BOOKS / No Time Like The Present: The best of tomes, the worst of tomes? This year's books tell a contradictory story about the state of publishing

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NOT A great year, 1892: no new Hardy or Gissing or Henry James, no new Wilde or Ibsen on the stage; an exhibition of Munch paintings closed down in Berlin; the deaths of Tennyson and Whitman. Three poems published that year catch the prevailing gloom, the morbidity and inwardness and recession: Arthur Symons's absinthe-drinker waves away the visible world, 'lost in a dance of forgetfulness'; the young Yeats in 'The Sorrow Of Love' hears 'earth's old and weary cry'. Kipling's gentlemen-rankers declare themselves lost and damned: 'We are done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth / We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung.'

Plus ca change. No new fiction in 1992 from Roth or Updike or Martin Amis, no new Stoppard or Caryl Churchill (and only a semi-skinned Pinter) on the stage; a row over a Jeff Koons exhibition and the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe; the death of Angela Carter. And the mood? Decadent, languid, lost to love and truth? Fin-de-siecle epithets don't fit the world at large, where so much has happened that the planet can seem to be falling apart; but they do fit the little world of books, which has been falling apart for the opposite reason, because so little is happening, or little new.

Take fiction (if only people would). The Booker Prize was this year shared between Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, a decision which the jury defended on the grounds that neither book deserved to lose, and one rudely received as meaning that neither deserved to win. Ondaatje's is at worst a mannered and rhapsodically 'poetic' novel, redeemed by some gripping accounts of bomb disposal and desert exploration; Unsworth's spills over with seafarese - 'they languished under full sail until a fuming Thurso ordered the yawl hoisted out to tow athwart the tide', etc - but is baled out by its intimate knowledge of the slave trade. The less fictional these fictions are, the better - which may not be to condemn them as imaginative works, but to concede that the appetite for fiction is not as it was. Recessions are supposed to make us escapist, but when public life is a fantasy (Di, Madonna, David Mellor), who needs novels?

Certainly, compared even to a decade ago, the appetite for fictive fiction seems to have gone. Even a subject such as obsession is one which may be better handled in non-fiction, as Nick Hornby showed in his terrific Fever Pitch, the testimony of an Arsenal fan. In 1983 the Book Marketing Council ran a famous promotional campaign, the Best of Young British Novelists: Amis, Barnes, Ishiguro, McEwan, Rushdie, Swift and Tremain were there. Next year, the magazine Granta promises a similar list. It isn't hard to think of half a dozen names: Jeanette Winterson (whose sense of her own genius remains undimmed by bad reviews), Michael Bracewell, Candia McWilliam, Lesley Glaister, perhaps even that man Ishiguro (still under 40) again. But 20 of them?

It may not be for lack of talent, but that the ground for encouraging young writers is less fertile than it was in the age of Thatcherism: the outlets are fewer, the advances poorer, the costs to the reader ( pounds 13.99 for the average hardback novel) prohibitive. One quiet success has been the arrival of several paperback original fiction lists - Secker, Hamish Hamilton, Chatto - to add to those of Serpent's Tail, Women's Press and other small outfits (and to be joined by W H Smith next year). Where hardbacks by first novelists can sell as few as a couple of hundred copies, some of these paperbacks have sold in thousands. The Whitbread First Novel prize went to one of them, Jeff Torrington's Swing Hammer Swing]

The chairman of this year's Booker Prize panel was Victoria Glendinning, whose life of Trollope looks to be the biography of 1992, and whose methods and approach may explain why biography is in the ascendancy. On page 316 of her book she describes a scene in which Trollope's wife learns of his infatuation with another woman and has 'her ample say about it in the privacy of the bedroom, in her deflationary north-country way'; by way of a footnote, Glendinning adds: 'I cannot prove that he told her, nor that she reacted as I say, but I am sure of it. The reader is free to disagree.' The footnote is unscholarly, but beguiling: it's enough for Glendinning that the scene could have happened like that. Glendinning, Ackroyd, Richard Holmes, Claire Tomalin and Hilary Spurling tread an artful line between telling the truth and making it up. As narrators, they have the edge on many novelists.

