The traditional format followed by the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Writing is problematic in its tolerance for hierarchies, of pedigree and knowledge, especially given its progressive aspiration to showcase radical political non-fiction. Perhaps, it's time for a radical rethink of this new book award.
One way of being a radical is to stay awake to the contradictions of the everyday, as you live through them. And let those speak in a way that makes them apparent and open for scrutiny and conscious decision-making. It is in this spirit that I got round to crafting this piece: a sympathetic critique of a literary prize, which my book was not shortlisted for. This means anything I say stands flimsy on a fragile and impure precariousness, open to a barrage of strawman accusations (‘isn’t he just venting frustration?’). At the same time, I hope to address a readership that is conscious that you can only listen as a radical, if you're willing to lend an ear to voices that speak from precarious positions, unsheltered from the earnest cloak of purity.
The Bread and Roses award was established by the Alliance of Radical Booksellers in 2012, to popularise the themes and ideas of radical political non-fiction, and provide them with greater visibility. This is brilliant. And a goal I thoroughly resonate with. My hesitation has to do, however, with the extent to which the 'literary prize' format nudges the Bread and Roses in a direction that might alienate it from its very purpose. Radical writing lives in the margins. Historically, it often thrived in pamphlets printed by minuscule and unknown presses. Perhaps at the author's own expense, a subsidy furtively scrambled together and pledged to the birth of new ideas into the world. This heroic, stirring spirit of radical writing is something the Bread and Roses award references - I.W.W. pamphlets being part of the background to the Bread and Roses strike - and seeks to celebrate. And it is this spirit that it simultaneously risks undermining through a process of institutionalisation, seemingly mandated by quality vetting.
The first instance where this becomes apparent is in the outright exclusion of those publishing houses that circulate radical works, even if - sometimes - at the price of asking for a small subsidy. Because it's also places like those that allow to avoid playing the numbers game, whereby something is relevant only if it gathers a following with an immediately identifiable audience, as assessed by a handful of commissioning editors. A process that excludes precisely those on the fringes. Oddly enough, many pamphleteers of times past would probably not be eligible for the Bread and Roses award today.
Moreover, by only allowing 'kosher' publishers, the Bread and Roses award risks becoming one more date on the publicity calendar of 'recognized' literary brand names (indeed, a quick search on Google yields a relevant number of references to the prize precisely on publishers’ websites). Take this year's shortlisting of a Faber and Faber book that already tops the chart at WH Smith. My quibble about it is not with the book itself, which - in fact - is a scathing expose of a subject that is dramatically relevant as it draws headlines and public indignation. My discontent is, instead, with setting up a process that lends itself to a 'rich get richer' type dynamic, and tries to do so with the brand of 'radicalism'.
Secondly, the adherence to the hierarchical model of a panel of 'experts'. Often packaged with the literary-prize-type initiative, this cooptation process subtly reinforces the idea that there can be a policing of quality, by people on whom that power is bestowed in recognition for special knowledge. I would suggest, instead, that there are middle grounds between 'anything goes' and the Booker prize. I am thinking of courageous experiments, such at the World Economic Association's open peer review system, to create greater participation, horizontality and visibility in the decision-making process. Or yet of the model explored by ‘And Other Stories', where a consensus is sought between publishers and readers' panels, in a way that again enhances visibility and spreads responsibility.
In contrast to these experiments, the more traditional format of the Bread and Roses is problematic in its tolerance for hierarchies, of pedigree and knowledge, especially given its progressive ethical aspirations. After all, this is not the Costa Book Award, rehashed for hard lefties. Or a Grammy for the best ‘alternative’ band. There are radical ways of rethinking a radical literary prize. Personally, I am surprisingly grateful for the exclusion, for the experience it offered of the condition of marginality that an in/out game reinforces towards fringe ideas, and the ensuing opportunity for critical revisitation of this status quo, in a way that being shortlisted would not have made possible. As it goes, radicals never see much light.