That was the year that was

2008 in publishing terms could be seen as the year of the vampire, of politics, of the environment and, as always, of all sorts of irrationality.

Vampires. Who could have predicted that female readers of all ages would be drooling over the creatures of the night? Vampires have been around in the world of fiction from the 18th century but the neck nibbling antics of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and all are a long way from the present rash of paranormal romances from people like Christine Feehan, Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton who add hefty slices of romance and a certain amount of erotica to the mixture. At the top of the vampire pyramid, however, is someone who deals in anticipatory sexiness only: the enormously popular Stephenie Meyer whose Twilight has now become one of the biggest films of recent times, attracting the very same audience who made Titanic a hit years back.

Political books did well and none better worldwide than Barack Obama’s books which, since his inauguration, have gone back up the bestseller list again. The environment was – and, of course, still is and will be – the major topic and a number of quite scary books came out, the biggest selling being Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, flat and crowded which left little doubt that something needed to be done soon and America needed to get a move on. At the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, English polemical writer John Gray didn’t offer much comfort and felt it was too late. At the same festival, Loretta Napoleoni, promoting her book Rogue economics, said that the new economies were going to rule the world and America was down the tubes.

On politics – and foreign policy generally – Robert Fisk was the big success of the Christchurch Festival and his grim prognosis of the Middle East crisis gave people a lot of food for thought. Interestingly the film industry weighed in with a large number of politically inspired films that reflected the liberal views of their makers. Some were very good but none were commercially successful while escapist fare did better than ever.

So when the going gets tough, does everyone get going? Just as in the Great Depression, where Hollywood did huge business with light musicals and comedies, the appetite was for Inspiration. It came in the form of the Randy Pausch bestseller The last lecture which you either cuddled up to or moved away from. And that old favourite The secret still gets people excited (and it has been the top nonfiction bestseller in Spain which must say something about the Spanish) and the works of Esther Hicks and her husband with their Law of Attraction material are still doing well. For those unaware of this lady, she channels a spirit called Abraham. Esther had a falling out with Rhonda Byrne, the author of The secret, over the DVD version. Their dispute was about the highly spiritual topic of money. While this material was all in the realm of vague spirituality, religious titles did better than ever.

The biggest selling fictional trade paperback in the U.S. was a novel called The shack about a man who has suffered a personal tragedy and is sent a note from God to meet him in the building of the title. The novel took off here as well but not to the same extent. The Christian fiction market continues to grow and blend in with the mainstream market. There are less of the last days/Rapture titles of the Left behind nature and more of the series novels about life on the frontier/life among the Amish and novels that deal with issues of the Jodi Picoult variety but with a religious overlay. These novels have reached wider appeal with readers who don’t like the effing and blinding of other fiction and want an inspirational extra with their reading.

Linked to this – very vaguely – are the very popular novels which have women gathering together for a purpose and then bonding in mutual support. It might be quilting (Jennifer Chiaverini, Emilie Richards), knitting (Kate Jacobs, Debbie Macomber), book clubs (Karen Joy Fowler, Mary Ann Shaffer) and the field is open for other hobbies. Will there be a trend for shed or garage novels where blokes gather together to work on the ute and discuss their problems while peering under the bonnet? Maybe not.

The big names of fiction just keep on keeping on and it doesn’t seem to matter how good or how bad their books are. Reviews of Patricia Cornwell’s latest said how she seemed to have slipped in quality in recent years (at the Christchurch Readers & Writers, crime author Mark Billingham said Cornwell’s work had gone downhill and her latest was just terrible.) Despite this, the novel galloped to the top of the bestseller list.

Quality isn’t an issue with the likes of James Patterson whose prolific output shows that he could write about the workings of the toilet cistern and still draw a crowd of readers. Same thing with the formulaic output of Nora Roberts and the truckload of former romance writers who have slipped over into the lucrative genre of murder mystery with romance on the side.

Serial killers are still popular and their dirty doings have become so over the top that credibility isn’t even an issue. Christchurch may be getting a reputation as a dark city where serial killers are on the prowl because of the novels of local writer Paul Cleave whose first novel was a huge bestseller in Germany. The increase in crime novels in translation from around the globe has been an interesting phenomenon and we now have mysteries from France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Germany, Russia, etc., as well as mysteries set in more exotic locations and all the historical mysteries that have sleuths from different periods of history. The mystery as a genre continues to expand and attract first rate writers but it has ballooned so much in recent years that there is a danger of too many people going to the well too many times.

The Booker this year went to a first novelist, Aravind Adiga with his brilliant novel White tiger. India has produced a lot of first rate fiction recently, both from Indian authors and others who set their work there. Vikas Swarup hit the jackpot when his 2005 novel Q & A became a huge hit on film as Slumdog millionaire. The Pulitzer went to Junot Diaz for his exuberant 11 years in the writing novel The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao and the Orange Prize to Rose Tremain for her excellent novel The road home. Closer to home, the Montana went to Charlotte Grimshaw for a first rate collection of short stories, Opportunity. All of these – and the shortlisted novels as well – show that literary fiction is alive and well.

Celebrity cooks are everywhere and the Christmas market was dominated by the effing and blinding of (fallen) family man of the year Gordon Ramsay, the fighting flabby Britain movement of Jamie Oliver and the provocative Nigella who makes even breaking an egg suggestive. Television has fuelled this market just as it does with the health books (who would think viewers would be agog while self-styled “doctor” Gillian McKeith shrieked “Whose poos?” at unfortunates with bad diets?) and diet books and books based on series about fixing your house, bringing up errant children, etc. are everywhere. There must be an end to this and I would bet that 2009 will be full of books and television series about beating the recession/living on the smell of an oily rag/downsizing. And they will all come from presenters and authors who won’t be downsizing their fees.

I haven’t mentioned the demise of the printed book (still talked about and still not in sight), the rise of all varieties of e-books, kindles and all, the decline in the misery memoir (unfortunately this is still around but it is faltering; however, I can’t wait to see how they transform the beautiful Natascha McElhone into a rough South London mother in the film version of The kid), Oprah’s enthusiasms, online publishing, books on demand, children’s series, the long tail, the falling off in Britain of the Richard & Judy Book Club (once the biggest guarantee of success in publishing), the return (after declining in recent years) of the celebrity memoir (bestsellers by Julie Walters, Dawn French, etc), the big advances for the non performing titles….all interesting topics but I have to stop somewhere.

One thought on “That was the year that was

  1. Michael A 17 February 2009 / 5:51 pm

    I was given The Last Lecture by a well meaning member of my tribe; if anyone finds it life-changing I despair for the level at which they lead their life. One word: Pap.

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