Despite past controversies and recent debates about opening it up to American writers, the Man Booker Prize remains the UK’s most prestigious literary prize. This year it celebrated its 50th anniversary (although the prize was actually first awarded in 1969) by announcing a ‘Golden Man Booker’ to be given to the novel chosen as the best of all the winners from the last 50 years. Appointed judges selected one title from each of the five decades and the public was then invited to vote for their favourite. The winner was The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, whose new novel Warlight (Cape), set in the years immediately following the Second World War, was published in the summer of 2018.
Other past winners of the Man Booker had new novels available in the 12 months under review. A Long Way from Home (Faber) by Peter Carey was the story of a 10,000-mile road race around 1950s Australia and its effects on three of the participants; Julian Barnes’ The Only Story (Cape) was another of the author’s carefully crafted analyses of the pleasures and perils of love; and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair (Picador) moved from 1940s Oxford to contemporary London in its chronicle of the interwoven lives of a group of friends and their families. Smile (Cape) was a new work by the Dublin-born writer Roddy Doyle, The Golden House (Cape) was Salman Rushdie’s latest novel and Mrs Osmond (Viking) by John Banville was a cleverly realised sequel to Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Richard Flanagan’s First Person (Chatto) was a haunting tale of a ghostwriter corrupted by the man whose memoir he has been employed to write.
Although he has been twice shortlisted, Jim Crace has not yet won the Man Booker but his fiction has long been admired. His latest novel, The Melody (Picador), was a hypnotic, ecological fable which opened with its protagonist’s encounter with a mysterious, nocturnal intruder. In Dead Men’s Trousers (Cape) Irvine Welsh revisited, not for the first time, the characters from his ground-breaking 1993 novel Trainspotting. Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind (Cape) was one of the year’s finest historical novels – a brilliant evocation of a small village in medieval Somerset and its inhabitants, disturbed by the unexplained death of one of their number. West (Granta) by Carys Davies was another work set in the past – a short but compelling tale of an American pioneer and his journey into unknown territory. So Much Life Left Over (Harvill Secker) by Louis de Bernières followed the fortunes of a former fighter pilot in the First World War and his extended family in the interwar years.
Other novels which attracted attention during the year under review included Philip Hensher’s The Friendly Ones (Fourth Estate), Rachel Cusk’s Kudos (Faber), which completed her much-admired ‘Outline’ trilogy, and Ali Smith’s Winter (Hamish Hamilton), which was the second in her planned ‘Seasonal Quartet’. Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press) was a reworking of the story of King Lear in the setting of contemporary India, and Kintu (Oneworld) by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was an epic tale of life in east Africa which began in the 18th century and moved forwards to the modern world.
In American fiction, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (Abacus), a satirical story of a gay writer’s voyage of self-discovery, was the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Kevin Powers’ second book, A Shout in the Ruins (Sceptre), travelled back in time to the American Civil War to provide an unflinching examination of the perennial human capacity for cruelty and violence. Madeline Miller’s Circe (Bloomsbury) was a further excursion into Greek mythology by the author of the Orange Prize-winning The Song of Achilles. Clock Dance (Chatto), a story of family and self-discovery, was Anne Tyler’s 22nd novel, as rich in its revelations of ordinary lives as the previous 21. Other significant fiction by American women writers included Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion (Chatto), The Mars Room (Cape) by Rachel Kushner and Amy Bloom’s White Houses (Granta), which was about the passionate relationship between first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the journalist Lorena Hickok.
The year under review was a particularly strong one for short stories. William Trevor’s Last Stories (Viking) and Helen Dunmore’s Girl, Balancing (Hutchinson) provided welcome reminders of the gifts of two writers who are, sadly, no longer with us. Other rewarding collections included William Boyd’s The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth (Viking), Lionel Shriver’s Property (Borough Press) and Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It (Doubleday). The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award was won by the young American writer Courtney Zoffness for her story ‘Peanuts Aren’t Nuts’.
Fiction in translation rarely receives the attention in Britain that the best of it deserves but there were exceptions this year. The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions) won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. French-Moroccan novelist Leila Slimani combined the pleasures of the psychological thriller with an acute examination of race, gender and class in Lullaby (Faber). Other successes included Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (Oneworld), Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 1 (Maclehose Press), and The Dinner Guest (Harvill Secker), an autobiographical novel about a terrorist kidnapping in author Gabriela Ybarra’s family.
