Erotic fantasies, boastful autobiographies, science fiction bust-ups and troublesome judges—it’s been an eventful year for literatureby Sam Leith / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
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.