Sunday 10 April 2016

33 novels

Anthony Burgess grouped his 99 novels by decade and I've adapted his approach below, but have restricted myself to one novel for each year. I can see why Burgess chose to cluster (for instance) several novels published in the same year together within a decade, because there were years in which nothing of any interest was published. I found the same problem in the decades since the 1980s, as you will see.

Like Burgess, I have avoided works in translation (so there's no Sebald or Houellebecq or Karl Ove Knausgård), collections of short stories (although I've made one exception) and children's fiction (which means that Philip Pullman, a fine writer by any standards, doesn't make the final cut). Also I'm not interested here in blockbuster best-sellers (but again with one exception), genre fiction (reluctantly omitting William Gibson's Neuromancer, for instance, the forerunner of cyberpunk) and books written in earlier decades but only published later (so no Dream of Fair to Middling Women, written in 1932 but only published sixty years later). And there are no graphic novels (much as I admire Dan Clowes, Alan Moore, Chris Ware and other practitioners).

After 1983 - the cut-off point in Burgess's original list - one is immediately spoilt for choice. How about this lot, all published in 1984, which seemed an average year at the time but now appears among the best of any since the twenties.

 Gilbert Adair  Alice Through the Needle's Eye
Anthony Burgess  Enderby's Dark Lady, or, No End to Enderby
Julian Barnes  Flaubert's Parrot
 J. G. Ballard  Empire of the Sun
William Gibson  Neuromancer 
James Kelman The Busconductor Hynes
Iain Banks  The Wasp Factory
Alasdair Gray 1982, Janine

How about that? Although it may just be worth pointing out that the peculiar (and now declining) British tradition of publishing novels first in hardback and, around nine months to a year later, in paperback (if they sell well), means that most of the books listed below came my way at least a year after publication I rarely bought hardbacks then, or now come to that. Too expensive.). And the decade continued with some other other terrific publications, as you will see in a moment

The 1980s were a particularly rich period for anglophone fiction and my choice could have been twice as long with no drop in quality. Pressed to select just one book for each year is a tough call - but I'm getting ahead of myself. It is now 33 years since Burgess published his list, so my list of 33 novels amounts to a third of the original Burgess tally.  After some (but not much) thought I came up with the following. Ready?

1980s (part 2)

1984 - Alasdair Gray 1982, Janine
1985 - Margaret Attwood A Handmaid's Tale
1986 - Kingsley Amis The Old Devils
1987 - Tom Wolfe The Bonfire of the Vanities
1988 - Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses
1989 - Martin Amis  London Fields


1990 - Nicholson Baker Room Temperature 
1991 - Gordon Burn Alma Cogan
1992 - Gilbert Adair The Death of the Author 
1993 - Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy
1994 - Peter Ackroyd Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
1995 - Pat Barker The Ghost Road (part of the Regeneration trilogy)
1996 - Elizabeth McCracken The Giant's House
1997 - Don DeLillo Underworld
1998 - Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses
1999 - Can you believe that the only novel published in 1999 I've read is White Teeth by Zadie Smith? And I shan't include it here because I think it's a terrible book. So I'll do a Burgess and chose a second novel from the decade: Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992). It's the only novel I know which explores - excruciatingly - the subject of intense and all-consuming remorse.


2000 - Lorna Sage Bad Blood (strictly speaking a memoir, but has the hallmarks of fiction and there's nothing much published in 2000 that makes the grade).
2001 - Oh dear. See the note above for 1999. I can't find anything that I admire from this year or the next three years, and later in the decade we hit another fallow period in 2006 that continues until the triumphant arrival of Eimear McBride in 2013 (with a novel she'd written nine years earlier, begging the question whether A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing should really be dated 2004, a contemporary of Marianne Robinson's Gilead. Post-McBride (and my book About a Girl suggest this is no mere coincidence) things pick up in the 2010s and we are currently, it seems to me, living through the richest period for experimental ground-breaking fiction since the Modernist heyday of the 1920s.

2004 - Marilynne Robinson Gilead 
2005 - Tom McCarthy Remainder
2006 - see 2001
2007 - see 2006
2008 - see 2007
2009 - see 2008


2010 - see 2009
2011 - see 2010
2012 - see 2011. You can imagine, given the fallow period, the impact of the next book on a critic who had all but given up on modern fiction. Humdrum middlebrow well-crafted anodyne pap. Then, out of the blue:
2013 - Eimear McBride A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
2014 - Jenny Offill Dept. of Speculation
2015 - Alex Pheby Playthings
2016 - Claire-Louise Bennet Pond (although it's too early in the year to call, and this is strictly speaking a collection of short stories) Harry Parker's Anatomy of a Soldier strikes me as a likely novel of the year.

And there you have it. I hadn't realised how long and dire the period was before 2013. I've thought a lot about it now, and although some of the novels published in these lean years are by no means negligible they fail to pass muster when it comes to compiling a list as convincing as that made by Anthony Burgess. But the last few years have seen a rise in the number of small independent publishers willing to take risks with uncommercial writing - three of the four final novels come from the plucky independents Galley Beggar Press and Fitzcarraldo Editions.

I already have second thoughts about some of my choices, and expect you do too. That's fine by me, But what the is list confirms (to me, at any rate) is that the anglophone novel was, until quite recently, in the doldrums, dominated by well-crafted humdrum overblown middlebrow heavyweight slop, and that we are now - perhaps briefly - living through a golden age of experimental, uncommercial writing. Something wildly strange and wonderful is happening to fiction in the hands of writers still in their twenties and thirties. It's a good time to be reading.

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