One of the biggest successes in crime fiction of recent years was Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry. Harper’s second book Force of Nature (Little, Brown) was an equally compelling story of a backpacker missing in the Australian bush. Joseph Knox’s The Smiling Man (Doubleday), a neo-noir tale of a detective investigating the murder of a mysterious stranger, was another novel which repeated the success of a much-acclaimed debut. Anatomy of a Scandal (Simon & Schuster) by Sarah Vaughan was a deftly constructed tale of a marriage falling to pieces after the husband is accused of a terrible crime. A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window (HarperCollins) took the familiar plot premise of a woman witnessing something she shouldn’t and gave it new life. Snap (Bantam) by Belinda Bauer, about a mother’s sudden and inexplicable disappearance, was hailed as ‘the best crime novel I’ve read in a very long time’ by none other than Val McDermid.
McDermid herself produced Insidious Intent (Little, Brown), her tenth novel to feature psychological profiler Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan. Further instalments of other long-admired series also appeared. Dead If You Don’t (Macmillan) provided a new case for Peter James’ Brighton-based detective Roy Grace; Day of the Dead (Michael Joseph) was the eighth, and reportedly last, outing for Nicci French’s criminal psychologist Frieda Klein; and London Rules (John Murray) was the fifth spy thriller by Mick Herron to feature his memorable creation, the slobbish and foul-mouthed Jackson Lamb. The daddy of all fictional spies, of course, is James Bond; Anthony Horowitz became the latest writer to bring 007 back to life in Forever and a Day (Jonathan Cape).
Historical crime fiction had its stand-out successes. Abir Mukherjee’s Smoke and Ashes (Harvill Secker) was the third in his intelligent, entertaining series set in the British Raj; Greeks Bearing Gifts (Quercus) was Philip Kerr’s 13th Bernie Gunther novel, published just before the author’s untimely death; and Andrew Taylor was at his best with The Fire Court (HarperCollins), set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London.
Attica Locke has a high reputation among American crime writers, and her latest novel, Bluebird, Bluebird (Serpent’s Tail), was a page-turning thriller about love, murder, politics and race in a small Texan town. Stephen King appears to have deserted horror fiction for the crime genre but his ability to hold readers’ attention remains. The Outsider (Hodder) was the story of a man whose apparently unshakeable alibi for a murder charge was contradicted by all the forensic evidence. Other well-known writers published new adventures for their long-running series characters. Y is for Yesterday (Mantle) featured Sue Grafton’s California-based detective Kinsey Millhone. After Grafton’s death in December 2017, the alphabet books look likely to end with ‘Y’. Jeffery Deaver’s The Cutting Edge (Hodder) was his 14th novel about quadriplegic crime-solver Lincoln Rhyme; The Wanted (Simon & Schuster) provided another case for Robert Crais’ private investigator Elvis Cole; and Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster) by James Lee Burke saw the eponymous Louisiana detective waking from a drinking binge to find himself suspected of murder.
The science fiction genre is so varied and flourishing at present that all a review of this kind can do is highlight a few of the many fine novels which fall within its very broad parameters. The British Science Fiction Association Award for best novel of 2017 was won by Nina Allan’s The Rift (Titan), the story of a teenager who disappears for 20 years and returns with word of her life on another planet. Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon (Heinemann) was a vastly ambitious novel set in a near-future Britain where the state has unlimited powers of mass surveillance; Summerland (Gollancz) by Hannu Rajaniemi provided an alternative history of the 1930s in which both sides in a Cold War have access to the afterlife; Alastair Reynolds combined the science fiction and crime genres in Elysium Fire (Gollancz); and America City (Corvus) by Chris Beckett, author of the ‘Eden’ trilogy, was set in a future America where climate change has reshaped society. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (Canongate) was a powerful feminist dystopia in which medieval women, including Joan of Arc, were reimagined as participants in a future war. Artemis (Del Rey) was Andy Weir’s follow-up to his huge bestseller The Martian. Interesting debut novels included Autonomous (Orbit) by Annalee Newitz, Tristan Palmgren’s Quietus (Angry Robot), the story of an alien anthropologist’s engagement with human beings at the time of the Black Death, and The Rending and the Nest (Bloomsbury), Kaethe Schwehn’s tales of post-apocalyptic survivors.
