Stuart Kelly: Diversity rules in non-fiction

Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk. Picture: Contrubuted
Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk. Picture: Contrubuted
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NON-FICTION is at its finest when it shows how diverse it can be. Stuart Kelly picks out some of this year’s books that stayed truest to that principle

There is always a slight time-lag between events and their subsequent analyses in books. So it is no surprise that 2014’s big stories in non-fiction were associated with austerity. The runaway success was Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, with its sales seemingly stoked rather than stifled by various reviews taking issue with his thesis.

But it was far from the only such book: Naomi Klein provided an ecological reading with This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate; Owen Jones took on the structures of power with The Establishment: And How they Got Away with it, David Graeber looked at the Occupy movement in The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement (publishers do still love the old tricolon subtitle) and James Meek offered a startling study in Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else. And of course, jumping on the bandwagon we had the risible Russell Brand and his anodyne, baby-talking celebrity mea culpa, Revolution. If you are intending to buy a comedian’s book this Christmas, please try Stephen Fry’s or Paul Merton’s memoirs rather than Brand’s confected idiocy. Better still, for a very humorous but incredibly serious look at the Nordic miracle we heard so much about during the referendum, try Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. (I should include, I suppose, one book on the referendum. My personal choice would be the indefatigable and even-handed David Torrance’s 100 Days of Hope and Fear).

Yet, while the shelves were groaning with attempts to understand capitalism and its discontents, the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction was a very different kind of book. As the critic David Shields has written, we don’t have a drawer reserved exclusively for non-socks, and the non-fiction prize has the unenviable task of comparing “current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts”. The winner, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, is a poignant and personal account of training a hawk after her father’s death, a kind of homage in part to TH White’s The Goshawk. Combining what is lazily called “the new nature writing” with unflinching confessional, it’s a worthy winner most in that it shows how diverse non-fiction can be in itself. The prize judges ought to be commended for making the most of the field: their longlist also included polemic (Nick Davies’ Hack Attack), traditional biography (John Campbell’s surprisingly revealing Roy Jenkins, although I was disappointed Michael Broers’ excellent biography of Napoleon failed to make the cut, or John Eliot Gardiner’s masterly study of Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven), Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, a philosophical and medical examination of ageing, and Henry Marsh’s staggering account of his life – and mistakes – as a surgeon, Do No Harm. They also managed to include a wonderful wild-card, Jonathan Meades’ intriguing An Encyclopaedia of Myself.

Last year’s doorstopper literary biography was J Michael Lennon’s biography of Norman Mailer. This year it was John Lahr’s turn with Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh and Adam Begley with a life of John Updike. Also published were James Booth’s rather revisionist Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love which attempted to put the kindest interpretation on many of the beloved poet’s less likeable attributes and Monica Maristain’s Bolano: A Biography in Conversations (I fear we shall have more of these anecdotal biographies in future as the source material of the traditional biography – the letter and the diary – are taken over by Twitter and Pinterest). A special mention as well to David Moody’s second volume of his life of Ezra Pound, as the great modernist begins his dalliance with the extreme Right. But my personal favourite in this genre has to be The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, by CD Rose and Andrew Gallix, a glorious alphabetical compendium of those who never achieved greatness.

Unlike political events, anniversaries are always strong material for publishers (the flood of books about Waterloo has started and Jenny Uglow is out of the traps already with her ambitious and accomplished In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815). But this year certainly had plenty of contenders. So many First World War books exist already, it’s difficult to make a mark in the field. But Richard Ned Lebow certainly managed with his Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives: a World Without World War I, an ingenious take on the topic. Likewise, Alwyn W Turner’s The Last Post squeezes a huge about of detail and insight from 25 bars of music.

There are always a handful of books one remembers long after one has read them – perhaps not for their thesis, or rhetoric, but for the glorious details. Gaston Dorren’s Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide To Europe is one such, as is Simon Barnes’s Ten Million Aliens: a Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom and Irving Finkel’s cross-pollination of engineering, Akkadian, mythology and theology in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. Constantly interesting and provocative is Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: a Biography distilling a lifetime’s serious reading into a kaleidoscope of texts.

The other discernible trend is a kind of blog-originated activism being translated into books. Principal among them would be Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates, campaigner against food poverty Jack Monroe’s A Year in 120 Recipes, and Tilly Walnes’ Love at First Stitch. The original blogs-to-books phenomenon turned to be reportage – at its best, politically engaged at worst, mere eavesdropping on someone else’s job. That the turn is to activism chimes with the remarks above.

There were the usual celebrity flare-ups – Kevin Pietersen and Roy Keane, the Westwoods and the Lydons, Kelly Brook and Julie Burchill (who recommended her own book in her own magazine’s roundup). These too will pass. But one which won’t – Matilda Tristram’s Probably Nothing, a graphic memoir of her diagnosis with Stage III bowel cancer in the first trimester of her first pregnancy. At her event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, one doctor stood up and said every doctor should have to read it.