Hard to put down - a hectic but rewarding year in books

With publishing's future in flux, the trends, controversies, hits and misses of the year can seem a blur. James Kidd sifts through the chaos to make some sense of it all

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 4:23pm

It's never easy to summarise the literary year, but the challenge is greater still where 2012 is concerned.

Has the publishing industry experienced a busier, more diverse or more confusingly unstable 12 months? How would Twitter headline it? "Kindle. JKR vs ELJ. Mo Yan's Nobel. Mantel's Man Booker double. Shin Kyung-sook's Man Asian prize. Rushdie, Rushdie everywhere. Random Penguin." Paper books are dead? Long live Amazon. You see the problem. Far too many characters, in all senses of the word.

The year started - and to some extent ends - with Salman Rushdie. In January, the Jaipur Literary Festival was rocked by uncomfortable reminders of the fatwa issued in 1989. A planned video link-up with the novelist was cancelled after protests by Muslim activists threatened to escalate into violence. Festival organiser William Dalrymple reluctantly stopped the event, which inspired a different kind of protest: Hari Kunzru and journalist Amitava Kumar read from The Satanic Verses, which is still banned in India.

Rushdie's defiant response was a prologue of sorts to the long-awaited publication of Joseph Anton, a fascinating, if oddly unlikeable, account of his years living under the Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence. At least 2012 ended with a reminder of Rushdie's genius: Deepa Mehta's film adaptation of his masterpiece, Midnight's Children, was released into cinemas.

The other notable event for Rushdie-watchers was his condemnation of Mo Yan's Nobel Prize for literature. If the Nobel committee was hoping for some peace and quiet after Liu Xiaobo's peace prize in 2010, they were in for a shock. Highlighting Mo's refusal to sign a petition for Liu's release from prison, Rushdie called Mo "the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet Russian apparatchik writer Mikhail Sholokhov: a patsy of the regime".

At a press conference a couple of days before accepting the Nobel laureateship, Mo himself did little to cool tempers when he reiterated his controversial stance on censorship, which he compared to airport security: "I think these checks are necessary." Mo found an unlikely ally in novelist and critic Pankaj Mishra, who took Rushdie to task for his blinkered and narrowly Western perspective. Of course, Rushdie hit back, albeit in inelegantly negative form: "It is not for Mishra to tell me not to criticise the literature laureate Mo Yan for refusing to support him."

As Mishra notes, the saddest part of the spat was how it distracted attention from Mo's considerable contribution to Chinese and world literature. This was corrected somewhat by Per Wästberg, chairman of the Nobel committee, who praised Mo for narrating Chinese history "with his exaggerations, parodies and derivations from myths and folk tales". Far from being a patsy, Mo provides "a convincing and scathing revision of 50 years of propaganda … instead of communism's poster-happy history".

The big non-fiction book to emerge from China provided a similarly contentious blend of censorship, political violence, and literature's power to reveal painful, but vital truths. Yang Yisheng's Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Famine was first published in Hong Kong four years ago. The global release of its English translation has caused a sensation. A journalist at Xinhua News Agency, Yang was inspired to excavate the hidden realities of the famine by his father's death from starvation in Hubei province. He discovered the tragic consequences of Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The book is banned on the mainland but Yang estimates about 100,000 pirated copies are in circulation.

Tombstone puts many other literary headlines to shame. For example, how one Young Adult movie franchise - Twilight - began to yield to another: The Hunger Games. The year's most sensational story was not the sexual habits of teenagers - it was the sexual habits of everyone else as E.L. James fever gripped like a leather glove around your unmentionables. Her 50 Shades of Grey is now officially the most popular work of adult fiction in Britain. Whether this is a cause for celebration or dismay exercised thousands of column inches.

One author who wasn't scraping the bottom of the barrel - or any other bottom for that matter - was J.K. Rowling. In a non-E.L. James year, the excitement of discovering what Harry Potter's creator did next would have been publishing's big story. The Casual Vacancy has little obvious magic: its plot surrounds a council election in a provincial English village. The reviews have been sceptical, bordering on the negative. But in the context of most contemporary popular fiction, The Casual Vacancy is bold, if overlong; adequately written but blessed by several memorable characters and scenes.

The negative reviews notwithstanding, Rowling continued to sell strongly across the world. In China, she was far and away the most popular foreign writer, earning 15 million yuan. Reviewing the mainland's bestseller charts, it was hard to miss the rise of homegrown romance and Young Adult fiction: despite accusations of plagiarism and being voted the country's "most hated male celebrity", Guo Jingming's Tiny Times series dominated the charts.