Fantasy fiction tends to come in multi-volume sagas and there were plenty of additions to such works in the year. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Hyena and the Hawk (Macmillan) was the latest volume of his ‘Echoes of the Fall’ sequence; Jen Williams added a second novel entitled The Bitter Twins (Headline) to her ‘Winnowing Flame’ sequence; Wyntertide (Jo Fletcher) returned author Andrew Caldecott to the town of Rotherweird that he had created in his previous novel; and The Stone Sky (Orbit) was the concluding book of N. K. Jemisin’s much-praised and prize-garlanded ‘Broken Earth’ trilogy. The Wolf (Headline) by Leo Carew was the first novel in a new series, ‘Under the Northern Sky’. Standalone fantasy novels of interest included Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver (Macmillan) and The Book of M (Harper Voyager) by Peng Shepherd, in which the world is turned upside down when people begin to lose both their shadows and their memories.
No work of non-fiction this year attracted as much attention – or went further to prove the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction – than Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury (Little, Brown). This fly-on-the-wall view of life in the White House proved astonishing even to those who thought that they could no longer be surprised by Donald Trump. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the 2016 US elections, had already provided her own version of events in What Happened (Simon & Schuster). Another of Trump’s bêtes noires, the former director of the FBI, James Comey, weighed in with his own memoir, A Higher Loyalty (Macmillan), which was again deeply critical of the president. Meanwhile the rollercoaster ride of recent British politics came under scrutiny in a series of books by high-profile journalists including Tim Shipman’s Fall Out (Collins), Robert Peston’s WTF? (Hodder) and How Britain Really Works (John Murray) by Stig Abell. Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (Cape) was an often scathing and deeply personal investigation of the everyday racism which still pervades British society.
History provides a longer perspective than politicians and journalists can and, among many ambitious works published, a few stood out. Keith Thomas’ In Pursuit of Civility (Yale University Press) was the distinguished social historian’s richly detailed examination of what it meant to be ‘civilised’ in early modern England; David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (Allen Lane) was a bold attempt to reassess the history of the country in the 20th century; and Arnhem (Viking) was another of Antony Beevor’s much-acclaimed studies of the battles of the Second World War. Two deservedly celebrated popular historians also published new works. Sadly, John Julius Norwich’s France: A History from Gaul to de Gaulle (John Murray) was his last publication before his death at the age of 88; Antonia Fraser’s The King and the Catholics (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) was a vivid account of the early 19th-century struggle for Catholic emancipation.
Barracoon (HarperCollins) was a previously unpublished work by Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and told the true story of the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade who had, in the 1920s and 1930s, talked to Hurston of his experiences. The period under review had its full share of other remarkable memoirs. Educated (Hutchinson) was the extraordinary story of Tara Westover’s escape, through education, from the crippling limitations of her upbringing within a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho. Viv Albertine’s To Throw Away Unopened (Faber) was the second volume of unflinchingly truthful autobiography by the punk musician. The novelist Rose Tremain provided what her subtitle called ‘Scenes from a Vanished Life’ in Rosie (Chatto), her account of growing up in post-war England. The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton) was Deborah Levy’s second volume of reflections on her life as a writer and as a woman. Two memoirs paid tribute to the importance of reading in their authors’ lives. Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) was the story of her recovery from anorexia with the help of the books she enjoyed; Bookworm (Square Peg) by Lucy Mangan celebrated the delights of childhood reading. Calypso (Little, Brown) was a collection of darkly comic autobiographical tales by David Sedaris. Collected in Feel Free (Hamish Hamilton), Zadie Smith’s essays ranged from personal responses to Brexit to thoughts on art and other writers.
The two major British awards for poetry went to writers from very different backgrounds. Ocean Vuong, born in Vietnam, arrived in the USA as a child and could not read until he was 11. After studying literature at university in New York, he began publishing his poetry in magazines and chapbooks. Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape), his first collection, was hailed as ‘the definitive arrival of a significant voice’ and won the T. S. Eliot Prize for 2017. Northern Ireland poet Sinéad Morrissey had already won the same prize three years earlier for a previous collection. Her latest work, On Balance (Carcanet), which ranged in subject matter from the first woman to build and fly her own plane to the reconstructed skeleton of Napoleon’s horse, was awarded the 2017 Forward Prize.
