It’s tempting to suggest that the more than usually robust state of publishing in 2015 is summed up by the fact that the big hits of the year were colouring books. Nonetheless, real books remained afloat too, and a kind of inverted virtue of this latest headscratching trend is that it is at least near-impossible to complete your Mindfulness Colouring Book on the Tube journey to work.
It is at least near-impossible to complete your Mindfulness Colouring Book on the Tube journey to work
Alongside this, “event” publishing remained big this year. It was scarcely possible to move for mention of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire (Jonathan Cape) (and the million dollars the publisher allegedly paid for it) during the autumn, nor for Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life (Picador), a breezeblock of a book, at once monolithic and insubstantial, whose mix of the trite and the harrowing exposes a dangerous tendency in readers to conflate emotional response with critical esteem: “It made me cry, therefore it’s great.” A kind of bumper colouring book of emotional registers, and deplored as much as praised, A Little Life was certainly among the year’s most talked-about books.
Chief among the word-of-mouth successes of the last few years has been Elena Ferrante’s sequence of Neapolitan novels, which concluded this year with the fourth volume, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions), released just in time to dampen (perhaps temporarily) chatter about who might lie behind Ferrante’s name, known to be a pseudonym. It’s interesting to see that readers are happy to follow a series of books published over a number of years, keen to reap the rewards of a sequence that amounts to several thousand pages.
As far as word of mouth goes, the books I’ve recommended most this year have been Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border (Faber), Tender (Picador), Belinda McKeon’s chilling campus novel, Nell Zink’s interestingly flawed Mislaid (Fourth Estate) and, my favourite book this year, Physical by Andrew McMillan (Jonathan Cape), which won the Guardian First Book prize – the first time in its 17-year history it has been awarded to a book of poetry. A meditation on masculinity both frail and robust, McMillan’s book was the standout on a strong shortlist that also included Chigozie Obioma’s novel The Fishermen (Pushkin Press/One) and Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber), Max Porter’s deceptively slight, genre-challenging mix of memoir, poetry, fiction and critical biography.
Similarly boundary-crossing, but fuelled by righteous anger more than sorrow, Citizen: An American Lyric (Penguin), a prose poem by Claudia Rankine, joined Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (Text) as timely treatises responding to race crisis in the US and beyond, and as likely to raise hackles as hairs. In The Argonauts (Graywolf Press; to be published by Melville House in the UK next year), Maggie Nelson tackles gender, motherhood and sexuality with the same unflinching eye and sense of real personal risk.
A strong year for non-fiction was bookended by two notable music memoirs: Sonic Youth founder Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (Faber) and Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein (Virago), one third of Sleater-Kinney (who also had a big 2015). As the shared word in their titles suggests, these are also books about femaleness, and both are raw, insightful, candid and enlightening reads.
A little mystery still attends how much input Lee herself, now 91 and living in a care home, had into the release of something she had long deemed unworthy of publication
The usual rhetoric when summing up a year’s blockbusters is to suggest the reader must have been living under a rock or on another planet not to have heard of these big hitters. In the case of one of 2015’s most noteworthy books – and one of the year’s bigger, weirder and sadder stories – even its own author cannot be confirmed to be fully aware of its impact. Go Set a Watchman is neither a sequel nor a follow-up to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (William Heinemann); rather, it’s a first draft of a book from which a canny editor helped her prise out the story that became Lee’s perennial bestseller and, until this year, her only title – until her representatives disinterred not just Watchman but, it was revealed later in the year, another unpublished manuscript. A little mystery still attends how much input Lee herself, now 91 and living in a care home, had into the release of something she had long deemed unworthy of publication, though the existence of personally signed copies ($1,500 at time of writing) perhaps mitigates some of the suspicion voiced by commentators. Once again, on publication, responses often hinged on a personal disappointment that one of Lee’s characters should prove, in this expanded take on the setting of Mockingbird, less staunch a (fictional) person than had long been assumed, raising again a debate about the function of “likeable” characters in literature.
Murray’s satire of banking culture in post-Celtic Tiger Dublin is at once joyous and seriously unnerving
Man Booker Prize and Green Carnation Prize winner Marlon James’s third novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld) is satisfyingly full of unlikeable characters: gang leaders, corrupt politicians, shifty journalists, and Bob Marley (referred to rather coyly as The Singer throughout). It’s a big, polyphonic novel that hinges on a brief historical moment that James builds outward with great flair. Inexplicably missing from the Booker longlist, The Mark and the Void (Penguin Hamish Hamilton) was long awaited not just by fans of Paul Murray’s previous novel Skippy Dies but by those of us waiting for fiction to engage with the financial crisis of the last decade; Murray’s satire of banking culture in post-Celtic Tiger Dublin is at once joyous and seriously unnerving, as the reader starts to suspect that for all the absurd situations Murray conjures, the reality of what went on behind the scenes in bad banks can only have been more ludicrous and more damaging.
At the start of the year, Granta released Ben Marcus’s selection of New American Stories, whose emphasis – following the somewhat more gritty-realism-focused pair of anthologies under this title, edited by Richard Ford in the first decade of this century – veered towards the more experimental and “weird”. Among the very few writers to appear in both Ford’s and Marcus’s selections is Joy Williams; a timely edition of new and collected stories, The Visiting Privilege, offers the opportunity to revisit the work of this undervalued genius of American letters and perhaps, one hopes, bring her to a new audience. Accustomed as we’re becoming to posthumous runaway successes (Stoner, Kolymysky Heights, et al), it’d be nice to confer bestseller status on a living cult author for a change. C
The Glasgow Coma Scale by Neil D.A. Stewart is published by Corsair