Aside from being the one-man panel of our prestigious Minor Literature[s] Prize, Sean Preston is a former wrestler and the editor of Open Pen, the infamous magazine and press. With the excuse of deciding the winner of our prize, we met and talked about our favourite books and the indie British literary scene in 2019. Our meeting was supposed to take place in the Arts Club, London, in mid December, with money we should have grabbed from the Arts Council. As we left our fund-hunt until too late we met in Adana Kebab in Green Lanes, Hackney, instead.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Thanks for accepting to be the panel in our first Minor Literature[s[ Prize, Sean.
Sean Preston: My privilege. And don’t take this the wrong way because there are few things that give me greater pleasure than folding and depositing cheap meat into my gob, but we need to get better at prizing that Arts Council money out.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Yes. That was shortsighted, really. Like they say round this neck of the woods: “we missed a trick”.
Sean Preston: We did. You need to shake it down, the money tree.
Fernando Sdrigotti: How to do it? How to successfully shake it down and snatch its tasty fruits when they are still in the air, now that the tree still has some fruits left?
Sean Preston: From what I can tell, there are a few ways to go about it. The best method is to befriend or employ someone sitting on the Council. There’re a fair few publishers that didn’t even have to announce a book before they had their panties stuffed with taxpayer notes. It helps, of course, if you come from old money. The less you actually need it, the more likely they’ll give it to you. It also helps if you went to private school, where they teach you how take money that you could as easily ask Papa for (but where’s the sport in that?). Better yet, if you went to private school and can pretend that you’re not from privilege — a different kind of rich person in a rich man’s world — and ingratiate yourself with the decision makers, huzzah, bravo!
There’re a fair few publishers that didn’t even have to announce a book before they had their panties stuffed with taxpayer notes. It helps, of course, if you come from old money.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Well, we can’t go back in time and be born into an aristocracy to which we don’t belong, can’t we?
Sean Preston: You are absolutely right. So one of us is going to have to attend a private school, old sport. I am the more caucasian of us, but then you look better in shorts, so we’ll have to toss for it, which in itself is good practice for what awaits at private school. Anyway, let’s stop sulking and let’s move to the purpose of this meeting — my kebab is getting cold.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Absolutely… Right, literary prizes… You know, they have suffered a great deal in 2019. And I’m not just referring to authors shamelessly attempting to rig awards voting (and getting their family and friends to vote) for their own work — this is a classic. really, and there’s some poetic beauty in turning an award into a popularity contest. I mean worse things have happened: like jurors neglecting their work by allegedly not reading all the shortlisted books, or choosing more than one winner because they can’t be arsed to make a decision that will be deemed unpopular by this or that segment of the public, the bankrupting inviability of indie publishers trying to win major awards once more showing its ugly face, adults throwing their toys out of the pram when prizes aren’t awarded to who they wanted, etc. A lot of grief and disappointment with prizes this year, to the point that it isn’t rare now to find those braying for the erasure of all competition from these… competitions… Aren’t we all equal in the eyes god after all? Can’t we all just get along? They might have a point and all these things might be a useless and myopic benchmark for what’s worth bothering with in literature — who makes the call of what’s what, after all? With what authority? From which platform? And at what price? Yes… Yes… Whatever… But I think there’s a place for awards and healthy competition — they’re so much fun, so much part of a thriving dog-eat-dog capitalist culture, providers of skills that we’ll certainly need in the foreseeable future, all things considered… Also, these kinds of events bring me back to my childhood in Argentina, our school trips to the annual celebration of the Argentine Rural Society, where they would crown a champion bull, chicken, sheep and so on — a recognition that sadly wouldn’t spare the animal from its tragic fate. And if cattle can be awarded prizes, why shouldn’t writers? I think these are all very important reasons to organise a prize.
Sean Preston: Those are good reasons. But we shouldn’t undervalue what this will do for our profiles. Two squeaky wheels, demanding that grease.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Yes, yes… That’s the main thing really… Becoming gatekeepers… Who wouldn’t want to be one? And then there’s what Andy Warhol said.
Sean Preston: Which was?