Major poets produced new work in the period under review. The Noise of a Fly (Faber) was Douglas Dunn’s first collection for 16 years; Andrew Motion’s Essex Clay (Faber) revisited subjects, including his mother’s early death, which have haunted the former poet laureate’s writings throughout his career; Salt (Faber) was an interlinked assembly of short poems by David Harsent; Moniza Alvi’s collection Blackbird, Bye Bye (Bloodaxe) was unified by the theme of birds; and Europa (Picador) was Sean O’Brien’s ninth collection of his imaginative and intelligent poetry. The ever-popular Wendy Cope played to her strengths in the poems gathered together in Anecdotal Evidence (Faber). Robin Robertson mixed verse, prose and the motifs of film noir into an exceptionally original narrative of a man returning from the Second World War in The Long Take (Picador).
Three Poems (Faber) provided an acclaimed debut for Hannah Sullivan. Other notable collections included Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear (Carcanet); The Radio (Cape) by Leontia Flynn; Mark Ford’s Enter, Fleeing (Faber); and Frieda Hughes’ Out of the Ashes (Bloodaxe). Sasha Dugdale’s Joy (Carcanet) took its title from her remarkable monologue in the voice of William Blake’s wife, which won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem two years ago. And, for those who wanted to know how poets of all kinds approach their craft, Don Paterson offered a monumental exposition of the workings of poetry in The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre (Faber).
The richness and diversity of children’s fiction was as much in evidence in these 12 months as in previous years, although the popularity of stories set in fantasy worlds rather than the real one was noticeable. For younger readers, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Orion) by Jessica Townsend was one of the more inventive children’s fantasy novels of recent years and was the winner in the ‘Younger Fiction’ section of the 2018 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Bad Dad (HarperCollins) and The World’s Worst Children 3 (HarperCollins) were two more titles by the bestselling phenomenon that is David Walliams. The Light Jar (Scholastic) was a second novel by Lisa Thompson, author of The Goldfish Boy; Maz Evans’ Beyond the Odyssey (Chicken House) was a third volume in her ongoing series in which she provides a very contemporary take on old stories; and Matt Brown’s Aliens Invaded My Talent Show! (Usborne) was a strong contender for the oddest, most memorable title of the year.
For older children and young adults, David Almond’s The Colour of the Sun (Hodder) was the story of a boy growing up in a small Tyneside town for whom the real and the imaginary begin to merge; Juliette Forrest’s Twister (Scholastic) was a first novel about a young girl’s encounters with witchcraft; and The Storm Keeper’s Island (Bloomsbury) by Catherine Doyle was an inventive tale set on the magical island of Arranmore. Spark (Scholastic) was the second volume in Alice Broadway’s ‘Ink’ trilogy and Station Zero (Oxford University Press) brought to a conclusion Philip Reeve’s much-acclaimed ‘Railhead’ sequence. Emily Suvada’s This Mortal Coil (Simon Pulse) was a debut novel by a young Australian writer about a gene-hacker set in the near future; another first-time novelist, Mary Watson, produced an eerie and compelling work of fantasy in The Wren Hunt (Bloomsbury). Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan) by the Nigerian-American writer Tomi Adeyemi, already in development as a movie, was an epic work of the imagination inspired by the mythology of west Africa.
It may seem a statement of the obvious but the future of literature lies not with publishers, nor literary agents, nor commissioning editors but with the writers who write books and the readers who read them. In this context, the year under review was not filled with good news stories. A report from Arts Council England, published in December 2017, revealed both dwindling sales of literary fiction and the exceptional difficulties of earning even a modest income through writing. A later report by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, based on a survey of more than 5,500 professional authors, painted an equally gloomy picture: median earnings had plummeted to less than £10,500 a year. It is little wonder that the proportion of authors reporting that their income came solely from their writings fell from 40 per cent in 2005 to just 13 per cent this year. ‘The word exploitation comes to mind,’ remarked Philip Pullman, author of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, and he and other writers pointed the finger of blame at publishers and giant online booksellers like Amazon. Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, argued in response that ‘these figures will be unrecognisable to the majority of publishers as they just do not reflect the investments they are making in creative talent’.
Readers and writers could take a little comfort from news of Britain’s bookshops. The sale of Waterstones in April 2018 to the hedge fund Elliott Advisors raised concerns about its future but it was difficult to see that it would make a significant difference. Recently returned to profit, it looks likely to continue to thrive. Even the word from the independent sector was encouraging. Figures from the Booksellers Association in late 2017 showed that the number of such shops rose rather than fell for the first time since 1995. It went up by one. It may not have seemed much but, after the sector had lost more than 1,000 shops in just over 20 years, it was worth celebrating.
