Thursday, December 29, 2011

Literary Fiction of 2011: A Recap

A friend asked me if there were more novels published in 2011 than in past years, or if there were simply more that generated buzz. I don’t think official statistics of numbers of novels (or books in general) will be available for a while, but regardless of the number published, I think that 2011 was a big year for fiction.

This post will examine some “categories” of novels which exist every year, but each which seemed to have an especially powerful “line-up” in 2011. I will be examining almost solely, “literary” fiction (with a few exceptions) because I do not follow “commercial” or “genre” fiction as closely. Additionally, this post is intended to be more of a “recap” than a “best of” list. With a few exceptions, I decided that I didn’t want to give many opinions in this post – I will do that in the future. Still, every novel that would make my “best of year” list is included in this post.

Category 1: Debut novels 

I have not tracked this phenomenon closely prior to this year, but debut novels received a great deal of attention in 2011. This may be a factor of publishers trying to develop (and market) new talent in order to build their “stables” for the future. (Whether those writers, once established, will choose to stay with traditional publishers or try self-publishing is a question for another time.) Still, the good news is that (at least in terms of the 2011 crop) publishers do not seem to be simply publishing more new writers and seeing what succeeds. Many of the debut novels from 2011 were, in my opinion, excellent. But don’t take my word for it. Consider these points:

1) Two debut novels were among the five National Book Award finalists: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. The latter was already a bestseller at the time it was chosen, propelled by Obreht having been chosen last year as one of the New Yorkers “20 Under 40.” The former was virtually unknown before being selected by the National Book Award judges. Indeed, this fact created a lot of controversy with one writer faulting the judges for choosing obscure books (see - How the National Book Awards Made Themselves Irrelevant) This issue was covered by many, many blogs back in October. I don’t have anything new to add, other than that The Sojourn was a worthy of being a finalist. I liked other books (debut and not) more, but can’t fault the judges for their choice. I do wonder if the judges had hidden motives, such as spotlighting books they personally liked which were not getting a lot of attention. Still, I accept the response of one of the judges where he states that the judging panel chose the books they liked best, with no ulterior motives involved. (see An NBA Fiction Judge Responds to Laura Miller)

2) Four debut novels were among the New York Times’ five best novels of the year:

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Swamplandia by Karen Russell (Note: Russell had previously published a short story collection but this was her first novel.)

(The fifth was 11/22/63 by Stephen King – see section below on “established novelists.”)

The criterion of the Times was simply that the chosen books must have been reviewed in the paper during 2011. They had no political agenda to spotlight young novelists. Thus, it says a lot that four debut novels were among the most memorable for the editors amongst the dozens (if not hundreds) that they reviewed during the year.

3) Many other debut novels have shown up on various best of year lists, including:

The Submission by Amy Waldman
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
We the Animals by Justin Torres
Open City by Teju Cole
Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (more commercial than literary, but a great story and writing)
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Some might argue that separating debut novels from others is silly – that if a novel is good it is good. This is true, but sometimes writers’ first novels only receive recognition after a subsequent novel breaks out. Regardless, there were certainly many debut novels this year which generated buzz and hit bestseller lists.

Category 2: New books by previous award-winning authors

With four “major” American awards each year – National Book Award, National Book Critic Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award and Pulitzer Prize – there are going to be new books from previous award winners almost every year. Still, 2011 seemed to stick out in this respect. Consider the following:

The Astral by Kate Christensen (PEN/Faulkner winner for Great Man)
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo (National Book Award winner for White Noise)
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer Prize winner for Middlesex)
Nightwoods by Charles Frazier (National Book Award winner for Cold Mountain)
Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin (National Book Award winner for Waiting)
Chango’s Beads and Two-tone Shoes by William Kennedy (Pulitzer Prize winner for Ironweed)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (PEN/Faulkner winner for Bel Canto)
There is often a great deal of expectation and pressure when a previous award winner – especially a previous Pulitzer Prize winner – releases a new book. This year the “victim” of that pressure was Jeffrey Eugenides. Coming nine years after the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Middlesex, The Marriage Plot was probably the most anticipated novel of the year.

There was also buzz and expectation (albeit less than Eugenides) surrounding Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods. His debut novel, Cold Mountain, was a runaway bestseller, and National Book Award Winner in 1998, but his sophomore effort, Thirteen Moons, was not very well received. Many people (myself included) were looking forward to seeing if he could regain the magic of Cold Mountain. 

Category 3: New books by “established” novelists

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle
11/22/63 Stephen King
The Leftovers by Tom Perotta
The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace

My arbitrary definition of “established” was, at first, authors of more than two novels in the general “literary fiction” genre. Then I decided that the late David Foster Wallace (who had published only two novels before uncompleted The Pale King, but had published collections of short stories and essays) and Stephen King (whose 11/22/63 is more “commercial” than “literary”) both deserved mention.

King’s novel was impressive for a few reasons. First, as mentioned above, the New York Times singled it out as one of their top 5 novels of the year. Second, it introduced his writing to new people. I had never read any of his novels before because there was never a theme that interested me enough. When I spoke to the lead book buyer at my favorite independent book store (Politics and Prose), he told me the same thing.

This section is probably missing many examples, but this group stuck out to me.

Category 4: Excellent “imports”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011 Booker Prize winner)
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
1Q84 by Hakuri Murakami
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

This category possibly does not need to be separate from the category above, since all of these writers are “established,” using my arbitrary measure. Still, I’ve made it a separate category to show that Americans are reading books by non-American writers. From my memory, at least four of these “imports” appeared on bestseller lists. While Booker Prize (given to the best book by a writer from the Commonwealth of Nations) winning novels always seem to generate buzz and sales in the U.S., the same is not always true for novels in translation. I have not paid close attention to other novels in translation from recent years, but I don’t remember many which hit #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, as 1Q84 did. Additionally, The Prague Cemetery, also a translation, has appeared on some bestseller lists.

Of the 31 novels mentioned in this post, I have read 19, and I am currently reading 1Q84. The 10 that I chose to spotlight here but haven’t read are:

The Astral by Kate Christensen
Open City by Teju Cole
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin
Chango’s Beads and Two-tone Shoes by William Kennedy
The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

I am most excited to read The Angel Esmeralda (which my gut tells me could be an NBCC or Pulitzer finalist) and Open City.

1 comment:

  1. Dying to know what your favorites were among these!