Where does literature end and fantasy begin? The answer would seem to involve dragons — or at least, you might have thought so in the early months of 2015 if you were following the debate over Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, “The Buried Giant”.
Speaking ahead of publication, the British writer had wondered whether readers might be put off by the surface elements of his story, which follows an elderly couple on a quest through a Dark Ages landscape populated by mythical creatures and shrouded in an amnesia-inducing mist. His fears were partly realised.
One review in the “New York Times” described it as a “ham-handed fairy tale” reminiscent of “The Lord of the Rings” and George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones”, while on the other side of the genre divide the novelist Ursula Le Guin took umbrage at Ishiguro’s apparent dismissiveness and wrote scathingly of how his book failed as fantasy.
She and Ishiguro later patched things up but by then the terms of the discussion around the book were set: an old argument over literary snobbery had been reignited and “The Buried Giant” was caught between the lines.
Which was a shame, because in many ways this was an entirely characteristic Ishiguro novel — both a study in the unreliability of historical memory that harked back to his earliest works and a meditation on love and mortality that resonated movingly with its predecessor, “Never Let Me Go” (2005). And as the SF elements of that book showed, there is nothing new about Ishiguro experimenting with genre.
Perhaps it was his choice this time of fantasy that did it; what Margaret Atwood refers to as “speculative fiction” might sometimes struggle for mainstream literary recognition but it still fares better than the likes of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, for all the brio and narrative skill with which the American novelist has constructed his epic of power and politics in an age of looming climate catastrophe.
Writers consigned to the Salon des Refusés might draw consolation from the fact that the rules on which genres gain approval rarely stay still for long. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s dystopian imaginings did not consign them to a literary ghetto, for example; and historical novels, once the embarrassing be-ruffed cousin of modernist fiction, have now won Britain’s Man Booker prize for four years running — most recently in the form of Marlon James’s polyphonic portrait of Jamaica in the 1970s, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”.
Indeed, it was noticeable this year that the books that excited readers and prize juries were often those most willing to test the conventions of genre. The fourth book in “My Struggle”, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part, 3,600-page autobiographical cycle, arrived in English translation in March with many critics seemingly still unsure whether to treat it as a novel or a memoir.
Ruth Scurr, similarly, wrought a quiet revolution in historical biography with “John Aubrey: My Own Life”, in which the 17th-century antiquary’s own writings are used to build a faux-diary that captures a personality and gives us a sense of the real texture of his life. And is Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in October for her luminous interview-based books on subjects such as the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and the Soviet-Afghan war, a journalist or an oral historian?
Defying classification, for all that it may complicate the lives of librarians, booksellers and literary editors, is usually a good sign.
Perhaps the clearest example of genre-hopping to be found in 2015 was the boom in books by journalists and technology writers on what has long been one of the central concerns of science fiction: the implications of artificial intelligence and automation. Yet there was a marked difference in tone.
When we encounter androids in the work of novelists such as Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov, they are often tragic figures who demand an extension of sympathy: above all else they long to be human, which they will always be denied. The real ones on the horizon seem like a far more worrying prospect.
Few captured the mood as well as Martin Ford in “The Rise of the Robots”, the winner of the FT and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, which painted a bleak picture of the upheavals that would come as ever-greater numbers of even highly skilled workers were displaced by machines.
But his was one voice among many: in “The Future of the Professions”, Richard and Daniel Susskind anatomised the ways in which computers were transforming medicine, law and accountancy; in “Machines of Loving Grace”, John Markoff celebrated the humanistic tradition in technology and made the case for “IA” (“intelligence augmentation”) rather than the more familiar “AI”; while in “In Our Own Image”, George Zarkadakis speculated on what we can expect if an artificial super-intelligence leaves humanity far behind.
Could we be getting a little ahead of ourselves? It sometimes felt as if the unsettling image of the robot was being made to stand for a host of other trends that worry us: rising inequality, for example, which a year on from Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” continued to be a dominant theme of publishing on economics. And it was clear in 2015 that anxiety about technology extended far beyond artificial intelligence.
This could be seen in novels such as “Purity” by Jonathan Franzen, whose characters pondered the parallels between the internet and totalitarian states; in journalistic works such as Jon Ronson’s examination of the dark side of social media, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”; and in cultural criticism such as Laurence Scott’s “The Four-Dimensional Human”, which turned to Victorian and Edwardian literature in search of ways to make sense of our current transformation from analogue to digital beings.
The biggest publishing event of the year was undoubtedly “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee, released to great fanfare in July after having been liberated from a safe-deposit box by the octogenarian Alabama writer’s lawyer. Presented as a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), it is in fact closer to an early draft, submitted in 1957 and admired especially for the childhood sequences that were slowly reworked into Lee’s era-defining novel of racial injustice in the American South; whether “Watchman” complemented or compromised the book that eventually emerged from it was the subject of much debate.
Still, the spectacle of Atticus Finch, the saintly lawyer of “Mockingbird”, succumbing in later life to some of the prejudices he had previously stood against could only stick in the throat in a year when outrage at the failed prosecutions of US policemen charged with murdering unarmed black men has seldom been out of the news.
On race in America, two titles in particular stood out: Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen”, which won many awards, including Britain’s Forward Prize, for its poems interrogating the bigotry encountered everywhere from the campus to the tennis court; and “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a searing epistolary essay addressed to his teenaged son that paid homage to James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” (1963).
In Britain, political publishing clustered around a curious general election — one that was discussed at the time almost exclusively in terms of the new realities of coalition-building arithmetic but which took a decidedly retro turn: a majority Conservative government, a heavily defeated Labour party that swung quickly to the left and even the revival of a debate on nuclear disarmament.
Fittingly, there was a 1980s feel to some of the autumn catalogues: Andy Beckett’s “Promised You a Miracle” took us back to the first three years of that decade, showing how the new individualist zeitgeist extended deep even into those parts of society most opposed to Thatcherism, while the latest volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of the Iron Lady herself provided a detailed and authoritative narrative of her second term, in which she did so much to cement her legacy.
By the autumn it was also becoming clear that this was a year of big bestsellers. E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades” follow-up, “Grey”, exasperated reviewers but nonetheless swiftly broke through the 1-million mark for print sales in both the US and the UK.
Second across both markets (though first in its home territory) was “Go Set a Watchman”, followed by the surprise package of the year, Paula Hawkins’ debut thriller “The Girl on the Train”, which sold nearly 1.6 million copies and possibly would have done even better had not significant numbers of people confused it with a 2013 title by A.J. Waines, “Girl on a Train”. Just for once, that oft-heard lament of dissenting reading group members could well have been justified: everyone else was talking about a different book.
For publishers, long accustomed to living under the shadow of the kind of technological disruption so stylishly described by Stephen Witt in his account of the rise of file-sharing, “How Music Got Free”, this could not have been more welcome. Indeed, sales of physical books rose in the UK for the first time since 2007, with Nielsen BookScan figures for January-November up 5.4 per cent on the previous year. Add to this the British chain Waterstones pulling unwanted Kindles from its shelves and Amazon opening a bricks-and-mortar bookshop and it did seem like the future might not be entirely digital after all. The stuff of fantasy? We will have to wait and see.