Arts: The World of Literature - Too many auld acquaintances, not enough new

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The new millennium will open with the faces of British readers and publishers turned firmly backwards, towards the glories of the past. For 1999 closed in an overwhelming wave of recycled old favourites. Book- buyers and marketeers, it appears, have decided to follow Hilaire Belloc's advice from the start of the 20th century. They always keep hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse.

Nanny-in-chief, of course, is the invincible Delia Smith. The second of her How to Cook volumes sold more than 200,000 copies in the fortnight before Christmas alone. Not far behind, if a little unsteadier on her feet, came Bridget Jones. Her second outing in the company of Helen Fielding, The Edge Of Reason, quickly eclipsed its rival in the sequel stakes: Sue Townsend's excursion with Adrian Mole into the land of New Labour, The Cappuccino Years.

Meanwhile, the third Harry Potter adventure, The Prisoner Of Azbakan, sold almost as many hardback copies as the two earlier volumes did in paperback. JK Rowling threatens to monopolise children's reading in the next decade to a Blyton-like degree.

This year of celebrity-retreads had begun with the return of Dr Lecter in Thomas Harris's Hanibal. And publishers went on cannibalising their own past triumphs. They showed a high spending disregard for innovation that may leave them looking very foolish when the trusted formulas run out of steam.

To some extent, all that has happened is that the book world has learned lessons from other branches of showbiz. It now knows how to market high- value properties and characters so as to forge a widely known, long-lasting brand. So publishers have more in common than ever with an outfit such as Disney - whose former boss Michael Lynton has, suitably enough, made an excellent job of running Penguin. For the first time, authors and editors can truly say that they work in a Mickey Mouse industry.

Sadly, successful writers who deviate from their own recipe can find themselves punished for originality. This year, Dava Sobel finally followed up Longitude with a more ambitious and better written book: Galileo's Daughter. It did nothing like as well as her debut. Yet the Longitude factory grinds on regardless, with a TV adaptation being screened this Sunday.

The Sobel tradition - of the gripping monograph on an unlikely historical theme - proved that it still has legs. Anna Pavord's history of the tulip delighted readers and prompted experts to find parallels between the economic booms of the 1630s and the 1990s. But another high-energy study of the same era yielded lower returns than expected. Simon Schama's long-awaited biography Rembrandt's Eyes saw the brilliant historian come under fierce attack from specialist scholars of Dutch art and society.

In fact, biography ended the decade on a fairly muted note. It must say something about the health of the form that the most widely praised example turned out to be Francis Wheen's Karl Marx: not a significant reinterpretation, but an amiable canter through the life and work by a fashionable journalist. Elsewhere, Andrew Roberts's Salisbury: Victorian Titan impressively brought a 19th- century legend back to life; DJ Taylor's Thackeray did the same for Dickens's great rival. Meanwhile, Roy Hattersley amazed critics with his diligence in producing a serious life of the Salvation Army's founding couple, Blood and Fire. And the century ended with an authoritative biography of one of the political monsters who did so much to shape it: Philip Short's Mao.

Fiction, despite the usual cries of doom, made a strong and encouraging showing. Gunter Grass picked up his long-overdue Nobel prize. And, as a Booker judge in 1999, of course I believe that JM Coetzee's Disgrace deserved the prize. More to the point, critics from all points on the literary spectrum agreed in acclaiming this first, bleak masterpiece from the new South Africa. Also on the Booker shortlist, Michael Frayn's Headlong confirmed the extraordinary late harvest of his sixtysomething years. Andrew O'Hagan's lyrical tragedy of Scottish socialism, Our Fathers, put him at the head of a healthy bunch of British and Irish newcomers. Antonio Logue, Tim Lott, Daren King and David Mitchell all published first novels that marked them as names to watch closely.

The senior ranks also showed their quality: Salman Rushdie, Rose Tremain, Vikram Seth, Roddy Doyle, Jim Crace, Barry Unsworth, Melvyn Bragg, Timothy Mo and Howard Jacobson all produced work pretty close to their best.

With literary novels, the British disease has ceased to be a failure of general merit. Rather, the acute problem now is to ensure that good books stay visible for long enough to reach their potential readers. Bookshops grow ever grander and glitzier (a trend crowned in 1999 by Waterstone's takeover of the Simpson's building in Piccadilly). Yet the stock on their front tables looks more and more predictable. Perhaps discounted online sales from the likes of Amazon and Bol now offer the best hope for book- lovers with tastes that range beyond the mainstream. Already, online trade accounts for 5 per cent of the retail book business; projections indicate that this will rise to 17 per cent in the next five years.

Still, the reign of the high-concept brand still left space for some truly great figures to win their share of praise - and popularity. The late Ted Hughes, whose Birthday Letters won the Whitbread Award, continued to dominate the poetry world in all his stupendous posthumous vigour. His translations of Alcestis and The Oresteia completed the rich haul of his final years' work.

Among the living, Seamus Heaney firmly took possession of Beowulf - his sinewy version delivered the Old English epic to modern readers with an authority that may never be bettered. Jo Shapcott, winner of the Forward Prize, proved her strength in depth with a collected poems. And Carol Ann Duffy bounced back from her disappointment over the laureateship with the scintillating monologues of The World's Wife.

So which literary dogs failed to bark this year? On the whole, popular science had a comparatively lean time. Many of the strongest titles were devoted to eloquent synopses rather than forays into new territory: Matt Ridley's Genome, for instance, or Steve Jones's update of Darwin, Almost like a Whale. And political ideas still languish, caught rabbit- like in the headlamp-glare of New Labour's hegemony.

In the absence of ideas, however, we had some enjoyably comic and rueful stories from John Major's much-loved autobiography. On his promotional travels, the former PM also came up with the finest literary put-down of the year - or, indeed, of the decade. Mr Major was informed that the rival memoirs of his bugbear, Norman Lamont, had sold a grand total of 619 copies. "That many?" he replied. Eat your heart out, Dorothy Parker.