It may be unsporting to begin with a big, fat criticism, but the most alarming trend in fiction this year has been the apparent decline of the red pen. When the Man Booker shortlist was announced in September, the chair of judges took authors to task for writing novels that were too long.
“We occasionally felt that inside the book we read was a better one — sometimes a thinner one — wildly signalling to be let out,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, before adding that “the chastening pencil has a role and subtraction can be as potent as addition.”
In fact, Appiah could have gone much further. Not only have many novels outstayed their welcome, but too many have been sloppily written. Many admired Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore but I found the Japanese novelist’s prose so startlingly lazy, and his sentences so prone to repeating themselves, that I wondered whether any editor had actually read it. William Boyd’s Love is Blind is a thoroughly enjoyable historical caper, but I wish someone had firmly crossed out sentences such as: “You may leave home, but home never leaves you, he thought darkly”. And I can’t imagine that anyone at Irvine Welsh’s publisher has sat down with one of his manuscripts in years — the Trainspotting author’s most recent novel is the deplorable Dead Men’s Trousers.
Ironically, untidy sentences were very much the point of Anna Burns’s deserving Booker-winner Milkman, in which the 18-year-old narrator’s rambling, digressive speech patterns are an imaginatively conceived defence against the nightmare of sectarian violence in Belfast during the Seventies. (I still couldn’t help but think there were rather too many of them, though.)
Milkman exemplified another trend among novels in the year of #MeToo, not just for the way it foregrounds the female voice but for the manner in which it articulates the insidious forms that male abuses of power can take. As the narrator puts it, trying to explain why she feels unable to ask the eponymous milkman, who is stalking her, to stop offering her a lift home: “He didn’t seem rude, so I couldn’t be rude.”
This year’s novels were filled with the angry clamour of women’s voices: ignored, idealistic or excitingly ambivalent. Madeline Miller, having lushly retooled the Iliad as a sensual love affair between Achilles and Patroclus in her 2011 novel The Song of Achilles, reflected the mood for feminist revisionism with her lissom follow-up Circe, which casts the witch deity in the Odyssey not as a bit player in a man’s epic but as the star of her own show.
A similar revolution takes place in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which offers a corrective to Churchill’s idiom that history is told by the victors in being narrated by Briseis, the slave girl and favoured bedmate of Achilles. Unlike the seamlessly written Circe, Barker struggles in her novel to balance heroic diction with a more earthy and sometimes sweary vernacular, perhaps because her project was to subvert the myth of Achilles as hero: “We called him the butcher,” says Briseis.
Another modern approach to ancient myths, with up-to-the-minute concerns, was Daisy Johnson’s Booker-shortlisted Everything Under — an intriguing transgender Oedipus, rendered less readable than it should have been by a surfeit of ostentatiously lyrical, murky prose.
While Burns, Miller and Barker agitated against power disparities, Meg Wolitzer asked the more practical question of how to live a feminist life, in The Female Persuasion, which suggests that the movement in 2018 is in danger of looking like little more than a virtuous hashtag. Told in Wolitzer’s deceptively breezy, oh-so-readable style, it offers across several decades a perceptive analysis of the achievements — and limitations — of postwar feminism through the story of Greer, a mousy student who blossoms into a feminist activist after being assaulted in college.
Sheila Heti also tackled some vexed truths and sacred cows in her deeply personal novel, Motherhood. Tracking, over a period of several years, the vacillating thoughts of a woman called Sheila about whether to have a child, it both deftly skewers entrenched maternal taboos and embodies the worst excesses of autofiction — that modish genre in which novelists write so closely about their own lives that the traditional borders between fact and fiction are rendered almost redundant.
“A lot of time is spent thinking about whether to have a child, when the thinking is such a small part of it, and when there is little enough time to think about things that actually bring meaning. Which is what?” runs a typical passage.
Less explicit about its evident relationship to the genre of memoir, yet at times feeling just as indulgent, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight also used the narrator’s initial ambivalence about pregnancy as a springboard for a wide-ranging novel about female bodies and the history of optics in beautifully free-flowing, ruminative prose.
In fact, 2018 might well mark the year that autofiction reached its zenith, with two of its defining projects coming to an end. Karl Ove Knausgaard finally brought down the curtain on My Struggle with The End, the final instalment of his six-part fictional autobiography that details the minutiae of his life in such microscopic detail that readers may well have felt they knew more about his sock drawer than they knew about themselves.
You couldn’t quite say the same about Faye, the unsettlingly passive protagonist of Kudos, the concluding novel in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy that began with Outline in 2014 and in which Faye is a surrogate persona for the author’s own. Kudos is delivered in Cusk’s customary exquisite, vodka-clear prose, but where the scrupulous observational clarity had felt instinctive in the preceding novels, the writing here has a hint of artifice that suggests that Cusk may have exhausted herself as a subject, at least in this format.
Many novels these days, in a bid for immediacy, feel pushed up incredibly close against the author’s personal reality, as in autofiction, or against the historical present, as in Olivia Laing’s zinging debut novel Crudo, written during — and very much about _ the news events of last summer. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those novelists who scuttle safely into the past.
Well-known writers such as Michael Ondaatje, William Boyd and Kate Atkinson all opted to tell stories about Britain from the vantage point of several decades’ distance. In fact, Ondaatje produced perhaps the novel of the year — and his career — with Warlight: a hazily meditative fiction about the difficulty of ever knowing the truth of one’s own life, set partly in the shadow of the Second World War.
Few novelists felt the need — or perhaps had the stomach — to write about contemporary Britain. Brexit inspired a couple of decent novels last year — notably from Amanda Craig and, more obliquely from Adam Thorpe and Jon McGregor — but this year the authors able to get creative mileage out of deadlocks and backstops were understandably thin on the ground. One exception was Jonathan Coe, who unwittingly exposed the dangers of setting out to write a state of the nation novel with the distressingly simplistic Middle England. Laudably, it tries to track the social fault-lines that led to Brexit but instead merely lines up Leaver and Remainer stereotypes on opposite sides of the chasm.
Barbara Kingsolver tackled Trump in Unsheltered. Rachel Kushner took on America’s broken justice system in The Mars Room. Richard Powers proselytised about the environment in The Overstory. The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan wove slavery and the science of flight into the boisterously imaginative caper of Washington Black.
Those last two made the Booker shortlist, but the much-touted Normal People by the Irish novelist Sally Rooney did not. That novel, about the sexually and emotionally fluctuating relationship between two Irish students, lacks the technical and political bravura of her hit debut Conversations with Friends, but on a sentence-by-sentence level was, for me, the most enjoyable novel of the year. I wish, too, that Tim Winton’s viscerally written The Shepherd’s Hut, about an on-the-run teenager in the Australian outback, had received greater recognition.
But in general there were very few surprises or word-of-mouth hits. Novels hyped at the start of the year — such as The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar — seemed to have been forgotten by the end. The greatest shock was the commercial success of Milkman, despite the Booker judges comparing the experience of reading it to climbing Snowdon. It sold 18,786 copies in the week after it won the prize, nearly a thousand more than Wolf Hall in the week after it won the Booker in 2009. That is blazing proof that people want to read stimulating novels that make them see the world differently. It’s an editor’s job to help a novelist deliver such a book, and both writers and readers deserve better. Time to uncap those red pens.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018