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You'll Laugh, You'll Cry, It'll Change Your Life: A Year in Books

Christopher Currie

Christopher Currie considers the year in fiction and highlights some overlooked gems

In a year dominated by submissives (if that makes sense) you’d be forgiven for thinking publishing had become an industry solely preoccupied with masochism, satin rope and fluffy handcuffs. And while this does accurately describe many an industry party, 2012 has been a year of transformation for the publishing world, due to a number of factors, not just the phenomenon that was Fifty Shades of Grey

At the time of writing, the big news is the proposed merger of giant publishers Penguin and Random House. In a $3.7 billion decision, the as-yet-unnamed entity (which will become the biggest publishing house in the world) has already spawned acres of social media buzz, and raises questions about what it will do to the world of publishing when the companies merge (legal approval pending) in late 2013. Will it mean greater diversity or less? Greater numbers of books published or fewer? What we do know is that the news has already generated more than one excellent new logo.

2012 also saw the non-corporeal form of the book begin to seriously rattle its chains, and as strange shadows began to crawl across the walls of marketing meetings, and copies of Snooki’s A Shore Thing began to fly about the room unaided, publishers were heard to exclaim: ‘It’s taking our m-m-m-m-market share!’ The industry has now realised the true value of eBooks, and by late 2012 nearly all major Australian publishers had a significant eBook presence. Likewise, many leading bookshops have expanded into the market, through such platforms as Booki.sh and Readcloud, Booku and Kobo. Borders recently rebranded themselves as Bookworld, an online only bookstore. Along with corporate monoliths Google (Google Books) and Apple (the iBookstore), the Australian eBook consumer in the current climate is well-served.

The eBook phenomenon has had its own effects in the world of physical books. Prices on physical books have come way down, especially in the realm of second format (or B-Format) paperbacks, with many now retailing under $20. While the debate bubbles on about parallel importation, GST and postage rates, you will pay, on average, much less for a book today than even a year ago. Even so, some publishers are still asking $32.99 for a new release trade paperback in fiction, and $35 for nonfiction (I’m looking at you, Hachette Australia!).

Of course, the sexy, forbidden elephant in the room in 2012 was E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. What began, famously, as Twilight fan fiction published online became a monstrous hit, resulting in two follow-up novels, a raft of similar titles from rival publishers (including the creation of a Twitter account, Fifty Sheds of Grey) and the extraordinary occurrence where Random House literally ran out of paper because they were printing so many copies. Needless to say, Fifty Shades became the fastest selling paperback of all time in Australia and the UK, and has birthed the horrendous catchphrase ‘mommy porn’, and a wider awareness of the incredibly lucrative erotica and romance market.

Despite the notable ructions and erections of 2012, the publishing industry ticked along as it always has. Alexander McCall Smith released seven hundred new books (The Peculiar Occurrences of Timothy Thwaite’s Orchestra Detective Raindrop Train was my favourite), while Donna Tartt, Gregory David Roberts, Patrick Rothfuss, Susanna Clarke, Marcus Zusak and countless other authors remained silent despite the screams of their book-hungry fans. Morocco became the new Paris which had been the new Florence which was the new Tuscany; Marshmallows were the new Cake Pops which were the new Whoopie Pies which were the new Macarons which were the new Cupcakes. Publishers sent out letters with advance copies of ‘astonishing’ debut books that ever and always begin: ‘Dear Bookseller, Once in a while a book comes along that truly stops you in your tracks. Once I finished The Peculiar and Subtle Variations of the Human Heart and also War and Maybe Love, I knew I had to publish it.’ Many books promised much and fizzled out, while others roared out of nowhere to become bestsellers. To put it simply, publishing in 2012—as it has ever been since Gutenberg sat down to print a sizzling 1189-chapter rollercoaster-ride called The Bible—has had its ups and downs.

The start of the year saw the crest of the The Hunger Games wave, bringing with it fourteen different cover treatments for the same book, movie tie-ins and special editions. Even before Fifty Shades, the cat-fur-coated-cardigans of ‘proper’ booksellers had been rumpled by the invasion of George R. R. Martin’s gargantuan fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice, gaining mainstream momentum off the back of HBO’s television adaptation of the first book A Game of Thrones, a rollickingly violent boobfest that shot sales of the already popular series in to the stratosphere.

Other books not so much captured the zeitgeist as ran after it shouting ‘can I have some of that?!’ Many books on the Arab Spring came and went, already out-dated by the time they hit the shelves. Likewise books on the Occupy movement failed to capitalise on the anti-capitalist sentiment. In 2012 I was amazed by how many books were inspired by, an influence on or featured a picture on the cover of Downton Abbey. In fact, I fully expect Kochie to have a slightly hazy Jacobethan building in the background of his 2012 Christmas joke book.

Another source of pleasure/horror for me as a bookseller is awaiting this season’s horrible movie tie-in book covers, and 2012 did not disappoint.

Awards are always a great boost to sales and the big winner in 2012 was Hilary Mantel. Her historical novel Bring Up the Bodies was already a bestseller before it scooped the 2012 Man Booker Prize, a sequel to Wolf Hall, for which she took out the same award in 2010. She beat out a really interesting shortlist, including something we’re seeing more and more of in major literary awards: books from small or independent presses.

