Audiobooks, inclusivity and #MeToo ... how books changed in 2018

New agents and imprints, Northern Ireland’s first Man Booker winner … this year, the books world turned towards inclusivity and a broadening of perspectives

“You brought it on yourself, longest friend. I informed you and informed you. I mean for the longest time ever since primary school I’ve been warning you to kill out that habit you insist on and that I now suspect you’re addicted to – that reading in public as you’re walking about.” Such behaviour, the speaker continues, is unnerving, disturbing, deviant, much to the bemusement of the errant flâneuse, who wonders why it’s acceptable for a terrorist to promenade with Semtex, but beyond the pale for her to do the same with Jane Eyre.

The characters are from Milkman, the novel by Anna Burns that scooped this year’s Man Booker prize and lobbed a rock into the literary millpond: a winner who included the local food bank in her book’s acknowledgements, who went on the news and announced she’d be declaring “one hell of a change in circumstances” to the Department for Work and Pensions, and who turned the recent history of the Troubles into a compelling narrative that spoke to repression and segregation everywhere. Her victory was, as one Guardian writer pointed out, a beacon of hope for those suffering from “shit life syndrome”.

‘One hell of a change in circumstances’ … Anna Burns, winner of the 2018 Man Booker prize.
‘One hell of a change in circumstances’ … Anna Burns, winner of the 2018 Man Booker prize. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

But it was also a spectacularly fitting novel to rise to prominence in a year when words and how they are used – or misused – became such a vital component of our understanding of politics and the rights and obligations of citizenhood. And although we may feel that the spirit of the times is more accurately embodied by Jeremiah than Pollyanna, there are good reasons to feel that in 2018, authors stepped up to the plate and showed how the written word could actively engage with a turbulent world.

Naturally, that took place most overtly in the sphere of politics and society, from one of the year’s earliest must-haves, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, through a plethora of books about Westminster’s spinning wheels to books that combined personal experience with structural analysis, such as Darren McGarvey’s Orwell prize-winning Poverty Safari. In the end, it is the latter variety that may well endure the longest, because 2018 was filled with writers desperately trying to keep up with the rapidity of events; you might say it was the year of the hastily assembled appendix.

And that crossover between memoir and reportage reflected another of the zeitgeist’s pressing concerns; that of providing a space for people to bear witness. In the arena of the celebrity autobiography, more usually distinguished by a standard rags-to-riches journey smattered with titbits from the lives of the famous, there was a clear turn towards gravity, particularly reflective of the arrival of #MeToo and #TimesUp; Rose McGowan’s Brave began the year and Melanie Brown’s Brutally Honest ended it, with contributions from singer Lily Allen and actor Sally Field in between.

Female empowerment was, unsurprisingly in the year that commemorated the centenary of the right of some women to vote, all around: in Diane Atkinson’s exhaustively researched and impassioned Rise Up Women!, news journalist Cathy Newman’s Bloody Brilliant Women and Jenni Murray’s A History of the World in 21 Women, among many others. And in calls to arms such as Deborah Frances-White’s The Guilty Feminist, a development of the comedian’s hit podcast, or Scarlett Curtis’s anthology Feminists Don’t Wear Pink. Curtis’s book received a somewhat unorthodox boost when a display promoting it in a branch of Topshop was dismantled, apparently having incurred the displeasure of Philip Green, only minutes after it had been assembled. One might say that Curtis and her contributors had the last laugh.

Showcasing under-represented authors … Nikesh Shukla.
Showcasing under-represented authors … Nikesh Shukla. Photograph: Handout

For the last few years, conversations about the publishing world’s resistance to change and inclusion have intensified and, more recently, prompted the sense that gestures towards future improvement were fast running out of credibility. But 2018 might have gone some way towards suggesting that change is happening, albeit more slowly than many would like. Nikesh Shukla, who was behind 2016’s bestselling essay collection The Good Immigrant, rolled out two significant companion projects, in partnership with agent Julia Kingsford: the Good Journal, a quarterly magazine showcasing writers of colour and other under-represented authors; and the Good Agency, providing links between creators and publishers. Both enterprises were successfully crowdfunded, bearing out their founders’ belief that there is a market hitherto untapped by mainstream publishing.

