Literary trends: Looking back at the year that was a page-turner

The year buzzed. With a brand new alternative Nobel, brilliant graphic books and translations, sci-fi swept away by women, and much more. The sort of year that could be called a page-turner

Updated - December 23, 2018 12:25 am IST

Published - December 22, 2018 04:00 pm IST

If the Oscar awards are seen as some sort of pulse of pop culture, there were enough portents this year. The best film had a tortured fish-god for a hero and a mute, unglamorous woman with odd sexual preferences for a heroine. The best actress award went to the role of a middle-aged, working class mother given to wild fits of rage. And literature followed suit. It celebrated the misfit, the other, the non-mainstream.

For one, the scandal-tainted Nobel Prize for literature was cancelled and replaced by the New Academy prize, which sought to honour “humans in the world,” a distinctly different pitch from the Nobel, which awards “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

The humans breaking the mould during the year were women authors, coloured authors, graphic novelists, genre-writers, translators, and scriptwriters who made successful web series of books. Even that most status-quoist award, the Man Booker, went to Irish author Anna Burns, the heroine of whose largely unpunctuated novel is distinguished by her habit of reading while walking. Books such the hugely popular Normal People , Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or, closer home, All the Lives We Never LivedandLatitudes of Longing foregrounded strong women fighting personal demons and resisting easier happily-ever-afters.

Are all of these just blips in the grand march of history? Or dare we hope that they are changes that are here to stay. We would like to believe the latter.

Here are the five strongest trends we noticed in the literary universe in 2018. And here’s hoping they foretell the beginnings of a more inclusive, daring and exciting way of engaging with the written word.

What alternative?

When the New Academy prize in literature was announced as an alternative to the Nobel, expectations went up several notches. Was a truly democratic award, as opposed to the ‘elitist’ Nobel, about to be born?

As it turned out, the shortlist was not startling, with each of the four writers an established, networked author. The small publisher, the unknown writer, the authors without major agents were again missing. In fact, the 2017 Nobel was perhaps more ‘alternative’ in its choice of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.

Not that the award laid claim to great goals, modestly stating that the idea was “to warrant that an international literary prize will be awarded in 2018”.

The literary world is a closed one, with money and power concentrated in a few hands. The ‘alternate’ writer can write her heart out, but will still need the Great White Publisher to be ‘discovered’.

But we live in hope. That the New Academy prize or another similar prize will upset the applecart one of these days.

Graphic reality

When Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina was shortlisted for the Booker this year, the first graphic novel to make it to the list, readers, expecially those from the ranks of the millennials, cheered.

But the shortlisting was just official recognition of a trend that’s been gaining ground rapidly in recent years. The graphic novel format is the hot favourite of new-age readers craving instant gratification, being somewhat akin to video games in the immersiveness it offers.

India has its share of excellent works in the genre, with writers like Appupen, Sarnath Banerjee, Orijit Sen, Malik Sajad, Amruta Patil and more. Earlier this year, a unique collection titled Longform Volume 1 was released, edited by Sarbajit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Pinaki De and Sekhar Mukherjee, featuring 30 global writers.

The genre is seen as subversive, where not just form, but social and cultural status quo is questioned and re-interpreted; thus lending itself well to political commentary. It’s reasonably certain that the graphic novel is the book of the future.

The X- actor in sci-fi

If you still think dead white males à la Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells when you think science fiction, then it’s time you updated your reading list.

The humans breaking the mould during the year were women authors, coloured authors, graphic novelists, genre-writers, translators, and scriptwriters who made successful web series of books.

The humans breaking the mould during the year were women authors, coloured authors, graphic novelists, genre-writers, translators, and scriptwriters who made successful web series of books.

Women sci-fi writers have been broadening the genre’s scope since the 60s and 70s, when legends like Ursula le Guin landed on the scene to give a whole new meaning to the sci-fi genre, which is now better known as speculative fiction.

And it’s not just Margaret Atwood who is trending, whether on bestselling lists or on Hulu. African-American N.K. Jemisin pulled a hat-trick when she won the Hugo Award, science fiction’s Booker, for the third year in a row this time.

The Hugo Award has been embroiled in controversy — a group of privileged male sci-fi readers have been complaining that too many women authors and authors of colour have been winning it — but this year’s selection put a cork on their clamour. Given the way speculative fiction works — by defamiliarising reality so that insidious practices are revealed for what they are — it is understandable why women excel at it.

Found in Translation

If the Trumps of the world are intent on putting up walls, the translators of the world are diligently pulling them down. Earlier this year, the winner of the Man Booker International, Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, shared the stage and the prize money with translator Jennifer Croft, sending out a subtle but significant message: From being unappreciated, poorly-paid writers, with names in smaller font below the original authors, translators are now in the spotlight.

In India, the tide turned when the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature this year went to Malayalam author Benyamin and to his translator, Shahnaz Habib.

Translations are the way into a people’s heart. They are the real stories, the histories, of being and belonging. And it is the translator who retrieves and shares them with the world. Slowly, the Anglophile literary world is beginning to see this.

Things might not change overnight, but it’s a great new beginning to see the translator up there on the stage with the writers. Here’s to the future.

From Pages to Screens

In July this year, when Sacred Games made its debut on Netflix, no coffee or dinner table discussion went by without stormy debates on Sartaj Singh’s or Ganesh Gaitonde’s possible next moves. Some quickly read up Vikram Chandra’s novel to be a step ahead of the next episode, inspiring a spurt in sales of the book.

'Alpharetta, GA, USA - September 29, 2012 -'s Kindle fire with Netflix's streamable movie page loaded on the tablet.'

"Alpharetta, GA, USA - September 29, 2012 -'s Kindle fire with Netflix's streamable movie page loaded on the tablet."

How much online is looking to mainstream writing comes through from the fact that Mumbai Film Festival, for instance, has an author’s corner, where writers interact with producers and directors. And pitch their books for adaptation.

If content continues to be king, web series might well end up shaping the way literature is conceptualised and created in the future.

In one way, this means that storylines can get more quirky and subversive, breaking the traditional social, political and gender barriers, and opening up new platforms and audiences for trad writers.

But we can also ask how literature itself might change when the clamour for content becomes the loudest noise in the room.

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