The year in books

Erotic fantasies, boastful autobiographies, science fiction bust-ups and troublesome judges—it’s been an eventful year for literature
November 14, 2012

Photo: mich&pics

The first thing that any review of the year in books needs to do is acknowledge its own irrelevance. 2012 belonged to Fifty Shades of Grey (Arrow), an S&M fantasy trilogy by EL James that was sneered at by critics for its prose. It has now sold so many copies that every British household now has one for each bedroom and an e-text for the commute.

Publishing-wise, the book was held to signify: a breakthrough for female erotica; the mainstreaming of “fanfiction” (it began as an online pash-note to the Twilight series of teen vampire novels); the triumph of the e-book (publishers reasoned that people will read smut in public if others can’t see what they’re reading); and, in more Eeyorish quarters, The End Of Civilisation As We Know It.

Still, the year began with the bicentennial of James’s ancestor in popularity, Charles Dickens. There was a spate of good books. Most original and exciting was Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s account of Dickens’s early life and the growth of his imagination, Becoming Dickens (Harvard). Claire Tomalin brought her customary narrative brio to a full biography in Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking). The bicentennial of another great Victorian, Robert Browning, sadly, didn’t get the same marquee treatment. It should have.

All in all, non-fiction was strong, as witnessed by a cracking longlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize. One of my favourite books of the year—Sue Prideaux’s extraordinarily interesting life of barmy, brilliant Strindberg: A Life (Yale)—was on there. As were Robert Macfarlane’s meditative and writerly account of the life pedestrian, The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton), and Craig Brown’s enjoyable and sneakingly poignant daisy-chain of true-life celebrity encounters, One On One (4th Estate).

Also in non-fiction, I enjoyed Paul Hendrickson’s exhaustive and sometimes mannered yet weirdly brilliant excavation of Ernest Hemingway’s life through the story of the “she” he loved best: his cabin cruiser Pilar. It was called, straightforwardly enough, Hemingway’s Boat (Bodley Head). The first full biography of David Foster Wallace—DT Max’s Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story (Granta)—was a clear-eyed, penetrating and well-written account that will be essential to fans. Tom Williams’s Raymond Chandler biography, A Mysterious Something In The Light (Aurum), was smashing, too. Certainly, by the end, its subject was completely smashed. As it now strikes me, that’s three alcoholics in a row. Let’s move on.

There were literary autobiographies, too: notably Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl (Faber), Paul Auster’s Winter Journal (Faber) and Salman Rushdie’s account of life under that Fatwa, Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape). Only the first was told, as is traditional in this sort of thing, in the first person; Auster used the second and Rushdie the third. Perhaps this marks a new trend—“Je est un autre,” as Rimbaud said, and all that. The more cynical have seen it less as a literary stratagem than a stalking-horse for self-praise: both the boys were ticked off by reviewers for boasting.

Among the books of essays or sort-of-essays I read with admiration were Thinking the Twentieth Century (William Heinemann)—a wide-ranging, erudite and politically penetrating series of, basically, clever conversations between the late Tony Judt and his friend and fellow historian Timothy Snyder. You can’t read it without feeling your brain refreshed. At the other end of the scale—slangy, reported, in the moment—was Pulphead: Dispatches from the Other Side of America (Vintage), a collection of smart and fizzy magazine pieces from the American writer John Jeremiah Sullivan. From how Axl Rose dances, to what it’s like being in bed with a nonagenarian former editor of the Sewanee Review, JJS sure has range.

The best row of the year centred on the shortlist for a prize. For once, it wasn’t Man Booker. It was the Arthur C Clarke Awards for science fiction. Christopher Priest (who didn’t make the shortlist) delivered a broadside against what he called a “dreadful shortlist put together by a set of judges who were not fit for purpose.” Of Sherri S Tepper’s shortlisted The Waters Rising (Gollancz), he exclaimed: “For fuck’s sake, it is a quest saga and it has a talking horse.” Another shortlistee, Charles Stross, he described as writing “like an internet puppy... You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet.” Stross, by way of response, started selling puppy T-shirts on his website. In the event, Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Canongate)—the only shortlisted book Priest thought half-decent—won.

The Man Booker judges were accused, as has become traditional, of “snubbing” Ian McEwan’s cleverly metafictional spy novel Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape), Martin Amis’s knockabout underclass comedy Lionel Asbo: State of England (Jonathan Cape) and Zadie Smith’s tale of interconnected London lives, NW (Hamish Hamilton), by not choosing them for the shortlist. They didn’t “snub” Hilary Mantel, of course, whose Bring Up The Bodies (4th Estate), sequel to previous winner Wolf Hall, was ultimately victorious. Overall, the shortlist was a good one, avoiding the charges of “dumbing down,” that plagued last year’s selections and highlighting books from independent publishers. As the review-aggregating website The Omnivore also noted, a third of the shortlisted authors are former heroin addicts, which makes one nostalgic for the days when writers were alcoholics (see above).

JK Rowling published her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown). It had two cheers or so from the critics—which is a good sign considering what critics are like. Fear and loathing in an English market town: Joanna Trollope territory by way of Irvine Welsh (whose Trainspotting prequel Skagboys (Jonathan Cape), was very good too).

Given the space, here, to press some enthusiasms, I shall. Shalom Auslander’s first novel Hope: A Tragedy (Picador)—which tells the story of a man who finds an elderly Anne Frank living in his attic—was one of the funniest things I read all year, and funny with intent. Nicola Barker’s chaotic yarn about freelance beauticians, pubic tattooists and boorish professional golfers, The Yips (4th Estate), was quite unlike any novel on those subjects I’ve read before. And Chris Ware’s graphic novel Building Stories (Jonathan Cape)—presented as a big box of 14 comics of all shapes and sizes—was so bleak, observant and meticulously crafted that it merits that usually empty old word: masterpiece.

Now, if you’ll forgive me, I have a novel inspired by Fifty Shades of Grey to write. Thanks to Philip Hensher’s delightful-looking book The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, and Why It Still Matters (Macmillan), which has just arrived, I may do so with pen and ink.