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Books to look forward to this year

There is a great deal to look forward to this year, and hopefully not that much to dread

Given how volatile everything in the world seems to be at the moment, it would only be a fool or a blunderer who would attempt to make predictions with any degree of confidence whatsoever. However, when it comes to the world of publishing, it is possible to make a few modest proposals about what is likely to happen over the next twelve months, and what is not.

After all of the excitements of last year, which not only included the appearance of mega-blockbusters by Hilary Mantel and Barack Obama, but also saw the postponement of hundreds of titles because of (unwarranted) fears by publishers that bookshops would be closed for all of 2020, this year begins in a strangely uncertain and trepidatious fashion. The shops are, indeed, shut; attention lies elsewhere.

It is surprising that there have not been more major books about the trans experience

Nonetheless, there are some delayed titles from last year that will be well worth investigating. Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s first book Blood and Sugar was one of the most sophisticated crime novels of the past few years, and so I have very high hopes for her sophomore novel Daughters of Night, set in the high society and low life of late 18th-century London. And the latest book from A Very English Scandal author John Preston, Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, looks like a truly revelatory and fascinating read, exploring precisely what happened to Captain Bob and why. It was supposed to be published in July 2020, but its publisher Viking took the gamble that the market would be receptive in February this year: a gamble that won’t pay off in terms of footfall in bookshops, but should be amply rewarded in serialisations and review coverage.

In terms of what last year meant for the industry, it is hard to know precisely what the various international dramas and culture war shenanigans are going to lead to when it comes to our reading opportunities. The Black Lives Matter protests and attendant rise in sales of BAME-themed books have undoubtedly led to a surge in both established and new authors being commissioned, but we are unlikely to see most of these titles appearing until the end of this year, if at all in 2021. One notable exception is the fascinating-sounding One of Them by Musa Okwonga, about Okwonga’s experiences as an Eton schoolboy in the 90s and how it has affected him subsequently.

It is also surprising that there have not been more major books about the trans experience, either from a supportive or sceptical perspective, but the journalist Alexandra Heminsley’s memoir Somebody To Love, an account of her “losing her husband and gaining a best friend” as he decides to transition, has already attracted rave endorsements (Jojo Moyes called it “A treatise on empathy and grace in extraordinary circumstances”) and significant media coverage. It will be interesting to see its critical response and whether it is reviewed on its own, no doubt considerable, merits or as a staging post in the most vicious of social arguments.

Free speech has its limits, as Julie Burchill found last month when her publisher cancelled her forthcoming book

Certainly, publishing is probably in its most febrile state since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, with arguments over the limits of free speech stretching across the industry. It has now become a semi-accepted fact that a major book from a controversial talent (which last year included JK Rowling and Woody Allen) will lead to protests and even resignations from publishing staff – a bold move at the moment, where new jobs are as scarce as pieces of good news from Downing Street press conferences – and this year will see renewed controversy when Jordan Peterson returns with his new book Beyond Order in March.

Reaction from British publishers to protests from their staff has been considerably more robust than from their American counterparts so far, suggesting that they are less enamoured of the idea of their companies being run as a democracy where a 22-year-old editorial assistant has an equal say to the senior editor who commissioned the book in the first place. Nonetheless, free speech has its limits, as Julie Burchill found last month when her publisher Little Brown cancelled her forthcoming book – appropriately titled Welcome To The Woke Trials – because of a series of apparently Islamophobic tweets that she sent to the “luxury communist” Ash Sarkar.

Little Brown called her comments “not defensible from a moral or intellectual standpoint” and, while stating “We believe passionately in freedom of speech at Little, Brown and we have always published authors with controversial or challenging perspectives – and we will continue to do so”, quietly paid off her advance in full, thereby allowing Burchill and her agent Matthew Hamilton to sell the book elsewhere. We can therefore expect it to appear in some form later this year, and no doubt it will be every bit as provocative and headline-grabbing as the erstwhile Queen of the Groucho Club’s other writing. A gleeful and decidedly unrepentant Burchill commemorated her “victory” in verse:

Ash, O Ash. I’m not being flash
Just got my advance – thus behave rather rash
I know I’m not Woke

And that you’re not a bloke
But for you in your finery
I’d go quite non-binary.

I mourn the continued absence of great satirical novels in the style of Waugh and Amis

And, of course, we are about to be swamped with a deluge of books about the Covid-19 pandemic and its scientific, social and political associations, as well as no doubt endless novels about fictionalised versions of deadly viruses sweeping the world. I am very much hoping that a leading political writer like Tim Shipman or the young pretenders, Left Out authors Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, will be turning their considerable talents to dealing with the events of 2020 and illuminating how the pandemic caused chaos in a Downing Street operation that was solely designed to facilitate Brexit, rather than dealing with the most terrifying natural outbreak in a century. But we shall also see whether the public are sick of hearing about it all, or if our appetite for being terrified extends to thick hardback books, rather than the wall-to-wall news coverage that we are currently being subjected to.

There will, of course, be other, less frightening books to look forward to, including some exciting fiction. The great Mick Herron, for my money the finest writer of contemporary spy novels, is returning with his latest novel in the Jackson Lamb series, simply titled Slough House, which promises to be another hugely entertaining blend of erudition, black comedy and edge-of-seat suspense, all topped off with the Falstaffian creation that is the flatulent, drunken and brilliant spymaster Lamb. Admirers of the excellent Anthony Quinn and his books, which skilfully dramatize various real-life characters and events from 20th century Britain, will very much enjoy his fine latest novel London, Burning, which deals with the impact of the IRA bombing campaign in late 70s London and features various figures including a thinly fictionalised Peter Hall. And another master of historical fiction, Sebastian Faulks, returns with Snow Country in the autumn. Early word suggests that it is a spiritual sequel of sorts to his much-loved 2005 novel Human Traces.

As for non-fiction, there are plenty of treats. I’m excited about Paula Byrne’s biography of one of Britain’s perennially underrated novelists, The Adventures of Barbara Pym, and I hope that it will, among other things, shed light on her friendship with Philip Larkin. Talking of Larkin, I’m equally excited about John Sutherland’s life of his partner, Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves, which should finally address the oft-debated question about how much he owed to her influence and presence in her life. And although he is also publishing a “cosy crime” novel this year, the pop star-turned-vicar and broadcaster Richard Coles has written a memoir about the loss of his husband David, The Madness of Grief. Given Coles’ public persona as someone who can talk about faith and spirituality and sound both convincing and warm, it promises to be one of the most affecting books about loss since CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed.

We are all going to have a great deal of time to ourselves to be able to contemplate new books

There will, undoubtedly, be other books that appear over the next twelve months that scintillate, surprise, distract and amuse, just as there will be dreadful overhyped books that sell in their droves (and, more satisfyingly, sink without trace). We can expect massive hits from big names, like Richard Osman’s 2020 mega-bestseller The Thursday Murder Club, and some unexpected successes from debut writers. Personally, I mourn the continued absence of great satirical novels in the style of Waugh and Amis, a genre that seems to be out of fashion, but we can hope that the new Edward St Aubyn novel, Double Blind, has some of the bite and vigour of his Patrick Melrose series, rather than the limp in-jokiness of his Booker Prize comedy Lost for Words.

In any event, there is a great deal to look forward to this year, and hopefully not that much to dread. One thing is for certain. Even with bookshops closed, the seemingly endless lockdown that stretches in front of us means that we are all going to have a great deal of time to ourselves to be able to contemplate new books, whether they are good, bad or indifferent. Happy reading.

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