameters. I’m an avid reader of the London Review of Books, the Irish Literary Times, New Yorker, the TLS, and things like that. And I love Hilary Mantel, just to name just one example. Still, I think I come from a different place in my mind and in my artistic wishes. Unlike some, I’m not intent on being popular as much as I want to give myself a sense of achievement according to my own standards. I wanted to write this book and do with it exactly what I wanted. I wasn’t afraid of failure. I would have tried again if this had not worked.

7) Which brings me in an, erm, arc back to the Odyssey, which is linear but also structured episodically, and compiled from many voices. I wonder if that’s also something that resonates with you, and how you feel in regard to Cured Meat. By that I mean, there is a sense in which it is both a collection of diverse voices telling different stories, and also something that has been compiled by a single redactor with a very singular purpose. Do you think of yourself more as a series of diverse narrators or as a single unifying editor? 

You got me! 100% . I love hearing other people tell stories from their lives. I love stories and words and my vivid imagination makes a gigantic technicolor fiesta out of a simple story told at the dinner table. Later, I write. Without my knowing or sometimes with my full knowledge, everything finds its ways into my creative processes. I work with poetic imagery a lot, much more than I can see/do in visual art. I think with writing, I’ve really found my medium, and I use it for my own life, for the lives of others, for a blur between the two…

8) Finally, the literary world needs more… And it needs less…

 the literary world needs more awareness that the reading habits of people are changing. And it needs less guys with a beard smoking a pipe.

Finally, a single book has changed the self-publishing debate

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.