Fernando Sdrigotti: That in the future everyone would run a literary award. For fifteen minutes.
Sean Preston: Yes, of course. And he was right.
Fernando Sdrigotti: He was, indeed. Anyway, considering we already have our winner, should we announce it now and get it out of the way or should we start by pretending that we are yet undecided?
Sean Preston: The latter. Let’s build some tension.
In the future everyone will run a literary award. For fifteen minutes.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Cool. What were your favourite books in 2019? There were some suggestions in the comments when we announced the prize — even one from my mother voting for me — but I think we should like more established prizes and ignore all those. Like what would readers know, right?
Sean Preston: Absolutely.
Fernando Sdrigotti: So? Your books?
Sean Preston: My favourite books this year were the Open Pen Novelettes by Open Pen. However, due to their size (100 page pocketbooks), I cannot consider them for this or any other prize, apparently.
Fernando Sdrigotti: A pity, as I loved those. And not only my own novelette, but I really liked them all. Mazin Saleem’s The Prick is particularly great. I rarely LOL reading other people’s work but I was LOL’ing all the way through his book. What a writer, uh?
Sean Preston: Yes, he is great. Have said previously that he’s the writer I want to be when I grow up.
If cattle can be awarded prizes, why shouldn’t writers?
Fernando Sdrigotti: But we can’t award the prize to Mazin, right? I mean, this is a rigged award but if we award it to him, why not to me, right? So which other book or books do you think we should pretend to consider? Let’s say books in which you aren’t directly involved as a publisher or editor…
Sean Preston: Well, If this was a prize in which a book that people are actually reading and enjoy wins, as in a book well liked outside of just a hundred or so sycophants, Isabel Waidner’s We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff gets so much praise from a diverse range of readers, it’d be tough to beat. Fortunately, this prize, like so many, has a judge with a grudge that just won’t budge. Waidner won’t get near this prize because Diamond Stuff is published with Dostoyevsky Wannabe, who I like to troll — perhaps I’m envious of their output. Books I enjoyed the most? Cusk’s Outline trilogy, published by Faber & Faber, is brilliant, but everyone already knows that.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Yes, we need to show we read and think outside of the box here. Something else.
Sean Preston: Right. Obvious is not good in literary prizes. There is only one writer not on the Open Pen roster deserving of a prize. Rob True. His debut Gospel of Aberration, edited by the poet Miggy Angel, was released on Burning House Books earlier this year. Also, True’s three tweets from the last month are deserving of this prize (pictured), let alone his book. In fact, I think we should award Rob a large red enamel egg.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Oh, yes! What an amazing book. I actually bought the first copy of it. Fact. I was waiting for that one to come and I loved it. Loved that book. Great book. Also great guy Rob. Great guy. Love him. What a man.
Sean Preston: Glad you agree. Y’know, if the reader happens to have read Rob True, they’ll know that there’s a very real chance that Rob is standing over both of us, an axe trembling in his hands as we cower and type into our Apple machines. “Make them words real pretty now,” he perhaps demands through happy tears. To set the reader at ease that this isn’t Rob True forcing us to award him prizes and lavish praise, perhaps you can tell us about other books you’ve enjoyed this 2019.
Obvious is not good in literary prizes.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Well, I was quite lucky this year, I bumped into a lot of great books. Before I discuss these let me repeat that I definitely loved Rob’s Gospel of Aberration — it’s an amazing debut. When people write auto-fiction I get a bit sick in the mouth — but is this autofiction? I’m not 100% sure but there seems to be something in his book pointing towards that.
Sean Preston: Everything ever written is autofiction. This is no exception. There is no exception.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Well, since no thought originates anywhere but in one’s mind, you are right… Anyway, then I read a lot of Latin American literature, mostly for work, and thanks to it I bumped into a lot of old gems and new writers. One book that really stands aside from all I read this year from my neck of the woods is Norah Lange’s People in the Room, which is a book from 1950 but that has been published in translation only in 2018, by And Other Stories, in a fantastic translation by Charlotte Whittle — I read this year, so I demand it qualifies for this chat, as I’ll pay for this dinner anyway… It’s a pity that it’s not getting much more attention, even if the author’s name sounds a bit English and could easily slide into end of the year lists or quizzes (I say this as these rarely feature any Latin American writer, but that’s another story). Also, a late addition to my best of 2019 list would be Yvette Gresle’s Unearthed, published by Copy Press. It would probably be classed as a memoir but I feel that this is a book which does so much more than that.
