Friday, July 3, 2020

Q&A: Jake Goldsmith Founder of The Barbellion Prize

The Barbellion Prize is a new book prize for people with chronic, lifelong conditions whose work speaks on the experience of disability or chronic illness. All books submitted must be published in the current year or published later in the year. From the website: "The awarded work can be of any genre in fiction, memoir, biography, poetry, or critical non-fiction from around the world - whether it is in English, in translation, traditionally published, or self-published." The deadline is October 31st. There is no submission fee. You can find more at the website (click here).

I thought I'd ask Jake Goldsmith, the founder, a few questions about the award.
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How long did it take you (from concept to execution) to create the prize?

I had always wanted to see a greater representation of illness and of disability in literature, given how weighty and important these subjects are. And history has some great examples of brilliant work from ill writers. Kafka. Nietzsche. Virginia Woolf. But often when we discuss being inclusive and intersectional, we leave disability and the chronically ill off the list. That’s upsetting, we need to be heard a lot more. Representation is still pretty low. That was the concept, then, that I’d been thinking more about since last year.

I wanted better representation and to reward it. It took maybe a couple months before I met one of our trustees, Elizabeth Ferretti, who lives locally to me, and discussed the idea of such a prize for ill and disabled writers, like me, and started to talk about what we’d need to do. It was easy to create a website and Twitter was invaluable for finding people and contacts. It’s surely been much easier to do this in the Internet Age too.

The National Centre for Writing are also playing a part. Elizabeth had contacts there, such as Chris Gribble, and they should be helping us in the future with publicity and possibly hosting events. They also help other book prizes such as the Republic Of Consciousness Prize, for independent publishers. This has all happened in under half a year or so, slowly persevering.

In a few months we had judges and advisors on board and we made accounts for donations. Some of that process was stressful in finding out exactly what to do, whether we are a small charity, etc, but it worked out pretty quickly. We are still having to work things out as we go, and in the future will likely need a lot more help if we become anywhere near vaguely successful. We have support in principle from the MS Trust, and would hope to have further support from others too in the future.

What factors lead you to include books by caretakers as well as chronically ill/disabled writers for the prize? Where do you see caregiving by able-bodied, non-ill folks in the spectrum of disability/sick literature?


Again, disability literature and writing on illness is still thin on the ground, really. Certainly it is not often a mainstream consideration making bestseller lists or being readily discussed as much as it should be. There is a strong sub genre of works written by doctors about working with patients, and cancer memoirs, but it’s still divided in part from other disability lit.

Carers play such an integral part in the lives of many people who are ill. My mother is my primary carer – I’d very literally be dead without her. They play an important part in the life of many disabled and long-term ill people, and often also go unheard. Literature from the perspective of carers - memoirs, poetry, novels, etc - is just as underrepresented. It deserves to be heard and rewarded too, so it felt inconsiderate to exclude it.

How is the judging process going to work?  Will there be volunteer readers before the judges see the finalists, or will the judges read every submission?

We have a main panel of 3 judges, including myself, and a panel of advisors that are also helping to read some of the submissions and help the judges better form their thoughts and opinions. The judges will be the ones with the final say on any longlist, shortlist, and the winner. The advisory panel does not have a direct vote but are there to help diversify opinion and ideas and help with the workload. As well as help with the running of the prize, publicity, and, well, advice. With 3 judges we should not be stuck in any deadlock situations, such as with an even number of judges, but if for some reason the judges cannot decide on one particular winner, I, in an executive role, will be able to make an executive decision.

We are publicly announcing our judges and advisory panel in July, delayed due to Covid-19 swallowing up the news so much.

The submissions are also being lent out to various trusted friends of the judges and advisors to read at their leisure - to help us form our opinions. These people won’t have any voting power on who wins, but are of course helpful for us in finalising a longlist, and then the rest.

Why did you decide to open the prize to self-published books (alongside traditionally published)?

Few prizes do this, notably the Jhalak Prize does. As disabled literature and illness literature is not often attractive to publishers (unless, cynically, it’s the ‘inspiration porn’ kind), many writers often have to resort to self-publishing. Independent publishers are much more likely to accept disability literature than large publishers, it also seems.

Theoretically, a poor housewife from Peru unheard of by anyone could self-publish a work of poetry about their life with MS, and we could discover it and it could win – if it’s good enough of course.

We would also hope than any self-published works that reach a shortlist could be accepted by a publisher if the author so wanted. How much talent and good literature has been slighted due to the lack of money or recognition? This is an even more acute problem for disabled people, so it’s good to help rectify that.

What are your three favourite books on illness/disability?

Barbellion’s ‘The Journal of a Disappointed Man’, obviously. That work is beautiful. The prize is named in homage to Barbellion for a reason.
I love Oliver Sacks, and many of his works. You could take anything from him. ‘On The Move’, his biography, being a good summation. ‘Awakenings’, too.

My favourite authors are people who suffered with illness (TB) but didn’t write explicitly about it. Albert Camus; and Man√®s Sperber, who also had respiratory problems. What they wrote best about was political and moral injustice. Camus is at his best in his ‘Combat’ articles and essays, a reluctant moral voice, and Sperber wrote wonderfully about historicist dogma overshadowing human needs, in his biographical trilogy ‘All Our Yesterdays’ being especially good. It has always resonated with me considering the injustice I felt and saw against the disabled, and oppressed, and the more general political evils they were describing certainly affected and did not care much for those with illness or disability. Their own health too gave them a perspective on these things that would be harder to access if they were conventionally abled and healthy.

I feel close to them, politically and in spirit. All of us struggling to breathe, as it were.

How important is it (in your opinion) for awards, presses, and other ventures for the disabled/ill community to be run by members of that community?

All our judges have some sort of long term illness or disability. I have Cystic Fibrosis, diabetes, autism, scoliosis, depression, and a host of other conditions.

Our advisors also have disabilities, but some of them are also abled people with knowledge of the publishing and book industry, as well as academic knowledge on disability.

I do not believe it is imperative that all those advocating for disabled and ill representation be disabled themselves. We can have good allies and friends working for us too, obviously. We need their help. Of course, publishing particularly needs to work in better representing, in who it employs or publishes, disabled people as well as underrepresented black, Asian, and other minority ethnic groups. We seem to be living in an acute moment right now where racial injustice and brutality is receiving more reflection. Those issues often also intersect with disability. Many people killed by police in the US are also disabled. Brutality towards disabled people is even worse in countries like Brazil and India. There’s some shocking statistics. In short, better treatment and representation of these groups is truly important.

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