No year is complete without its aspirational tag, and 2008 was no exception. Scarcely had the infant 12 months begun its Government-sponsored career as the “Year of the Reader” before the booksellers, Waterstone’s, announced that it was also “The Writer’s Year”. In doing so, it covered all literary bases and providing the ideal backdrop for a swingeing attack by the novelist Will Self on the contemptible complacency of both readers and writers of modern fiction.
Addressing Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival of Ideas in November, Self excoriated the enduring tradition of 19th-century realism in modern British fictional depictions of consciousness. He administered a vigorous duffing-up, both to literary authors and readers – especially those infected by the creeping middle-brow malaise of the Book Group – who cherish and support the realist novel for its comforting ability to “make them feel normal”.
Perhaps there are as many reasons for reading fiction as there are readers, or novels. But there is no disputing Will Self’s assertion that 21st-century British fiction is dominated by realism. Among the babble of titles competing for the major fiction prizes of 2008, experimental writing was represented by A-X, John Berger’s novel of letters between a woman and her imprisoned lover, which made the Man Booker Prize longlist, and Rosalind Belben’s Our Horses in Egypt, which quietly won this year’s James Tait Black Prize by using language in unorthodox ways to convey the non-verbal internal discourse of a variety of consciousnesses, including that of Philomena, a First World War cavalry horse.
Despite the preference of the Common Reader for conventional literary forms, the Year of the Reader (and Writer) was rich in bookish controversy. In the summer, the inclusion on the Man Booker longlist of Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, Child 44, a detective thriller set in Stalinist Russia, began a row about whether genre fiction counted as literature. And if so, where should the dividing line be placed? Somewhere this side of Child 44, reckoned Amanda Ross, who runs the Richard and Judy Book Club, and thought that there were worthier Booker candidates from the “important” genre of crime fiction than Tom Rob Smith’s “neat, trite” novel.
In the autumn, Dame Margaret Drabble, the new chair of the Society of Authors, complained in an interview with her fellow novelist, Sarah Dunant, of her feeling that her publishers wished, for marketing purposes, to “rebrand” her work, rather than allowing the words on the page to speak for themselves.
If that is what her publisher wanted, the wish ran counter to an emerging tendency among readers – most clearly expressed in the phenomenon of the Richard and Judy Book Club, which has deep roots in the traditions of autodidacticism and is thus anathema to literary intellectuals – to disregard arbitrary distinctions between “literary”, “middlebrow” and “popular” fiction. Instead, they prefer to categorise books across genres in terms of whether or not they are a “good read”.
For every publisher who loves the club for its promotion of reading (and thus book sales), there is another that blames it for encouraging a bland, best-sellerish culture of homogeneity. “To be fair, the R & J book club has created a kind of energy within the book trade that has been lacking. But is has also resulted in booksellers getting even lazier. And I think that is a shame,” said one editor, who preferred not to be named.
“Booksellers” in this context means the big chains, most of which now buy fiction centrally, sacrificing, it is claimed, quality to quantity and obliging publishers to do the same. “Publishers are like farmers,” says Alison Samuel, editorial director of the Random House imprint Chatto & Windus, meaning that they have a tendency to low spirits, a characteristic reluctance ever to admit that things are going anything but badly. But as in farming, so in publishing, there is some evidence of a correction: a certain energy of smallness, of idiosyncracy, of a modest but gathering resistance to commercial monoculture.
Early in 2008, the Book Trust charity began an elegant (if unpublicised) internet campaign to promote literature in translation. Meanwhile, independent publishers, such as the Edinburgh-based Canongate and Birmingham’s Tindal Street Press, have had sustained and remarkable success with “difficult”, hard-to-categorise fiction. Canongate publishes distinctive, well-made literary novels, including Rebecca Miller’s best-selling The Private Lives of Pippa Lee; Australian writer Helen Garner’s first novel for 15 years, the ravishing Spare Room; and translations such as David Bellos’s dazzling rendering into English of the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare’s The Siege, one of the finest novels of the year. Tindal Street, which sprang 10 years ago from a writers’ group, publishes regional literary fiction with Arts Council support, and has had 11 national prize listings from 42 publications, including this year’s Booker longlisted Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold.
A difficulty for the Common Reader in search of a good book is the sheer quantity of noise in the fiction market. Far too much is of strikingly indifferent quality. Louise Doughty, a novelist and a Man Booker judge this year, read more than 100 titles in 2008 and says that her reaction to too many was, “Why would anyone want to publish this book?”
Which returns us to the question of why and how we read, and the elusive quality that distinguishes a good book from a bad one. Many of the most serious and interesting novels of 2008 have the exhilarating originality of high “literary” writing: Marilynne Robinson’s Home; Michelle De Kretser’s Booker long-listed The Lost Dog; Howard Jacobson’s Act of Love; Philip Hensher’s Northern Clemency, which was shortlisted for the Booker; and volumes of short stories by Lorrie Moore and Shena Mackay. While all are intellectually demanding, they are also seductively readable and in that sense have more in common with well-crafted popular fiction, such as Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, Simon Montefiore’s Sashenka, Sebastian Faulks’s “Bond” novel, Devil May Care, than with the hapless slew of mediocre writing with literary pretentions continuing to clog the fiction lists.
There is, at first glance, not much of a match of minds between Richard and Judy’s Amanda Ross and Virginia Woolf. Yet in her Common Reader essays, Woolf insisted that readers need “trivial, ephemeral books” as well as masterpieces. So at the end of 2008 we find our Common Reader, emboldened by this thought, uncowed by Self’s disdain for her middlebrow tastes, stepping boldly through the door of an independent bookshop (set up by a disaffected refugee from a big chain), carrying her jute bag-for-life within which Elizabeth Jane Howard’s comforting domestic drama Love All lies cosily lodged next to Self’s disturbing quartet of novellas, Liver. Who’s to say which will provide the more worthwhile experience? The common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices must decide…