A hundred years after what came to be known as the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Alliance Of Radical Booksellers chose to commemorate the centenary with the award of the first ever Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing.
The award aims to “promote the publication of radical books, to raise the profile of radical publishing, and to reward exceptional work.” Eligible books must have been published in 2011, by author’s or editor’s whose primary residence is in the UK, and are “informed by socialist, anarchist, environmental, feminist and anti-racist concerns, and primarily will inspire, support or report on political and/or personal change.”
“The central involvement of radical bookshops in the establishment and running of the Bread and Roses award also really sets it apart from other book prizes,” says Nik Górecki of Housmans Bookshop, one of the trustees of the award.
Fittingly, the prize was awarded on May Day 2012, in the Bread and Roses pub in Clapham, London. The judges – children's novelist and poet Michael Rosen, lecturer and feminist author Nina Power, and Festival Director of Liverpool’s annual Writing on the Wall Festival, Madeline Heneghan – came to a close decision, with two books from a shortlist of seven vying for the top place.
Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands: Tax Havens And The Men Who Stole The World, was commended by the judges for its thoroughness of research, and ‘usefulness’ in the current political climate.
But it was David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years that came away with the award. Presenting a beautiful sculptured metal rose to the winner on behalf of the judging panel, Power said:
“The winner of the first Bread and Roses prize for Radical Publishing has written a text that breaks many rules, and does so excellently in each case: this is a book that covers so much material, refers to so many historical periods and geographical spaces, that the reader is dazzled – not only by the easy erudition of the writer but about how much it is possible to learn and with so little pain.
“It’s a book that has the appearance – and at 534 pages, literally so – of a fearsome academic tract. But it avoids everything that frequently plagues academic writing: this book is instead engaging, readable, relevant, motivated by a clear political will and utterly indispensable not only for understanding the terms of the world we live in, where they came from, but also for what we do about changing them. It is a book written from the heart, albeit with the aid of a library the size of a palace – a people’s palace, that is!”
|Nik Górecki and Nina Power|
The notion of judging radical writing brought up some interesting questions as to how to evaluate desirable qualities, says Górecki.
“As this was the first year the award was given, the trustees wanted us to talk that out and think about what we were actually asking of radical publishing,” explains Power. “We talked about whether it was a problem if a book was essentially academic or whether we wanted something that had already garnered a wide appeal. But our major political dicussion was around whether we were looking for something that diagnoses the present or summarises the past - or something that points the way forward.”
Górecki says, “We hope that as the prize continues in the future this is something we will continue to address, and that readers, writers and publishers will debate. We are starting this process by holding a panel discussion on the 9th May at Housmans Bookshop with Pluto Press editor Anne Beech, anarchist blogger Ian Bone, and Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore, asking ‘What makes good radical writing?’”
In the light of recent events, it is perhaps not surprising that so many of the books from the shortlist were concerned either with economics (as both Graeber’s and Shaxson’s books were) or with protest movements.
|Nadia Idle with co-editor Alex Nunns|
Nadia Idle, one of the co-editors of the shortlisted Tweets from Tahrir, talked about the challenges of creating a book from an essentially ephemeral, fragmentary source.
“We set tight limits on ourselves – only posts from Tahrir itself, and only those in English. The timescale was compressed too. Just eighteen days, so in a sense the narrative thread was already there.
“We also made the decision that every single person involved should agree to our using their tweets. It helped that I came from that Egyptian activist background. I knew who to contact and people didn’t see us so much as a bunch of outsiders coming in to make money off their backs.
“Immediacy was very important. We went with OR books because they had a model of being able to turn round a book very fast. The downside of that is that they use print on demand, so there have occasionally been supply problems.”
Authors of radical books, more than most, must be able to pull off the trick of transforming themselves from writers shut away with their own computers to campaigners championing their own books.
Tim Gee, author of another shortlisted book, Counterpower: Making Change Happen, told me:
“At heart I always see myself as a campaigner. For a year or more, the main thing I was doing was sitting in my room obsessing over every last sentence: is this phrased in the right way, is the spirit of this right, is this said as well as I can say it? But I started writing the book after climate camp last year and finished it sitting at the base of Nelson’s Column on the day of the anti-cuts march. I saw the book a continuation of the work I do in grassroots training and empowering. I have lost count of the number of workshops I have run since the book came out, but it’s definitely broken the forty mark.”
How healthy is radical publishing at the moment? Perhaps surprisingly, given that the publishing world is often seen these days as growing increasingly narrow, people here are optimistic.
“Radical publishers are actually doing very well,” Power says. There is a demand for coherent, non-patronising and interesting political writing that isn’t being served by mainstream publishers. Since economic crisis, for example, people are looking for a demystification of terms surrounding financial speculation. Lots of material is successfully crossing over from blogs into print. I don’t buy the argument that people’s attention spans are killed. People can follow Twitter and still want to read books.”
“Among NGOs there has been rush for centre ground, targetting the as-yet unconvinced,” says Gee. “That’s opened up a gap for individuals from social movements to fill the more radical space.”
“Radical publishing is going through a renaissance, making the establishment of the Bread and Roses Award timely,” says Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Publishing
Power agrees. “One of the critiques of exisiting prizes that they can be introverted, cliquey and corporate. So this is a very strong prize, with the aim to ensure the future of radical publishing.”
A full description of the shortlisted books can be found at http://www.radicalbooksellers.co.uk/?p=184: