Looking Back At 2018: The Year In Literature

Nirbhay Kanoria

December 19, 2018

The year 2018 was a roller coaster of a ride as far as literature goes. Both foreign and Indian shores saw plenty happen- from deaths of literary stalwarts to well-known authors getting embroiled in controversy, and from surprising omissions in famous awards to unprecedented inclusions. As readers, we were treated to some brilliant debut novels, we saw new authors get the kind of recognition they didn’t expect and we sat both happy and dismayed as current politicians entered the literary world- one leader wrote a book and another tried to stop a few books from being published. We don’t know what 2019 has in store for us, but 2018 sure made us cry and laugh.

Looking Back At 2018

Looking Back At 2018: Politics

Right off the bat, 2018 began with a massive controversy- American journalist Michael Wolff was set to release his book, Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House on January 17 to much fanfare and excitement from his readers, and a large degree of disgruntlement from the U.S. President. Wolff promised a complete expose of what went on in the White House under Trump. Trump himself was so shaken up by the prospect of people reading this book that he moved to have the publisher cease-and-desist from printing and selling the book. So what did Henry Holt and Co. do? Gave Trump a certain digit of our hand, and went right ahead and published what became one of the bestselling books of 2018. It seemed a winning formula to write a bestseller in 2018 was to write about Trump and his White House. Eminent American journalist, Bob Woodward wrote  Fear: Trump In The White House, a book which focuses on Trump’s apparent deranged decision-making process, while Trump’s ex-aide and one-time favourite Omarosa Manigault Newman wrote Unhinged, a gossipy and unbalanced view of Trump- and both went on to become bestsellers. The most fun Trump-related book was porn-star Stormy Daniel’s The Full Disclosure, in which she goes into intimate details of her alleged affair with Trump, and even describes his penis as a giant toadstool! Incidentally, in a related and first-of-its-kind move, the highly respected literary organisation, PEN America, sued the President for violating the First Amendment and using the government to suppress the press. The case has been filed and let’s see how it unfolds.

Trump, it seems, is not the only politician or person connected to politics who got involved in literature. While not a politician herself, but closely related to the Presidency, former First Lady, Michelle Obama made a stunning literally debut in November with her memoir- Becoming. Written with refreshing candour, the book dealt with intimate details about her life (she even spoke about things as personal as having miscarriages and ultimately conceiving her children through IVF), the campaign trail, her life in the White House, and of course, Donald Trump. Most notably, the book broke records by landing itself on the bestseller list just 15 days after its publication.

India was not too far behind when it came to political leaders writing books- our very own Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, wrote a children’s book, Exam Warriors. Priced economically, the book not only met with instant success, but was also seen as an important move by an influential political figure trying to help children deal with the stress of exams in a country where there is a lot of pressure to do well academically.

Looking Back At 2018: Literary Awards

Politics aside, 2018 was also an interesting year for literary awards. In India, the JCB Prize For Literature was announced- it is now the prize that carries the highest monetary reward- a whopping ₹25 lakhs! And, ₹1 lakh for each of the shortlisted authors. An initiative like this is bound to encourage more writers and raise the standard of literature in India. Indian writers have always been very good, but as there is very little money in the business, many people pursue writing as a hobby rather than their work. It was reaffirming to see two regional language book- Jasmine Days (which went on the win the award) and Poonachi shortlisted, while the longlist included two works by debut women authors- Latitudes Of Longing (one of our personal favourites) and Empire. The Man Booker also broke ground this year by, for the first time ever, longlisting a graphic novel, the chilling but phenomenal Sabrina. This was particularly significant as it signified that graphic novels were finally being considered ‘real literature’. Sabrina, however, did not end up making the shortlist and Anna Burns, the author of Milkman, took home the statue (amidst some controversy).

While the Man Booker was lauded, they also created a furore when they announced the Golden Man Booker Prize- an award for the best book of the last 50 years. However, their selection process was highly skewed and the judging system equally bizarre. A previous winner and winner of the Booker of Bookers, Midnight’s Children, didn’t even make the shortlist- this almost questions the legitimacy of the Booker Prize altogether. Furthermore, this award was to be given to a book which had stood the test of time, but the 2017 winner, Lincoln In The Bardo, was shortlisted, and while it may be a phenomenal book, it is way too early to judge whether or not it has ‘stood the test of time’. All said and done, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient ended up winning the prize, and that decision itself was debated. Was The Golden Man Booker simply a PR stunt that backfired? Who knows.

Another award body which received a lot of negative press was the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature every year to an author who has had a lasting influence on the world of literature. Still reeling from 2017’s controversy when they gave the prize to Bob Dylan, a musician, this year they had to postpone the very award itself due to complications arising from sexual assault allegations against Jean Claude-Arnault, husband of Katarina Frostenson, who is a member of the academy. The Academy had no choice but the postpone the award and declare that there will be two winners in 2019. To ensure that there is some sort of winner in 2018, a group of Swedes came together and formed The New Academy to give an ‘alternate’ Nobel Prize, and Maryse Condé won the prize finally.

Looking Back At 2018: #MeToo

All said and done, what the whole Nobel controversy did was shed light on a much required #MeToo movement in the world of literature- both in the US and in India. While the portrayal of violence/sexual abuse against women in literature is another matter which should be addressed, the way authors who sexually abuse/harass women are dealt with came to light this year. The most famous person to get embroiled in a #MeToo controversy was Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao. Díaz vehemently denied writer Zinzi Clemmons’ accusation that he forcibly kissed her, but none the less he did step down as the Pulitzer Prize chairman. He was further accused by two other women of being verbally aggressive with them. Ironically, Díaz himself is a rape victim and wrote an essay in The New Yorker just days before Clemmons’ accusation, which critics then claimed was a pre-emptive move to gain sympathy. While the Pulitzer board has cleared Díaz of any wrongdoing, the entire episode brought the much needed world-wide attention to sexual abuse in the literary world.

In India, our most famous author (if going by sales numbers), Chetan Bhagat, dealt with his own #MeToo accusations. While initially accused of flirting with a journalist despite being married, things took a nasty turn when Ira Trivedi accused Bhagat of forcibly trying to kiss her after she went to his room to receive a signed copy of his book. Bhagat in turn responded by releasing screen shots of conversations he’d had with Trivedi after the alleged forcible kissing episode where she signed of ‘miss u kiss u’ and said she was waiting for him, saying that was his way of vindication as she would not have been so friendly with him had he actually tried to abuse her. While some may call this victim-blaming and say that women have no choice but to keep men in power happy, other say that this clears Bhagat of the accusations. While the episode has died down on social media, it has forced Indian readers to think about sexual abuse and what we should do about it. Motivated by events like this, the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival released a statement saying they stand by the #MeToo movement completely and plan to have it feature prominently in many session of the 2019 edition and the Bangalore Literature Festival has promised not to provide a platform to any sexual abuser.

Looking Back At 2018: In-Memoriam

How can a recap of any year be complete without an in-memoriam section? In 2018, we lost some literary greats. At the very beginning of the year, famous sci-fi and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin passed away. She had won both Hugo and Nebula awards, many authors were influenced by her, and even Stephen King paid tribute to her. Stephen Hawking, author of the record-breaking A Brief History Of Time and an incredibly inspirational person died in March due to complications arising from ALS, a disease he’d been fighting for over 50 years. In May, Pulitzer Prize and Pen/Faulkner Award winner Philip Roth succumbed to heart failure and The Bonfire Of The Vanities author, Tom Wolfe, also died.

June saw the passing of famous chef, TV personality and author Anthony Bourdain. He committed suicide and his death led to a lot of conversation about mental health. His memoir, Kitchen Confidential, was a New York Times Bestseller and is considered a classic. August left us heart-broken with two of the most staggering figures in literature- Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Neil Simon and Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul, dying.  While Naipaul may have been accused of misogyny and Islamophobia, one cannot forget his contribution to the world of literature with books such as An Area Of Darkness (incidentally, this book was banned in India for a period of time) and A House For Mr Biswas. And finally, in November, comic book writer and ex-Marvel chief, Stan Lee, breathed his last. His contribution to the world of literature and role in changing the perception of comic books was far too great to put into a few words and his death left us all saddened.

Looking back at 2018, it was an exciting year. We were both amused and saddened when the government of Kuwait went on a book-banning spree and The Little Mermaid, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as well as an encyclopaedia containing a photo of Michelangelo’s David, all fell under the axe. We were devastated as The National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which housed one of the best collections of indigenous literature burned down, due to improper maintenance. We salivated with excitement when November came and G.R.R. Martin released his latest book, no not The Winds Of Winter, but Fire And Blood, the first of a two-parter series which chronicles the Targaryen history. And we were thrilled when an acclaimed thespian like Nandita Das made a brilliant movie on Saddat Hassan Manto, exposing his genius to a generation who may not have read him.

As we pack our bags and set off on our winter break, we can’t help but reflect on 2018 and think about everything that the world of literature offered us and wonder if 2019 will be just as exciting or even more? Adieu, till the New Year.

As a young boy, Nirbhay had the annoying habit of waking up at 5 a.m. Since television was a big no-no, he had no choice but to read to entertain himself and that is how his love affair with books began. A true-blue Piscean, books paved the path to his fantasy worlds- worlds he’d often rather stay in. Nirbhay is the co-founder and publisher of The Curious Reader.

You can read his articles, here.