2015 saw the best of times and the worst of times for the books industry. An annus mirabilis and annus horribilis combo. Especially here in Australia. While we were blessed with fine new novels from some of our greatest writers, Geraldine Brooks and Gail Jones amongst them, we also witnessed the death of Colleen McCullough at the age of 77, the Book Council of Australia debacle and the announcement of the removal of parallel import restrictions on books.
Locally, this year’s WA Premier’s Book Awards was cancelled — it is now a biennial award — and writing organisations such as writingWA and The Literature Centre lost their DCA funding. But the 2015 Perth Writers Festival was one of the most successful ever, featuring a lineup including Elizabeth Gilbert and DBC Pierre. Peter Cowan Writers Centre celebrated its 20th anniversary; Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre its 30th. Northbridge’s Centre for Stories opened its doors, while UWA Publishing turned 80 (incidentally, Fremantle Press turns 40 next year).
And the local bricks-and-mortar bookstore scene continued to thrive, despite Dymocks Hay Street store closing down briefly after its long-term franchisee decided to call it quits. Boffins Bookshop moved to William Street and expanded into fiction and children’s books. New Edition in Fremantle and Northbridge’s Northside Books also moved and prospered. New bookstore Diabolik Books & Records is now a funky and much-needed complement to Mt Hawthorn’s spirituality-oriented Bodhi Tree bookshop and cafe.
But arguably the two biggest events in international publishing this year were David Lagercrantz’s follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl in the Spider’s Web; and Harper Lee’s “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman.
While not set to match the astronomical sales of the original Millenium Trilogy (80 million copies worldwide), Lagercrantz’s reboot novel proved popular with fans and was on the whole critically well-received — not least because it marked the return of one of recent literature’s most intriguing heroines, Lisbeth Salander.
“Every century a couple of characters are created that really live — and Lisbeth Salander is one of them, ” Lagerkrantz told The West in an interview. “She was such a brilliant invention of Stieg Larsson — and not only Lisbeth but Mikael Blomkvist, the passionate reporter who I could easily identify with and who, in one way, is Lisbeth’s Dr Watson.”
Speaking of reboots, 2015 also found Anthony Horowitz penning the latest Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, and, kicking off a new series of “reinvented” Shakespeare plays for next year’s Shakespeare 400 celebrations, Jeanett Winterson tackling The Winter’s Tale.
But nothing could compete with the controversy and media frenzy surrounding Harper Lee’s “lost sequel” to her 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning, Bible-outselling classic To Kill a Mockingbird, the most anticipated follow-up of any in recent publishing history.
Now 89, the famously reclusive Lee actually completed Go Set A Watchman in 1957 — before writing her until-now only published novel To Kill a Mockingbird. But her agent, Maurice Crain, convinced Lee to revise it, shifting the focus from Scout, Jem and Atticus to the latter alone. Lee duly produced a new version, Atticus. Crain and his wife Annie Laurie Williams then suggested another rewrite, this time from the six-year-old Scout’s point of view. The rest is history. Almost.
In February news broke, a mere two months after Alice, a lawyer and Lee’s sister and primary caregiver, died, that Go Set a Watchman would be published. Lee’s fragile health and her being adamant for decades that she would never publish another novel immediately raised suspicions of coercion on the part of various parties with an obvious interest in seeing another Lee novel through the press. These suspicions have since proved unfounded, and Lee has issued a statement through her lawyer saying “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman”.
Of course, it’s not as though the rest of the books published in this 125th anniversary year of Agatha Christie’s birth, this year in which much-loved British fantasy author Terry Pratchett died at age of 66, were merely insects buzzing around the two legs of some literary Collosus.
Locally, there were novels such as Stephen Daisley’s haunting Coming Rain, non-fiction titles such as Liz Byrski’s landmark In Love and War: Nursing Heroes, short story collections such as Susan Midalia’s lapidary Feet to the Stars and poetry collections such as Lucy Dougan’s extraordinary Guardians.
Nationally there were the aforementioned novels by Brooks and Jones, as well as “eco-novels” like James Bradley’s Clade and Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us and Text’s welcome reissuing of a number of Randolph Stow titles. Sophie Laguna won the Miles Franklin for her 2014 novel, The Eye of the Sheep, while Fremantle author Joan London won the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards fiction category for her 2014 novel, The Golden Age. On a personal level, it was with some pleasure that I welcomed back Barry Maitland’s fictional detective Harry Belltree for the second in the Belltree Trilogy, Ash Island; I also enjoyed Magda Szubanski’s brilliant memoir, Reckoning and am currently enjoying Martin Harrison’s beautiful posthumous collection of poetry, Happiness (UWA Publishing)
Internationally, this year’s Man Book prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James caused a sensation, as did the shortlisted A Little Life by Hanya Yanahigara – and this in a year which saw new novels from Ishiguro Kazuo (The Buried Giant), Isabel Allende (The Japanese Lover), Milan Kundera (The Festival of Insignificance), Jonathan Franzen (Purity) and Louis de Bernieres (The Dust that Falls from Dreams).
In 2015 other books in translation continued to prove popular, such as those by Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgard and Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai, whose Man Booker International Prize-winning Seiobo There Below is easily my book of the year. However it was left to rock stars to provide us with experiences both sublime and the ridiculous: witness Patti Smith’s surpassingly brilliant memoir M Train and Morrissey’s debut novel The List of the Lost, a lurid passage of which earned him this year’s Bad Sex award.