When the longlist for the Booker Prize was announced last month, there were two big stories.
The first was the inclusion of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's long-awaited and still unpublished sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. The second was about a book called Ducks, Newburyport. Lucy Ellmann's seventh novel is more than 1,000 pages long, it consists almost entirely of a single, unbroken sentence, clause after clause, beginning with the words "the fact that", and parts of it are written from the perspective of a mountain lion.
The Booker Prize judges, not unreasonably, described Ducks, Newburyport as "like nothing you've ever read before". The Financial Times praised the novel, which is for the most part the inner monologue of a fretful Ohio housewife, as "a wisecracking, melancholy Mrs Dalloway for the internet age". Cosmopolitan magazine went even further, exclaiming that "Ulysses has nothing on this" (a neat line, since Ellmann is the daughter of James Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann).
To give you a better idea of what's going on, here are a few lines, taken pretty much at random, from Ducks, Newburyport: "the fact that I don't know why you'd wear a white dress unless you absolutely had to, the fact that poor kids do better at school if you give them glasses, well, the ones that need glasses, the fact that maybe I needed glasses sooner than I got them, come to think of it, the fact that I stopped looking at the blackboard around fourth grade…" Now imagine that across 1,000 pages. I should add that the novel is extraordinarily funny, easier to read than you might imagine and with a central character you cannot forget. But it's certainly different.
It is always a joy to see genuinely innovative literary fiction given this sort of exposure. But the success of Ducks, Newburyport is particularly satisfying because it was published by a tiny, independent publishing house called Galley Beggar Press after it was passed over by Ellmann's regular publishers, Bloomsbury. This is a rare case of the small guys biffing the giants on the nose.
"It was great to see Ducks, Newburyport on the longlist," says Galley Beggar Press co-founder Sam Jordison. "It felt like justice for Lucy. She is away in Spain at the moment, so we all raised a glass and sent pictures to each other." Was it a surprise? "I mean, yes, it was a surprise," he says. "But we love all our books so much and we're very small, so in a way we're also surprised when they don't get longlisted."
He’s joking, of course, but Jordison and business partner Eloise Millar (they are also married) could be forgiven for feeling pretty pleased with themselves. They only publish a handful of books a year, but they seem to have a knack of taking the right chances.
Galley Beggar Press, which launched out of a bookshop in 2012 and is based in Norwich, on the east coast of Britain, is all about amplifying those strange voices, the ones mainstream publishers so often deem too dangerous.
In 2013, they decided to publish Eimear McBride's stylistically experimental novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, despite it having been rejected by dozens of publishers over a nine-year period. The novel went on to win the Women's Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliott Prize. "We're looking to be surprised," says Jordison. "It's a question of alchemy as much as anything else. It's an emotional response, you feel it in your belly." So when Ellmann's agent sent a copy of Ducks, Newburyport to their offices, it wasn't long before the pair had made up their minds. "Eloise started reading it and really quite soon was tapping me and saying, 'I think we've got one'," says Jordison. "And then it's just tremendously exciting. This novel is so long, you wonder, 'Will this keep up?', but it does and it just feels like such a miracle."
The publishing duo immediately printed 4,000 copies of Ducks, Newburyport, not an insignificant number for ambitious literary fiction, but the novel has sold well and, in light of the Booker nomination, a second print run has been arranged. It is already another unlikely hit.
There are undoubtedly economic reasons why some publishers might be wary of taking on a book as challenging as A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing or Ducks, Newburyport. But Jordison highlights something more troubling about the reluctance to publish McBride's novel. He laments that "there was this perception that editors could take it but the public couldn't".
This is a familiar debate. Whenever a supposedly unconventional or demanding novel wins a prize, elements of the press insist that there is a gulf between what the public wants to read and what judging panels consider to be "worthy". It happened last year when Anna Burns won the Booker Prize for Milkman. The Times described Burns's novel about a young girl harassed by an older man during the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a "tough read" and argued that literary fiction "means fiction that adheres to a set of stylistic conventions designed to reassure culturally aspirational middle-class readers that they're participating in an accepted social ritual".
Millar scoffs at this idea. "I don't like all this stuff about accessibility," she says. "I just think that, actually, people underestimate readers." The fact that (see – the phrase is actually contagious!) Milkman has already sold more than 500,000 copies appears to confirm this.
Nevertheless, Ducks, Newburyport is sure to face the same criticisms about its inaccessibility to the average reader as Milkman did, particularly if it makes the Booker Prize shortlist or goes on to win the award. "The biggest investment is one of time," says Millar. "You have to sit down with it, but once you get into the flow, it's very easy and very funny."
Jordison adds: “We’ve always felt as editors that, if we understand it, other people are going to. Some patronising assessment of what readers can take sticks in the craw.”
It is this mutual belief in the importance of experimental fiction that led Jordison and Millar to start Galley Beggar Press seven years ago. “We thought there was a space for a publisher whose raison d’etre was to take risks,” says Jordison. “We’re so small, every book we put out is a risk in a way, which makes it quite precarious. But it gives us a certain amount of freedom, because if you’re going to take a risk, you might as well take a big one.”
For all its undoubted merits, there could hardly be a bigger risk than Ducks, Newburyport. But it has already paid off handsomely. Could it possibly go all the way and win the Booker Prize? "I actually liked the book even more when I read it the second time," says Jordison. "So if the judges read it again, I'm really hoping they'll see all kinds of new things in it and realise just how cleverly it's put together. It's one of those books where you see more in it every time. It's such a huge flood of words that the first time you read it, you're completely overwhelmed, which is a brilliant, lovely feeling. And the next time, you're like, it's all been planned out really carefully, which is just amazingly impressive."
The Booker Prize shortlist will be announced next month and the award ceremony takes place in London on Monday, October 14. Until then, it will be all hands on deck at Galley Beggar Press – just in case. “We’re setting up for every eventuality, so there are buttons that can just be pressed,” says Millar. “We’re getting all of our ducks in a row.”
For more information, visit www.galleybeggar.co.uk