2015: The Year in Books

2015 has been an interesting and sometimes controversial year in the world of literature in English. (I am not equipped to comment on the rich and varied non-English-language literary scene, so this piece will confine itself to books published in English).

The big prizes are not, of course, the be-all and end-all, but they often provide some useful pointers about trends and tropes that are floating around in the zeitgeist. Taking a few of the key prizes in consideration, this was indeed a year of surprises.

This year’s Pulitzer Prize was won by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a World War II story focusing on the friendship between Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, an orphaned German boy. Beautifully written and calculated to tug at the heart, this book achieves something that I thought was, by now, impossible – a novel take on the WWII story. It’s a poignant, aching book, but in most ways, it’s also quite conventional, in form, style, and emotional affect.

The National Book Award for fiction was claimed in 2015 by a short story collection by Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles. I have yet to read this collection (it’s on my daunting TBR pile) but it’s asserted to be “comic and tender, absurd and totally universal.” Certainly, if the stories are as good as Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning The Orphan-Master’s Son, it’s a treat in store.

In children’s literature, the Newberry Medal was won by a verse novel – Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, a poetry-jam inspired, vivid tale of life on the basketball court. As has been the case for many years, the children’s literature prizes lead the way in diversity and showcasing new voices – the two Honor books were Cece Bell’s El Deafo, about a deaf protagonist, and Jacqueline Woodson’s moving Brown Girl Dreaming, her memoir of growing up African-American in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the UK, the Man Booker was taken by Jamaican writer Marlon James’ complex and multi-layered A Brief History of Seven Killings, which beat out a shortlist that included the more highly-favoured, by both critics and readers, A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara), as well as the stunning debut from Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen. James’ book, which is decidedly unconventional in form and style, features more than 60 main characters, an intricate plot rooted in violence and corruption, and a complete lack of willingness to bend to readers’ preconceptions.

It’s a book that provoked mixed reactions, often vociferous ones. This was welcome to James, who has used his spotlight to speak about what he perceives as a skew in publishing towards the reading tastes of white women (who are by far the largest demographic of book-buyers in English), a trend that he says shapes and constrains the stories that authors who are POC can write.

The Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) was won in 2015 by Ali Smith’s clever, effective How to be Both, against a strong shortlist that included Anne Tyler’s probable last novel, A Spool of Blue Thread; Sarah Waters’ latest historical fiction, The Paying Guests; and Kamila Shamsie’s highly regarded A God in Every Stone. Given that Smith’s book was widely regarded as being unlucky to lose out in the 2014 Man Booker race to Australian Richard Flanagan’s WWII POW novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, her success in this prize was a satisfying outcome.

The Nobel laureate in Literature for 2015 was Belarusian investigative journalist and non-fiction writer, Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich. The first person from Belarus to receive any Nobel prize, Alexievitch is best known for her powerful interviews and collections of stories that illustrate the emotional context of the end of the Soviet Union.

In Australia, the Miles Franklin Award was taken in 2015 by Sofie Languna’s stunning The Eye of the Sheep, a novel that manages to tell the story of 1980s working-class surburbia through the lens of a young autistic boy. This represents something of a departure for the Franklin, which generally leans towards male writers telling “grand narrative” stories of iconic Australian themes (to wit: the Bush, the Invasion, the Goldrushes, and All the Wars). It was a very refreshing change to have a book selected that acknowledged that Australia did not, in fact, stop in 1950, and that small, local stories are the stories of most people’s lives.

In the world of genre fiction, it was a patchy year, especially in the increasingly rancorous speculative fiction arena. The controversy that surrounded this year’s Hugo Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy, fan-voted awards that were this year dominated by a voting slate pushed by an “anti-political-correctness” activist group called the Sad Puppies, has left many questioning whether the Hugo’s ostensibly democratic model has any future as a serious prize selection methodology.

The Sad Puppies controversy is too involved to fully explain here, but suffice to say that the works that the Puppies managed to game onto the voting list were rejected by voters, with a majority of categories being returned as “No Award”. One of the few categories to have a result, Best Novel, was awarded to Chinese writer Cixin Liu for his military-themed The Three-Body Problem, following the tradition of a strong showing by Asian writers in all the speculative fiction awards over the past five years.

In contrast, the writer-selected Nebula Awards had a good year, with the novel winner, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, proving to be a satisfying mystery-thriller-science hybrid – a very “straight” story, but extremely well executed.

In crime fiction, which is one of the most popular genres globally, the Edgar Award was won by Stephen King for his first hard-boiled detective novel, Mr Mercedes. Crime fiction is, of all the genres, the least likely to show any discomfort about crossover works or big-name authors from other fields entering the fray. It could be argued that this signals a fan willingness to be wooed by good books without regard to their source, or, perhaps, as others have suggested, that crime fiction is so essentially formulaic that any skilled writer can produce a good exemplar. (I hasten to add that, as one of my own preferred relaxation genres, crime fiction is often very good fiction on its own merits, but that it follows commonly understood rules is hard to deny).

Outside of the prize-giving world, it has been a vibrant year in English-language publishing. The rise and rise of self-publishing as a serious endeavour for indie authors (especially genre authors) has served to both broaden the base of available books, and change the delivery and marketing methods considerably. According to Author Earnings figures, the market share of established publishers has been declining, while sales of independently published e-books have been growing, suggesting a strong future for indie publication in the digital arena in particular.

Trade publishing is still a mighty force also, with book sales not declining globally, although shifts are perceptible in preferred formats and the geographic areas with the most sales. While publishers have suffered reverses in the past decade, this seems to be stabilising now, which can only be a good thing for a continued rich literary environment.

So it’s been a year in literature with much to recommend it. My own top three books of the year would be Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep, Marilyne Robinson’s wonderful Lila, and probably Obioma’s The Fishermen (for all it was visceral, it’s stayed with me). I’m keen to see what 2016 delivers.