Sean Preston: Like what?
Fernando Sdrigotti: Well, it feels that the book uses memory as an excuse to launch into a very interesting interrogation of place, identity, race, and politics, from her place in the world, which happens to be the Seychelles and South Africa. Also, it’s is brilliantly written — so clear, so direct, zero bullshit, every comma fits in place, no emotional blackmail… I read this last week and I still coming to terms with it. I feel I’ll come back to this book many times. This is certainly one of my favourite books in 2019. But like I already said I read lots of great books, so many of them aside from Rob’s, I can’t even remember the titles. How could I choose just one?
Everything ever written is autofiction. This is no exception. There is no exception.
Sean Preston: You can’t have your cake and eat it. Choose one. It won’t matter anyway, as I’m the panel.
Fernando Sdrigotti: OK, OK, I won’t chicken out of this. If I had to choose a different book, just one — and here Rob will have to forgive me — that would be Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home. It was published by Stinging Fly in Ireland in 2018, by Pan Macmillan in the UK in 2019 — I read the Stinging Fly version earlier this year.
Sean Preston: This is the Erskine that you interviewed in your Sauna Series, no?
Fernando Sdrigotti: The one and only. The Wendy Erskine from Belfast.
Sean Preston: I haven’t got to her book and actually would never have bothered with it but in that interview you did she said some pretty mean things that made me laugh, so now it’s definitely a “haven’t got to”. Is her fiction as zesty as her sauna behaviour?
Fernando Sdrigotti: Yes, she’s amazing! Well, for one I’m a fool for short stories. I think most novels are overrated and generally go on for too long, for the sole reason people like to say they read big books, as it’s a sign of education and privilege — that ownership of one’s own time. [Also, by way of a gratuitous provocation, now that the Brit lit peep have discovered hyperbole, although they don’t know very well what to do with it yet, and then end up running all over the place like overtly-emotional headless chickens: I think Anglophones in general (and the British in particular) are so obsessed with the novel form because they haven’t produced an English Don Quijote yet — it must be some kind of quest, really.] But going back to Sweet Home: it was refreshing to read a book of short stories and the craft with which Erskine writes, it really blew my mind. Also, it felt like an oasis to arrive at this book, in a time of so much literary self-referentiality. As a narrator she — Erskine — delivers these stories from the background, you could say. I wish more writers adopted this detached point of view and created worlds that extend one metre beyond their noses. Even if the “I” is in at first sight not there, it would still be their work; it’s still about them too, as like we said above there’s no escape from that — but it needs not be that blatant, does it? This is a matter of taste, of course. And obviously this does not apply to my writing; in my writing I love the I, which means I’m a big hypocrite, but we already knew that, but we are not here to talk about me. Anyway, back to Erskine: I loved Sweet Home and I can easily place it on the top of my 2019 reads, which like I said were many, too many even to go into detail. This is a book everyone should read.
I think Anglophones in general (and the British in particular) are so obsessed with the novel form because they haven’t produced an English Don Quijote yet.
Sean Preston: Hmmm, I just had a look, Wendy Erskine is blurbing your book out with Influx Press next year. I like it, give those backs a good rub. This really is a bonafide literary prize now. We’re namedropping those that have crossed our own palms with silver. We just need to overlook or underlook someone convinced of their own brilliance and birthright into writing a “strongly worded letter to the manager” style article, then we’ll truly have made it.
Fernando Sdrigotti: There’s always something or someone overlooked, really. That’s the nature of prizes there. They are rather narrowed-down affairs. Why just give literary prizes for books, for example? Why leave it at that?
Sean Preston: What would you give prizes for then?