Libraries continued to feel the pitiless effects of government austerity. In Somerset, the county council, struggling to meet its budget, was looking for savings. Nearly half of its libraries were under threat if volunteers could not be found to run them. It was a similar story in other parts of the country. In Northamptonshire, there were protests against plans to make swingeing cuts in the services and concerns were expressed about the future of the collection of the 19th-century poet John Clare’s books and manuscripts, which is housed in the central library in Northampton. Local author Alan Moore, renowned worldwide for his graphic novels, was only one of many writers and academics to express their fears for its future.
No year in the literary world would be complete without rows, debates and scandals, and 2017–18 proved no exception. The novelist Lionel Shriver crossed swords with Penguin Random House after the publishing conglomerate had stated that its aim was to mirror UK society by 2025. Its authors and staff would ‘reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility, and disability’. To some, this might have seemed a progressive, even praiseworthy stance to take, but Shriver was having none of it. In an article in The Spectator, she argued forcefully that it meant that ‘literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference… boxes’. The publisher defended its position. Other writers such as Hanif Kureishi added their contributions to the developing argument, mostly on the side of Penguin Random House. Shriver, who had courted controversy earlier in the year with suggestions that politically correct censorship was damaging fiction, was dropped from her position on the judging panel of a literary award. The debate about the Man Booker Prize’s decision four years ago to make American writers eligible for the award grumbled on. After two successive victories by writers from across the Atlantic, there were suggestions that the prize’s distinctiveness was being lost. Many novelists, including such past winners as Peter Carey and Julian Barnes, voiced their concerns.
The biggest scandal of the year was the one that hit the Swedish Academy, the institution which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature. In November 2017, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that more than a dozen women had accused Jean-Claude Arnault, husband of a leading academy member, of sexual harassment. The scandal escalated to such an extent that the award of the 2018 prize was eventually cancelled, with the academy announcing that: ‘We find it necessary to commit time to recovering public confidence… before the next laureate can be announced.’ How much time needs to be committed has not been revealed but 100 Swedish writers and other cultural figures have banded together to form a ‘New Academy’. They will announce an Alternative Nobel Prize in the autumn and the longlist of possible winners, ranging from familiar names like Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood to lesser known writers such as Sofi Oksanen and Nnedi Okorafor, suggests that their choice will be more adventurous than any the old Academy might have made.
Finally, a recent discovery may throw new light on one of the most famous works in world literature. A clay slab unearthed in an archaeological dig at the site of the Ancient Greek city of Olympia was found to have 13 verses of The Odyssey inscribed on it. Believed to date back to the 3rd century AD, these could well be the oldest written record of Homer’s work yet discovered.
Several giants of American literature died in the period under review. With the passing of Philip Roth, author of Portnoy’s Complaint, Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, a particular generation of (largely male) novelists of huge ambition, ego and acclaim came to an end. Tom Wolfe, progenitor of the ‘New Journalism’ in the 1960s and author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, had been a notable, often controversial, presence on the American literary scene for more than 50 years. Ursula K. Le Guin, with novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed and the ‘Earthsea’ books, was one of the finest of all science fiction and fantasy writers.
Other writers who died during these 12 months included the British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss; the American science fiction authors Harlan Ellison and Julian May; the playwright Ann Jellicoe (The Knack); the American poets John Ashbery, Donald Hall and Richard Wilbur; Kate Millett, the American feminist and author of Sexual Politics; the novelist J. P. Donleavy (The Ginger Man); Iona Opie, folklorist and joint author, with her late husband Peter, of The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren; the American novelists William Gass, John Ehle and Anita Shreve; the crime novelist Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone books; the poet Jenny Joseph (‘When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple’); Peter Mayle, author of the bestselling A Year in Provence; the Irish poet Richard Murphy; the publisher Ernest Hecht, founder of Souvenir Press; Michael Green, author of The Art of Coarse Acting; the novelist Penny Vincenzi; the novelist and short-story writer Clive Sinclair; the Australian crime novelist Peter Temple; the American author of science fiction and crime novels Kate Wilhelm; the crime and thriller writer Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther novels; the historian John Julius Norwich; the chef and writer Anthony Bourdain; and Clive King, the author of the children’s classic Stig of the Dump.