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LIFE

A look back at the literary hits of 2014

Amazon's feud with publishers took the shine off what has been an extraordinary 12 months for the written word

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 December, 2014, 12:26pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 December, 2014, 12:26pm

How can we summarise the book world's past 12 months? Amazon bad, authors good? The rise or fall of e-books, depending on where you live? Prizes: Chinese rows, Aussie wins Man Booker (or is that Bloke Booker)? Adieu to Gabriel García Márquez, Sue Townsend, Maya Angelou. Young adult fiction marches on - grown-up writing gets a little, well, childish?

In industry terms, the year was dominated by the unpleasant but significant argument between corporate goliaths Amazon and Hachette, the French company that publishes J.K. Rowling, Donna Tartt and Stephen King, among others. The debate posed two crucial questions: first, how to price e-books, and second, is Amazon's influence on publishing a good thing?

No Chinese writer had a more surprising year than Xiao Hong who hit the bestseller charts more than 70 years after her death

Hachette took a stand, effectively arguing that Amazon's 30 per cent cut of e-books was excessive and endangered author's royalties. Amazon said it wanted low prices for consumers, and retaliated by delaying deliveries on Hachette titles and preventing pre-orders. These tactics inspired a group of writers including Tartt, King and Paul Auster to take out a full-page advert in The New York Times stating: "No bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want".

The open letter was signed by 900 authors, whose identities can be seen on authorsunited.net

Amazon accused Douglas Preston, the advert's driving force, of being an "opportunist who seeks readers' support while actively working against their interests". Help came from 7,600 self-published authors who lambasted " The New York Times 900" by saying: "[They] have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves."

The clash offered a sobering reminder of Amazon's pseudo-monopoly, and its part in the slow death of the local bookshop. Sadly, what no one suggested after Amazon blocked delivery was, why not pop down to your local Dymocks? This in itself was a melancholy state of affairs that will continue in 2015.

The furore reflected a somewhat chaotic year. Sales of e-books slowed in the US but rose in Britain and across China. One poll conducted by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication estimated that in some areas e-book usage had doubled in a single year. China also showed how innovative strategies might help the high-street book trade. Sanlian Taofen in Beijing became the world's first 24-hour bookshop. This "spiritual landmark" as Premier Li Keqiang called it has spread from Guangdong to Chongqing with a dozen similar stores opening day and night.

There were other developments in China's publishing industry, which sought to reverse its reputation as the world leader in buying overseas rights with a refinement of 1999's "Go Out" initiative, which seeks to disseminate homegrown literary talent abroad. At this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, the China International Publishing Group promoted everything from singdoo.com's audiobook library to its collaboration with China Mobile in creating digital content for tablets and mobile phones.

Three authors who fulfilled Go Out's brief were Liu Cixin, Mai Jia and Yan Lianke. Liu's science-fiction epic The Three-Body Problem was published in the US. Mai's strange but compelling spy novel Decoded was well received in English-speaking countries. Yan became the first Chinese novelist to win the Franz Kafka Prize.

No Chinese writer had a more surprising year than Xiao Hong, who hit the bestseller charts more than 70 years after her death with The Golden Era, a biopic that inspired widespread discussion of her love life.

Otherwise it was business as usual. Two years after Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize, he inspired headlines good and bad. A work of calligraphy fetched almost US$60,000. On the downside, a sculpture of the author exhibited in Shanghai's Wusa Square was compared unfavourably to a brown potato and a pig's head.

There were complaints, not entirely serious, about the preponderance of celebrity authors such as Xu Xiyuan and Li Kaifu on bestseller lists. Xinhua Daily nobly admitted "celebrities have every right to publish their books", but the media "should take more into consideration rather than just focus on monetary value".

Prizes are, of course, another useful, if flawed method of judging literary success, as the Lu Xun Poetry Prize proved in August. The winning poetry collection, Jiang Jin Cha by Zhou Xioatian, was condemned as "unworthy", in part because of its colloquial style.

 

China was the subject of Evan Osnos' US National Book Award winner, Age of Ambition. Subtitled Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, it ponders the political, economic and social future of a country perpetually on the brink of change. Phil Klay won the best fiction prize at the same awards with his short story collection, Redeployment, inspired by his experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Klay was one of several former US servicemen who produced extraordinary books in 2014. The poet Brian Turner published an excellent memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country. Benjamin Busch revisited Iraq for Harper's magazine. Kevin Powers followed his prize-winning novel, The Yellow Birds, with an impressive poetry volume.

War was covered by two other major prize winners. This year's Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano has written about the second world war in novels such as The Search Warrant. And 2014's Man Booker was deservedly won by Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, who drew on his father's experience to narrate the suffering of Australian POWs on the Burma railroad in The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Karen Joy Fowler's surprise critical and commercial smash We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won the Pen/Faulkner and, for what it is worth, was my novel of the year. It was also, along with Joshua Ferris' To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, one of the first novels by an American to be shortlisted for the Man Booker.

Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer with The Goldfinch, but pushed several noted literary critics to the end of their tether. The New Yorker's James Wood compared the prose, unfavourably, to children's literature - as did the London Review of Books.

Then there was the inexorable rise of young adult fiction. Forbes' annual rich list of authors announced the arrivals of John Green, whose novel The Fault in Our Stars was everywhere in 2014 thanks to a syrupy movie, and Veronica Roth, whose Divergent trilogy was boosted by a rather underwhelming film. They rubbed gold-clad shoulders with teen gods Jeff Kinney ( Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Suzanne Hunger Games Collins, and J.K. Rowling, who wrote some novels about a wizard called Harry.

James Patterson remains the world's biggest seller thanks to his fiction factory. The remainder veers between crime (Janet Evanovich, David Baldacci, John Grisham), romance (Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel), George R.R. Martin and Stephen King. It was a quieter year for E.L. James, but expect her to return when 50 Shades of Grey hits cinemas in 2015.

We also bid adieu to some towering literary figures in the past 12 months. First among equals was the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. America lost Maya Angelou, the poet, essayist and campaigner. In Britain, two great women bestsellers died: Sue Townsend, whose adolescent diarist Adrian Mole will ensure her name lives on, and P.D. James, whose elegant but realistic crime fiction set new standards in her homeland.

Zhang Xianliang, the outspoken author of novels such as Half of Man is Woman, died in September. His unflinching portraits of the Cultural Revolution landed him in prison while his support for the students at Tiananmen Square ensured that his works were frequently banned. The suicide of Sun Zhongxu, translator of J.D. Salinger and George Orwell, is a sad loss to Chinese letters.

So farewell 2014. Hello 2015. Expect more economic turmoil, more technological advances, more young adult and more great books arriving as if from nowhere. And if that doesn't interest you, there is always that 50 Shades of Grey adaptation to whip us into shape.