Six of the Best: Independent Publishers Outside London

This year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist features three innovative independent publishers based outside London. Who are they?

Alongside Bloomsbury, Faber & Faber and Fourth Estate – names synonymous with literary publishing in Britain – this year’s Man Booker shortlist threw a handful of less familiar presses into the mix: And Other Stories, Myrmidon and Salt. While authors and critics regularly rail against them, prizes matter in publishing. Funding cuts, shrinking disposable incomes and the mutable world of digital publishing have left smaller publishing houses, operating out of what Londoners condescendingly refer to as “the provinces” (ie the rest of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), struggling to stay afloat.

This year the Booker committee chose to seek out the “pure power of prose” and “shock of language”, forging on to pastures dense following last year’s debacle over “readability”. The decision will have proven gratifying to independent publishers for whom a commitment to new and experimental voices, even at the risk of poor sales, has long been paramount. While last year’s list was also praised for a decent indie showing – Canongate, Granta, Atlantic and Serpent’s Tail all made the cut – this year is a little different, as none of the publishers listed are part of the London-Edinburgh publishing circuit. Nor did any of them exist before 1999. In fact, two of them were only founded after 2005.

So who are they, where are they based and what are they up to? Below is a run down of the successful three, along with a further three publishers changing the way books are commissioned, sold and consumed. And not one of them could give a monkey’s about self-publishing.

Salt Publishing, Cromer, Norfolk. The publisher that picked up Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse is enjoying an impressive year. After having their Arts Council funding cut in 2009, Salt announced a 60 per cent drop in sales, prompting a “Just One Book” appeal in which they asked supporters to purchase one of their over 1,000 titles in order to stay afloat. Compare this with second quarter sales up 243 per cent in 2012 and it becomes clear exactly what prize nominations can mean for a smaller publishing house. A new crime imprint and expansion into the popular sci-fi and fantasy genres are underway, but Salt’s bread and butter remains new poetry and fiction. They publish a popular Best of... series in which top editors mine the year’s literary journals and magazines to cull the very best poetry, fiction and as of 2013, fantasy. Their mission statement boasts an interest in “new authors of any age” and they run the prestigious Salt, Crashaw and Scott Prizes as a means of unearthing fresh talent.

And Other Stories, High Wycombe. With only three paid members of staff, And Other Stories fosters a collaborative approach. Founded in 2010, AOS operates a subscription system, a sort of variation on crowd-sourcing, searching out editors and reading groups worldwide to work together and shape editorial direction. Much like the brilliant Maclehose Press they are responsible for bringing a number of previously untranslated works to the UK, such as the Argentinian novel The Islands by Carlos Gamerros, about a hacker trying to put his experiences during the Falklands War behind him. After publishing two novels with Jonathan Cape and one with Bloomsbury, Deborah Levi’s decision to publish her fourth novel Swimming Home with a nearly-new publisher came to some as a surprise. “Deborah had been publishing by a range of different publishers but never really settled,” AOS’s editor-at-large Sophie Lewis told The Telegraph’s Anita Singh. “We were able to give her the attention you can’t get at a larger publishing house. We provide the personal touch.”

Myrmidon Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Independent’s literary editor Boyd Tonkin, in his review of Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden Mists wrote: “That a novel of this linguistic refinement and searching intelligence should come from a tiny Newcastle imprint tells us a lot about the vulgarity of corporate publishing today.” Later, while praising the Booker committee’s decision to include the novel in their list, he pleaded for more discrimination in the industry: “Critical gate-keepers, editors, curators, arbiters, judges – all those sifters and assessors so abused in the pseudo-democracy of the online self-publishing age: come back, there is nothing to forgive. In fact, we could do with many more of you.” Myrmidon is perhaps the least well known of the three publishers on the list, as well as the least developed. Their list is mainly made up of crime and genre fiction, as well as the excellent Sebastian Beaumont and of course Tan Twan Eng. Perhaps given Eng’s success, the “literary” section of their list will continue to blossom.

Seren Books, Bridgend, Wales. Housed in a barn attic behind a sandwich shop in south Wales, Seren Books (Seren is the Welsh for "star") have set themselves the goal of an uncompromising commitment to “well chosen words” in whatever form they take. In 2011 they published Costa and Booker-longlisted The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness, set in Bucharest during the final days of Ceaucescu’s communist regime. This year, Bridgend-born poet Rhian Edwards’s debut collection Clueless Dogs was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. While they mostly publish in English and their author list is international, Seren acts as a focal point for literary collaboration in Wales. They commissioned the series New Stories from the Mabinogion in which writers including Gwyneth Lewis, Fflur Dafydd and Owen Sheers reimagined eleven myths from the ancient Mabinogion manuscripts.

Bloodaxe Books, Tarsett, Northumberland. An institution in its own right, Bloodaxe has always striven to publish the best and most diverse poetry. Founded in 1978 by Neil Astley, who remains the company’s editor and managing director, Bloodaxe were the first to publish Simon Armitage, David Constantine and Helen Dunmore. The press has won pretty much every prize going (2012 Booker-nominated author Jeet Thayil edited the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets in 2008), brought an endless list of authors from every corner of the globe and compiled the best of each in numerous popular anthologies. Rich and continually refreshing, Bloodaxe’s self-proclaimed “poetry with an edge” remains the beating pulse of contemporary British poetry.

Comma Press, Manchester. Notable for their emphasis on growing the status of the short story in the UK, Manchester’s Comma Press are a not-for-profit initiative whose ventures range from city-themed anthologies – The Book of Liverpool, The Book of Istanbul – to competitions and collections from new writers, as well as a strong selection of fiction from overseas, including Czech writer Emil Hakl and “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive” Hassan Blasim. Garnering a great deal of attention for their involvement in the BBC National Short Story Award, Comma offer plenty of help and resources for new writers, create opportunities for publication and possess a provocative philosophy on short fiction: “Something happens in good short stories that's quite unique to them as a form; the imaginary worlds they create are coloured slightly differently to those of the novel. Their protagonists are more independent and intriguing. The realities they depict more arbitrary, accidental and amoral.”

The lighthouse in Cromer, Norfolk. Home of Salt Publishing. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.