Fernando Sdrigotti: Anything. There’s so many options. For example, an aspect that frequently gets overlooked in literary conversations is writers’ ability to self-promote on social media. Why not give prizes to their use of Twitter, let’s say. I think that in 2019 we could really say that this practice has achieved a certain maturity, with the birth of what we could call the “Literary Banal Confessional” genre. It’s fascinating, this insight into the joys and sorrows and the drudgery of the literary life. And in many cases it’s almost impossible to distinguish what’s produced for social media consumption from what constitutes their oeuvre.
The “Literary Banal Confessional” genre… It’s fascinating, this insight into the joys and sorrows and the drudgery of the literary life…
Sean Preston: I don’t know what you mean?
Fernando Sdrigotti: You know, the lengthy discussions about residencies, about the outcome of this or that prize, and the rejection and acceptance tweets, the end of the year lists, listing not books but their achievements, the pictures of coffee mugs and manuscripts and the lame hashtags and so on, the out of focus photos of PowerPoint presentations in “industry” or academic conferences, telling the world about word counts in manuscripts that very likely will never turn into books, the talk about every uninteresting aspect of the creative endeavour… And so on… Are all these moments of narcissistic verborrhea or is all this part of an overarching literary masterplan that aims to turn the most bureaucratic and solipsistic aspects of creation into art — a big fuck you to the Death of the Author, let’s say? I suspect the latter; it just can’t be self-obsession dictating that the most minute of details, the most half-chewed of thought about the writing process — sometimes even of one’s private life, about everything really — has to be communicated to the world, live. It must be a calculated artistic gesture. I think this alone deserves a prize. Do you have anything to comment about this? Do you have a favourite artist of this Literary Banal Confessional genre in 2019, that you would like to bring to our readers’ attention?
Sean Preston: Ha ha ha. Don’t tempt me, wormtongue. It’s strange, what I really enjoyed reading in Karl Ove’s books I find so desperately unattractive in the Twitter Author. I guess the difference is that the Twitter Author doesn’t position their coffee-stirring and flat-Coke swigging with life defining conversations and occurrences. We’re just left with the minutiae, the banal and utterly uncompelling thoughts of writers who clearly shouldn’t be writers if they really have that little new to say.
The Twitter Author doesn’t position their coffee-stirring and flat-Coke swigging with life defining conversations and occurrences.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Oooh, that’s mean… So no social media prizes for you ?
Sean Preston: No. Well, maybe a book recommendation based on social media game. Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts is one of the best books I haven’t read from the future. I know this because Eliza isn’t buying tote bag activism, if you know what I mean… She’s got a mean game, that Elza.
Fernando Sdrigotti: I know what you mean, and yes, she’s sharp… Oh, and speaking of social media , I couldn’t help to notice that during 2019 most of your interventions have involved the use of “me”. And what I mean by this is that you’ve just tweeted “me” on and on like a moron during 2019. Why so?
Sean Preston: I wanted to fit in.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Fair.
Sean Preston: Yes.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Right, now, should we get to our winner? I sense that you are getting tired of my talk. Let’s announce our winner. Who has the panel chosen, panel?
Sean Preston: The panel has been told that they cannot award it to Sean Preston and Scott Manley Hadley for flat earth poetry and interview book Because Earth is Flat, even though it was such a sought after manuscript that there was a bidding war between Amazon and Dostoevsky Wannabe. So the panel has decided to award the prize to working class writer Rob True. And I don’t mean “working class” like me and all the other “working class” people in books, who were working class in childhood but now lead demonstrably middle-class lives. I mean actually working class. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this, pretty sure I could be wielding my “working class” lad routine to loot that Arts Council locker. His book isn’t about class though, it’s about reality. It’s about reality as a privilege.
The panel has decided to award the prize to Rob True.
Fernando Sdrigotti: Excellent choice. And fascinating idea, reality as privilege. Can you expand on this?
Sean Preston: Sure. Most people have a normative relationship with reality, which is a privilege, in some respects. But True takes his perception of reality, which exists outside of what is normal (as in conforming to a standard, the average), and makes it his privilege. It’s an exceptional piece of art. And a display of strength through “weakness”. He should be taught in schools.