But even in established publishing, the ripples have started – both through the success of individual books, such as Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené’s Slay in Your Lane, and in the creation of new editorial strands, like Sharmaine Lovegrove’s Dialogue Books, which sits as part of Little, Brown UK and the extensive Hachette empire. The imprint published four books in 2018, including the Prix Goncourt winner The Old Slave and the Mastiff by Patrick Chamoiseau; a further 11 are on the horizon and Lovegrove has just been named the industry’s FutureBook person of the year.

Meanwhile, Stormzy has launched his own list as part of Penguin Random House UK; adopting a less is more approach, #Merky will introduce “a new generation of voices” in two or three books a year. And Kit de Waal successfully crowdfunded an anthology of working-class writers, Common People, out next year from publisher Unbound. But with all these green shoots appearing, it’s dispiriting that, in 2018’s final days, we discovered that England, Wales and Scotland had almost 130 fewer public libraries than in the last year.

Over in the world of fiction, the belaboured question of literary fiction versus genre – who gets the prizes, who shifts the units, who is better at meeting the needs of the apparently undifferentiated “reading public” – rumbled on. This year’s false dichotomy came in the shape of the playfully named “Up Lit”, exemplified by 2017’s mammoth-selling Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, whose story of its solitary protagonist’s adventures in the outside world continued to engage readers throughout 2018, winning the Costa first novel award in January and the readers’ book of the year at last month’s Books Are My Bag awards. Also heartening was the background of its author, Gail Honeyman, who didn’t start writing in earnest until she was in her 40s, and whose break came when she won a competition for unpublished writers.

Maryse Condé won the alternative Nobel literature prize.
Maryse Condé won the alternative Nobel literature prize.
Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Corbis via Getty Images

In a year in which the Nobel prize in literature was not awarded after allegations of financial irregularities and sexual misconduct led the Swedish Academy to take a year off to recover the confidence of its public, there was something of a free-for-all aspect to prize-giving. The gap left by the Nobel was filled by an alternative Stockholm-based jury, the New Academy, who awarded the gong to Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé. Elsewhere, the inaugural Staunch prize committed itself to rewarding a thriller in which no female character was “beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”, and was duly awarded to Jock Serong’s On the Java Ridge.

Both awards provoked their fair share of controversy, but it was the Man Booker that most noisily prompted a debate about whether “serious” novels are inherently boring, depressing, difficult (see much of the reaction to Milkman), too narrow to attract readers in quantity (ditto; and disproved, with impressive sales figures) and likely to make any reading experience something to be endured, not enjoyed. Such ponderings also inflect discussions elsewhere, as with the noticeable uptick in sales of audiobooks: if you listen to a book rather than stare at the marks on a page, is it really getting into your brain? If you savour one of the year’s page-to-screen adaptations – the brilliant Patrick Melrose, for instance, or the clever, fiendish Killing Eve – have you somehow cheated?

The answer to which is, of course not. Readers of, or listeners to, fiction, like those who relish different kinds of music, films, television programmes and food, are perfectly capable of being productively promiscuous in their tastes. What is needed, perhaps, is a ceasefire, during which time we can reflect on the joy of range and register. That the Man Booker also included two “genre” books on its longlist, Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina and Belinda Bauer’s thriller Snap, might have helped.

The boundaries of this year’s notable fiction blurred in another way, too, with two intricate and experimental works of “autofiction” reaching their climax. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos completed the trilogy – about a writer of fiction called Faye, whose life bears a strong resemblance to the novelist’s own – that began with Outline and Transit. At the rather chunkier end of the scale, the English translation of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle, which had no truck with changing names or many other signifying details, finally reached the end, which the literal-minded Norwegian celebrated by titling his final dispatch The End.