For episodes of narrative excitement, no biography of 1992 could compete with Ian McEwan's Black Dogs and P D James's The Children Of Men, nor with Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (which discreetly but triumphantly came out in paperback while its author unhappily heads towards a fifth year of confinement). But biography can offer other excitements, not least salacious ones, as Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Benjamin Britten did. Ben Pimlott's life of Harold Wilson was the political biography of the year, and the letters of the year, and probably the decade, were those of Philip Larkin, who in 1977 told a friend he was writing a poem on the Queen's Silver Jubilee: 'After Healey's trading figures / After Wilson's squalid crew, / After the rising tide of niggers - / What a treat to look at you.' Snippets such as that led to a row about Larkin's racism, and prompted one professor of English, Lisa Jardine, to suggest that his poetry should not be taught to students, on the grounds that it is incompatible with a multi-cultural society (which is precisely the reason it should be taught, of course).

Larkin's letters sold sufficiently well to make the bestseller lists, as the poet Wendy Cope also did with her second collection, Serious Concerns and as Thom Gunn deserved to with The Man With Night Sweats (winner of a splendid new award, the pounds 10,000 Forward Poetry Prize). Reaching the bestseller lists, as bookshop owners ruefully admit, doesn't necessarily mean selling a lot of copies these days. But then booksellers, like farmers, only ever have bad years, and 1992 seems to have been slightly less depressing for them than was 1991. Waterstone's even opened four new branches.

The year would have been considerably worse for bookshops but for a Princess and a Madonna. Andrew Morton's Diana: Her Own Story achieved what perhaps no other book in history can claim: it helped end a royal marriage. (More significantly, Phillip Hall's book on the royal family and tax helped end regal immunity to the Inland Revenue.) But the main publishing event of 1992 wasn't Di vying for divorce, but Madonna unveiling her Sex. Main event? Well, it was the only book to sell out the day it arrived in the shops ('Sex? Nice if you can get it'), and it was also the Ninetiest, the one which most deserved the epithet decadent, not because it was hardbody porn, but for the hype surrounding it - the closed conditions in which reviewers had to read it, the gushingness of the text and the masque of erotic try-ons which concealed rather than disclosed the 'real' Madonna.

While the Observer relaunched its colour magazine with Sex, the Sunday Times tried to clean up Grub Street by introducing a code of ethics prohibiting insider-dealing in the reviewing business. This followed a blatant offence in its own pages, when a chief reviewer, John Mortimer, gave a highly favourable notice to a novel by the then Sunday Times columnist Robert Harris. Others complained of an opposite problem: the emergence of a generation of thuggish twentysomething reviewers making a name for themselves not by backscratching, but by backstabbing. Iconoclasm is preferable to sycophancy, though; the main hissing came from deflated reputations.

Among this year's changes in publishing were the creation of a major new company, Orion; the absorption of one of the last great independents, Victor Gollancz, by Cassell, and of a comparative upstart, Sinclair-Stevenson, by Reed International; and the introduction of several cheap classics lists. There were few large advances for original work (Vikram Seth's pounds 250,000 from Orion was the exception), though sequels were another matter. Susan Hill reportedly received a pounds 1 million advance to cap Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca; and Alexander Mollim will no doubt be well-rewarded for Lara's Child, his sequel to Dr Zhivago.

Next year's spring lists look thinnish. Still, there are new novels by John Updike, Brian Moore, Philip Roth, Adam Mars-Jones (his first) and Roddy Doyle; a rediscovered Joyce manuscript; Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne du Maurier, Andrew Motion's Larkin, Edmund White's Genet and Jenny Uglow's Elizabeth Gaskell; and good-looking non-fiction from Joan Didion and Christopher Hill. It could be worse. It will be. Happy new year.