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Books of the year: Mantel, Rowling and Amazon were this year’s headline acts

The Casual Vacancy was Rowling's first adult novel. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The Casual Vacancy was Rowling's first adult novel. Picture: Ian Rutherford

  • by STUART KELLY
 

WERE this an alternate universe or a parallel dimension or a counterfactual reality, there would be no end of possibilities for which story was the book story of 2012.

This was, after all, the year in which J K Rowling published her first novel for the demographic who grew up reading Harry Potter. The Casual Vacancy (Little Brown, £20), her “adult” – there’s a word we’ll come to again – novel featured a toxically parochial English town and was unfairly and unjusty denied the Bad Sex award. It had a mixed reception: some reviewers were tepid, others lukewarm, a few were generous-spirited enough to realise she might have the makings of a novelist in her yet, and only one made everyone want to read it: step forward the Daily Mail’s critic, Jan Moir, who found the book to be a fulminating and unfair tirade against the middle classes that not even Karl Marx or Slavoj Zizek could have penned. In the maelstrom of indifference, it seemed to escape everyone’s notice that J K seems to have a thing against “traditionally built” people. Howard Mollison, her not-very-Macchiavellian and sexually exploitative villain, is only the most unsubtle incarnation of this fattyphobia. Would that she were as punishing on her own bloated sentences.

Then again, the other big books news stories featured men of “thin and hungry look”. Irvine Welsh, having tried a sequel to Trainspotting, with the execrable Porno, turned the barrel upside-down to dig deeper, and assembled a prequel. It’s never a good idea to preface a publication by stating that your new book contains all the bits the editor removed from your most famous work, though there was at least, in the “Edinburgh plague” conceit – Morningside thinks Dutch Elm, Leith thinks of Aids – a glimmer of what made him fascinating. Welsh’s publications used to have a joke on the back claiming that he was working on a Regency romance. I’d rather like to see him try.

But surely The Return of Rebus would be the story? Alas, no. Rebus is back, and confirms Rankin as the Conan Doyle of New Reekie. Standing In Another Man’s Grave (Orion, £18.99) features the crossover of Rebus and Rankin’s new, slightly less interesting detective, Malcolm Fox. It’s as if Conan Doyle were forced to put Sherlock Holmes into a Professor Challenger novel. The Fox books were building their own momentum, and Rebus could have been kept for a later ta-da of epic proportions. The cast of Rankin’s books is strong enough to supply plenty of new candidates – Siobhan most obviously, but Todd Goodyear deserves to come back too. I’d love to see him as the shadow: the Moriarty Rebus always slightly lacked.

So, instead, the capital B Big story is that finally (a) a woman and (b) someone from Britain has won the Booker twice (the only previous double winners are Australia’s Peter Carey and South Africa’s J M Coetzee)? Good guess, but guess again. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20) is also unique in Booker history through virtue of being the first sequel to win: Mantel previously won with the first part of her prospective trilogy about Henry VIII’s fixer Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall.

It certainly gives the judging panel in 2015 a headache when the final part, The Mirror And The Light comes out. Personally, I think Mantel ought to have won for Beyond Black, a superbly eerie novel about a fake medium who is haunted by real ghosts in darkest suburbia – and this year, my hopes were pinned on Will Self’s staggeringly brilliant and emotionally bruising Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99).

There was much talk around the Booker of the increased number of shortlisted books from independent or small publishers (this year featured novels from Salt, And Other Stories and Myrmidon). By a strange coincidence, the biggest piece of industry news after that was the merger between Penguin and Random House to create the largest single publisher in the country (albeit one majority controlled by the German multimedia conglomerate Bertelsmann SE & Co KGaA: the days of Penguin and a particular sense of Britishness being closely linked are now over). The logic of the merger is to have one monolith to take on the other monolith, Amazon. Amazon already has a near-monopoly on sales and digital sales; it is increasingly moving into self-publishing as well. Will the new heavyweight help tip the scales away from Amazon? I would doubt it – if anything will change the status quo, it might be glimpsed in the risible performance of Andrew Cecil, Amazon’s director of public policy, who appeared before the Public Accounts Committee in Westminster to explain, or rather fail to explain, how £3.3 billion in UK sales resulted in a total corporation tax payment of zero.