The rich list of Chinese authors was topped by Zheng Yuanjie, whose Pipilu fairy tales earned 26 million yuan. Mo's Nobel boosted him into second place, ahead of children's writer Yang Hongying.

Where foreign authors were concerned, there were several Japanese novelists and some eyebrow-raising Europeans: Thomas Brezina and Christian Jolibois, anyone?

Unsurprisingly, none of these chart-toppers were in contention for 2012's major prizes. The Nobel aside, all the major honours went to women. South Korea's Shin Kyung-sook became the first female novelist to win the Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom. Hilary Mantel completed a unique double at the Man Booker. Having won in 2009 with Wolf Hall, she triumphed in 2012 with its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. Louise Erdrich's The Round House won the National Book Award in America.

As so often in recent years, the most pressing story was the future of literature itself. Amazon expanded to become a near monopoly. No longer simply an online shop, the company now publishes digital and audiobooks. Authors can now bypass mainstream literary houses entirely. Is self-publishing the future, or merely a gateway to poorly produced misery memoirs and pornography? Are traditional publishers the keepers of literature's flame, or a self-protecting, conservative elite?

Publishing's future depends on answering these sorts of questions. Global giants Penguin and Random House have joined forces. Their merger offers a new competitive rival to Hachette and Amazon's powerbases. In a year when Rupert Murdoch's empire took a battering after the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry, it seems appropriate that his HarperCollins house now stands alone.

Fortunately, all the business upheaval in the world will not stop writers getting on with writing books. There were fine, adventurous works of fiction by Tom Keneally, Jake Arnott, Alice Munro, Tan Twan Eng, Nadine Gordimer, Jeet Thayil, Philip Hensher and Nicola Barker. Will Self wrote an extraordinary novel, Umbrella, about madness and history. Patrick Flanery, Charlotte Rogan, Kevin Powers and Ned Beauman all published striking debuts.

Non-fiction was dignified by the renaissance of the biography. Richard Burton's Diaries were intelligent and wonderful fun. Michael Gorra wrote one illuminating book ( Portrait of a Novel) about another: Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. Siddhartha Mukherjee produced a biography about a disease: The Emperor of All Maladies narrated the history of cancer.

Arguably the most inventive "biography" of all was Dotter of Her Father's Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot. A genre-crossing illustrated work, the book traces the tragic life-story of James Joyce's daughter, Lucia, and the Joyce scholar James Atherton, who is Mary Talbot's father. It is one of two graphic works to be nominated for this year's Costa Prize; the other is the charming Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart.

At a time when publishers are becoming increasingly conservative, it is heartening to see idiosyncratic works such as these gaining currency thanks to adventurous independent houses. One could highlight Bones Will Crow (edited by James Byrne and ko ko thett): the first anthology of Burmese poetry translated into English. Or Tom Phillips' masterly A Humument, which re-invents a turgid Victorian novel though editing and design.

All of these works shone some kind of light into the book world's present darkness. Hopefully there remains a bright future ahead for printed - as well as digitised - words and images.

The power of three

Three pundits select their top three literary highlights of 2012:

Xu Xi, author

The Collective by Don Lee. This hits you with every Asian racial slur in the English language in a novel that blows the top off our oh-so-liberal politically correct, polite Asia-ness in the West.

Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse. Edith Campbell Berry ranks right up there alongside Isabel Archer, Anna Wulf, Jean Brodie, Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp, Wong Chia Chi and other memorable female protagonists who create their own lives (and loves).

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander. First you laugh out loud, then you think a lot. This comic novel brilliantly takes on - believe it or not - the Holocaust.

Harrison Kelly, publicity manager, Man Asian Literary Prize

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel. This is a meditation on morality and consumerism, arguing that markets have a corruptive effect on the people and products they play with.

Northern Girls by Sheng Keyi. For anyone who has spent time in China's new cityscapes, the characters in this story of misguided hope and brutal vulnerability will be instantly recognisable as a facet of Chinese modernity.

Walking Home by Simon Armitage. The Pennine Way is one of the best walking routes in Britain and poet Simon Armitage walked the whole route last summer from his (and my) hometown of Huddersfield, using only poetry readings to pay for his board and lodging along the way.

Kelly Falconer, literary editor,

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden. A scarcely believable but true story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born into a concentration camp in North Korea. Horrific yet compelling, it is a story that needs to be heard.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. An original, absurdly funny yet heartbreaking novel, again set in North Korea. If you liked Catch-22 and Burmese Days, you'll love this.

A Dance with the Dragon: The Vanished World of Peking's Foreign Colony by Julia Boyd. A rip-roaring account of the city from 1900 to 1949, using a treasure trove of first-hand accounts from the people who lived through the tumultuous times from the Boxer Rebellion to the Japanese occupation of the capital.