I’ve been thinking for a while of a doing a ‘best books of 2008’ post – what with 2008 almost being done and dusted. However, trawling through a number of newspaper ‘books of the year’ sections, it became increasingly clear that this was a fairly pointless task.
For one thing, most of the best books that I have read this year were not published in this century, let alone 2008. Is there much point in telling you that I really enjoyed reading the political works of Thomas Paine, the autobiography of Sylvia Pankhurst or re-reading William Godwin’s Caleb Williams? Those works of history published in 2008 that I have enjoyed reading this year, including Malcolm Chase’s history of Chartism, Mike Braddick on the civil war and Anna Keay on Charles II, I’ve already reviewed elsewhere on this blog.
Looking through newspaper books of the year sections, however, another thing struck me. It is not just, as so neatly lampooned every year in Private Eye, that there is fair amount of log-rolling going on here, with broadsheet reviewers puffing each other’s books. (Having been the recipient of one such puff in the past, I can hardly object to this practice.)
Rather, the impression that I got from looking at these lists was that a very small number of titles were repeatedly being cited in paper after paper. Selections as esoteric as Stephen Bayley’s in the New Statesman (he singled out two books: one on car parks, the other on tits of the non-avian variety) were few and far between.
Perhaps that shows us that these lists ‘work’, separating the wheat from literary chaff and delivering a hit parade of the very best books of that calendar year. It’s hard for me to judge, as I’ve actually only looked at one of the books that regularly appeared on these lists, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. I can confirm, having read 20 pages, that it is quite good. I am sure that is a relief to the winner of the 2008 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. (Actually, I also read Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father, but that was first published back in the 1990s and is also incredibly dull, if worthy and well-written.)
But perhaps these lists reveal something else: not the nepotistic nature of the publishing industry, nor even that great literary critics think alike, but that there is simply not very much serious non-fiction being produced and (more importantly) publicised by trade publishers. Taking a look at the Bookseller’s non-fiction top ten for 2008, it is almost entirely dominated by celebrity ‘memoirs’ (the sole exception being the Mighty Boosh’s book.) I doubt that Summerscale’s book, even with the publicity and prizes, sold as much as one tenth of the numbers for Paul O’Grady’s biog.
The noise you can hear eminating from newspaper books of the year pages is then not so much that of logs being rolled, but of deckchairs hastily being re-arranged on the Titanic. The publishing industry in general is having a hard time of it and with profit margins being squeezed, there is an inevitable pressure to focus more and more on the big sellers: pulp thrillers, celebrity biogs and ‘misery’ memoirs. (WHSmith – see pic below- now devotes a whole stand to that last unpleasant little genre.)
Broadsheet lists seem increasingly anacronistic in this brave new publishing world. The actual contents of today’s high street book shops seem rather better represented by this list offered by Publisher’s Weekly in the US, dominated as it is by titles like Wild Inferno, Heart of the Wolf and No One Heard Her Scream.
Looking into my crystal ball, I can’t see this situation improving anytime soon, what with that whole economy not working thing. But perhaps we should all make a new year’s resolution to buy fewer rubbish books in 2009.