Another piece of historical fiction, Madeline Miller’s wonderful debut The Song of Achilles, was rescued—in Australia at least—from midlist anonymity by winning the 2012 Orange Prize, and Singapore-based Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka took out the 2012 Commonwelth Book Prize (along with the DSC prize for South Asian Literature) with his novel Chinaman, a book that has won praise from many quarters.

The Nobel Prize for Literature went notoriously unawarded in 2012, after the judges couldn’t split the three finalists, a decision that pretty much everybody in the world thought was bullshit. And, as always, the Nobel Prize went to a very worthy author that no one had really read (except for all those people in China) and whose books were mostly out of print in Australia. Mo Yan, Mo Problems. Although at least some people did okay out of it all.

Shamefully yet inevitably, my fiction tastes tend to gravitate towards books by white guys who live in or write about New York, so understandably 2011 was a very fine year for me. Everyone’s favourite tech-enemy Jonathan Franzen gave us Freedom, and billboard vest model, both visiting Australia the same year. The comparable books in 2012 have not received the same acclaim but are nonetheless amazing. Chad Harbach’s excellent baseball-novel-not-really-about-baseball The Art of Fielding, which was published in late 2011, did not really take off until he visited our shores this year, but deserves every acclaim it gets. The best book by an American white guy this year, though, was Michael Chabon’s incredible Telegraph Avenue, a (dare I say it) tour-de-force of style and substance. More recently, I’ve been knocked sideways by A.M. Homes’ May We All Be Forgiven (think a movie-length episode of Louie as directed by Kafka), released this month. It’s certainly my favourite book of the moment, and may just be my favourite of 2012. I’ve not read her work before, but I will certainly be going back to discover it.

Other novels I loved (but didn’t get their dues in 2012) included Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and especially John Brandon’s Citrus County. 2012 was also the year I discovered James Sallis (who fans of Ryan Gosling and/or jackets with scorpions on them will know from the movie adaptation of his book Drive), whose book The Killer Is Dyingis a wonderfully dark and philosophical crime novel, and the perfect continuation of moral ambiguity and suspense that I needed after running out of episodes of Breaking Bad.

Behind the inevitable success of certain erotica novels who spawned actual collections of branded classic music, there were room for real word-of-mouth hits, like Herman Koch’s The Dinner, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, and most noticeably Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which took the baton of twisty suspense thriller du jour from S. J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep and built a steady buzz.

That is not to say it hasn’t been a stellar year for Australian authors. Anna Funder’s All That I Am was a blazing success, capitalising on its bestseller status of late 2011, taking out a swag of 2012 prizes including the Miles Franklin and the Australian Book Industry Award Book of the Year. Likewise Gillian Mears, whose gorgeous novel Foal’s Bread won, along with wide critical acclaim, the 2012 Prime Minister’s Award.

2012 also saw new books by established Australian authors like Mary-Rose MacColl, Michelle de Kretser, Margo Lanagan, Susan Johnson, Anita Heiss, Krissy Kneen and Toni Jordan, who will no doubt dominate the awards next year.

Debut Australian writers, too, such as Favel Parrett, M L Stedman, Romy Ash, Chris Flynn, Josephine Rowe, Benjamin Law, Anna Krien, Tai Snaith and Amy Espeseth have proven that the future of home-grown writing is in good hands.

On the nonfiction side, there have been some media-driven surprises: Richard de Crespigny’s QF32, Matthew Johnstone’s Quiet the Mind and Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s The Woman Who Changed Her Brain as well as genuine sleeper hits like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts and Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote. For my mind, though, the best nonfiction published this year was Katherine Boo’s amazing story of one family’s life in a Mumbai slum Behind the Beautiful Forevers, followed closely by D.T. Max’s deeply impressive Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace which is essential reading for any writer, or anyone interested in the evolution of an extraordinary mind.

Literary scandals were thin on the ground this year, save perhaps for the revelations that popular young columnist and commentator Jonah Lehrer had made a habit of fabricating or plagiarising some of his work, including parts of his successful pop-psych book Imagine, in which he was found to have made up quotes from Bob Dylan (which—when you consider how little sense Bob Dylan often makes—is quite an achievement).

And so now November is upon us, and for those in the book trade, it’s the busiest time of the year: the final sprint to Christmas. That retail island in a sea of uncertainty, where you hope your bet that sales will increase ten-fold will pay off (otherwise your stress levels will) and that all this stock straining on your shelves will be gone by Christmas Eve, when all that will be left is a single Brendan Fevola biography and a bit of tinsel. In an uncertain industry environment—in fact, in an industry based almost entirely on hopeful guesses—this is the time you hope you got things right.

What will these two months bring for the book industry, for booksellers to sales reps to CEOs of publishers themselves? Will Oliver Sacks go big, or am I seeing things? Will ‘map books’ finally become a legitimate trend? Can I sell This is Not My Hat to everyone who asks for a recommendation? Will people actually buy a book of dogs diving into swimming pools? We don’t know—no one does—and that’s why it’s so great.

As Bernard Black once said of a book while trying to get a customer to leave his bookshop: ‘You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll change your life.’ Here’s to a great Christmas for the publishing industry, and onwards to 2013!

*Apologies for not having room to include all the great children’s, young adult, cooking, travel, design, gardening and biographies released this year. Next time, I promise…

© Christopher Currie 2012

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