Amazon was also at the heart of a story which barely hit the headlines but which will, I think, be seen in years to come as a seismic shift in book culture. The much-vaunted Kindle does more than put up a text and let you read it. Amazon offered to share with publishers the data that the e-enabled device can gather. At what point does someone stop reading their Kindle version of, say, The Casual Vacancy? How quickly do they read? Do they skip sections, or re-read them? With the new ability to share notes, it already informs readers of what other readers highlighted or digitally scribbled in the margin. I can’t stress strongly enough how radical a change this is: since the codex was first produced, reading has been a private transaction between book and reader. It is now a public one. Amazon claimed that publishers could respond to this reader-information. It’s an apocalyptic vision: books that merely confirm, console and placate the reader, rather than challenge, inspire and confuse them.

And it was indeed a digital text that was the Book Story Of The Year: the irresistible rise of soft pornography, exemplified by E L James’s Fifty Shades Of Grey (Arrow, £7.99). Originally called Master Of The Universe and written as Twilight fan-fiction by “Snowdragons Icequeen” (and the virginity-fetishising fantasy saga written by Mormon mom Meyer was certainly plaint to its sado-masochistic rewrite), Fifty Shades Of Grey began as a digital only text and was published in traditional format this year: it has sold over 60 million copies. It is the best-selling book ever (the last Harry Potter novel topped out at 44 million). It has spawned a host of imitators – Sylvia Day’s Bared To You was Penguin’s fastest-selling book in a decade – and even more parodies, of which Fifty Sheds Of Grey was by far the funniest: what’s not to love about a book where the beleaguered husband, being instructed to hurt his domineering wife, responds with “that dress doesn’t suit you and you have fat ankles”? Mostly, attempts to parody Fifty Shades Of Grey failed because it is bad beyond parody. Given its Japanese knotweed-like spread, I’m sure some will recognise the line “my inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves”.

The Fifty Shades phenomenon is about more than just sales. Firstly, the fact that it could be read on an e-reader meant there was no embarrassment about sitting on the bus reading it; something one couldn’t say about erotica beforehand, with its typically top-shelf covers. My American students this year told me that when they were discussing Marquez and magical realism on the Number 23 bus in Edinburgh, a Morningside lady interrupted them to say that was all well and good but had they read Fifty Shades Of Grey. It seems sex is no longer something the coal comes in in EH10. Public libraries – under increasing threat from coalition cuts south of the Border – have responded with a festival called “Between The Sheets”, promoting 30 erotic classics. It is heartening that among their 30 titles are works by Cleland, Nabokov, Anais Nin, Henry Miller and Georges Bataille; it is very disheartening that Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Robert Nye’s Faust were left off the list (presumably to make room for Over The Knee by Fiona Locke and Destined To Play by Indigo Bloom, works, I must confess, with which I am unacquainted). Although Casanova was briefly a librarian, it is not a profession, prior to the Fifty Shades phenomenon, readily associated with such libertinage. Classic novels from Pride And Prejudice to Jane Eyre have been sexed up for a supposed new market (they might find Moby Dick a bit of a challenge). Even the Edinburgh Book Festival’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of John Calder’s truly radical Edinburgh Writers’ Conference descended into discussing Fifty Shades Of Grey, in a manner both unseemly and inadvertently hilarious (who banked the money for your next royalty cheque, chumps?).

It was analysis of Fifty Shades readers that led Amazon to the wheeze of selling (or sharing) the data with publishers. I can see it backfiring brilliantly. Some readers will be scrolling through for the mucky bits, like schoolboys with James Joyce’s Ulysses. Others will be paused on pages, insensate with laughter. Some will give up through boredom, others because they’ve decided to read Bring Up The Bodies first, and will never go back. If there’s a true Big Book Story Of The Year, it’s the same-old same-wise story: readers are individuals, unpredictable and gloriously contradictory, and those who want to corral their choices, stave off their whims or in any way limit that joy and learning that are theirs and theirs alone better be prepared to be overwhelmed. The Amazon is a mere tributary to the sea. The Penguin, a bird which thrives on the sea despite dangers. The sea itself, readers, persists.

 

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