Stormzy launched his own list as part of Penguin Random House UK.
Stormzy launched his own list as part of Penguin Random House UK. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

But other novels played even faster and more loosely with reality. Olivia Laing’s Crudo at once foregrounded its own relation to the present moment by taking place over a few weeks, the length of time its author spent writing it; at the same time, it ventured into more abstract and ludic territory by channelling the spirit of the late avant-garde novelist Kathy Acker. Crudo summoned the terror of watching the world spiral out of control – Trump and the far right rising to power as climate change goes unaddressed – with the personal challenges of marriage and self‑determination.

Its apprehension of the gravity of humanity’s situation took a very specific form, quite different from the one employed by, say, Richard Powers, who examined the threat of environmental catastrophe via multiple characters and hundreds of pages in The Overstory. Closer to home, the first Brexit novels began to appear: most notably Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, which revivified the cast of The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, and Sam Byers’s Perfidious Albion, a satire likened by reviewer Anthony Cummins to “an episode of Black Mirror as scripted by a ‘woke’ Martin Amis”, which, one might assume, will either make you rush to the bookshop or in the direction of a reassuring chunk of Up Lit.

In Ireland, the surge of exceptional young writers showed no signs of abating. Most prominent is Sally Rooney, whose second novel, Normal People, elicited a whirl of approbation with its acute ear for the lives of its romantic pairing, and has been shortlisted for the Costa novel award. But the distinguishing feature of the Irish trend is the sheer number of talented writers that are being published; alongside Rooney stand authors such as Anakana Schofield, Emilie Pine, June Caldwell and Danny Denton, to name but a few. And Rooney herself is committed to rooting out new voices via the editorship of literary magazine the Stinging Fly.

Elsewhere, novelists’ interest in the classical world remains just as strong, this year bringing us Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, given as a spoil of war to the conquering hero Achilles. Barker’s narrative struck a chord with readers who know that there’s always more than one side to any story. In a similar vein, Madeline Miller’s Circe, Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under and Michael Hughes’s Country all sought to shed light on our fractured present by returning to the mythology of our fractious past.

The year the worlds books opened up

Novels about books, writing and the literary life are often subject to a particular kind of scorn, and viewed suspiciously – and sometimes accurately – as though they are excuse-magnets for pretension and self-importance. But we must, surely, make an exception for the searing portrait of the creative life provided by Paul Ewen. Drunken, impecunious and never far from a restraining order, Francis Plug, Ewen’s terrifying narrator, returned this year to describe his adventures as a writer in residence at a London university; perhaps the most attractive part of his new appointment was that he could move out of his rat-ridden garage and surreptitiously stow away in the nooks and crannies of academe.

Despite his florid misbehaviour, many writers may feel a sympathetic kinship with Plug, especially these lines:

Being an author isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Most emerging writers, like myself, need a second trade, unless they’re inheritors of significant wealth. Even established mid-list authors are struggling these days, competing against the latest literary trend or “hit”. Books may be perceived as important in England, home of Eliot, Austen, Shakespeare and Dickens, but as the author of one, I don’t feel all that special.

One wonders what Plug might make of the psychologist Jordan Peterson, whose deadpan expression, fondness for interpreting human behaviour through the lens of the lobster, and commitment to subsisting entirely on meat, catapulted him to a certain sort of celebrity. Undoubtedly, Peterson’s credo of self-discipline, outlined in the January publication 12 Rules for Life, would not appeal to the beer-swilling and gin-guzzling Plug.

But although Peterson demonstrated that notoriety is a powerful engine for sales of books and ticketed events, he had not a hope of eclipsing the impact made by Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, which rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists when it was released in November. Around the same time, British fans sweated through the ordeal of trying to buy tickets to see the former first lady in conversation in London, dolefully revealing on their social media feeds their queuing positions, which appeared to reach the upper limits of discoverable prime numbers.

Such high-profile books provide a welcome boost for booksellers, who are always looking for the next shelf-emptier. They must, then, have been delighted by another piece of pre-Christmas cheer – the announcement that Margaret Atwood is to write a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 dystopian novel whose prescient vision has ushered it back into the bestseller lists of late. While it might be a moot point to say that things can only get better, it’s to be hoped at least that they refrain from getting any worse.


Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

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