From Cromwell to Coupland: A thrilling year of literary launches

The Independent on Sunday's literary editor, Katy Guest, takes a look back at a year of surprisingly fancy book launches, international incidents, hip-hop Hamlets, schlockbusters, flopbusters and outsize blockbusters
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A year that was supposed to mark the start of austerity book launches, as the publishing industry shivered out the recession, was, happily, book-ended by two of the more memorable launches for some time. In January, at Twickenham, Mills & Boon celebrated its new series of "Rugby Romances" with champagne, long-stemmed roses and waiters in bow ties, teeny tiny rugby shorts and, um, nothing else; while December kicked off at the higher-brow end of the market, with the launch of Sir Frank Kermode's Concerning EM Forster at the jaw-dropping apartment on Chelsea Embankment belonging to his publisher, Lord Weidenfeld. Guests ate potato latkes and admired the Klimt etchings in the hallway. Our hosts, who both turned 90 this year, know a thing or two about throwing a party.

As does Her Majesty, who kindly loaned the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace for the launch of William Shawcross's official biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. "I am not so nice as I seem," the Queen Mother apparently used to insist. If she had a mean side, the smitten author was clearly at pains not to notice it.

Three other launches that stick in the memory all took place in a fleeting summer heatwave: the publishing, reviewing and bookselling worlds combined and tried their best to act the part for Hephzibah Anderson's Chastity at Daunt Books; a champagne bottle spontaneously exploded at the eerily Couplandesque party for Generation A; and Glen David Gold promised to make good on his promise to dress up in a French maid's outfit and serve tea to everyone at his publisher, Sceptre, in return for missing his deadline for Sunnyside. (As the year ends, I'm told, he's still to get his feather duster out.) His fans had waited 10 years for his first novel since Carter Beats the Devil; let's hope for everyone's sake that he's quicker finishing his next.

If austerity was in the air in the British publishing industry, it wasn't – yet – when "the first true literature festival in the Middle East" opened in Dubai in February. The festival was seemingly marred by Geraldine Bedell-gate, the author claiming that her novel The Gulf Between Us had been banned because it involved a gay relationship. But it turned out that the festival merely hadn't invited her. Freedom of speech became a theme of the festival, but some of the best chat happened in the evenings on the terrace, as small knots of international writers sat out the light sandstorms and swapped stories over white wine and sweet Turkish coffee. The Saudi writer Rajaa al-Sanea was particularly tickled by Kate Adie's anecdotes about the Queen.

Back in Britain, literature festivals have become, if not exactly the new football matches, then at least a fast-growing trend. There have been more than 100 this year, and apparently not all were rain-sodden.

But now, more exclusive bookish pastimes are in order. Shoreditch House's Literary Salon, which has just celebrated its first anniversary, is the elegant space where book launch meets literary festival meets a particularly sophisticated book club. It started in a small room in the otherwise private members' club and starred Jenny Colgan and, well, me; the next salon in January has Louis de Bernières and, thanks to sponsorship by Hendrick's, free gin. And in a rather decadent sideline, the Reading Weekend at Tilton House in Sussex ( includes bibliotherapy from a School of Life expert, bedtime stories, salon suppers with some starry writers, and Virginia Woolf walks (that don't end in suicide).

Another mildly subversive literary event that would surely thrill its namesake has been Hip Hop Shakespeare, run by the hip-hop star Akala, who is also little-known as a baker of ludicrously good vegan cakes. Run in association with BBC Blast, the events ( ask the question, "If Shakespeare were alive, would he be a rapper?" After an hour of madly compelling wordplay, audiences might be inclined to answer in the affirmative.

While the beauty of such a small-scale success story is its merciful lack of hype, other literary events prefer to turn up the PR volume. The launch of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol in September saw the publishing industry draw itself up to its full height and bellow. Booksellers reported a surge in the sales of other books, too, which is something of a comfort. Meanwhile, the launch of Vladimir Nabokov's last, unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, was a triumph of spinning the positives. Penguin's edition was immaculately produced, on thick, cream paper with removable index cards on which was printed a fascinating image of the great author's dense handwriting and neat crossings out. It almost detracted from the fact that the book – which Nabokov asked his family to destroy – is just not very good.

The Big Books of the year were mostly, as it happens, big books. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, at 672 pages, was a Booker winner that also found favour with readers, reviewers, and almost every pre-Christmas round-up. The story of Thomas Cromwell's rise (his fall is destined for Mantel's follow-up, which she is working on now) was gripping from start to end, despite containing an almost overwhelming number of characters, most of whom seemed to be called Thomas. In ascending order of hugeness, the biggest books of the year were Stephen King's Under the Dome at 896 pages, Roberto Bolano's 2666 at 912 and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones at a whopping 992, which gave him enough room to include the scenes that netted the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Some other awards to hand out, briefly. The award for the cleverest title goes to the popular science writer Marcus Chown for We Need to Talk About Kelvin – the content also doesn't disappoint. The All Publicity is Good Publicity Prize goes to Julie Myerson for her family memoir, The Lost Child, which sold more than any of her other books but temporarily made her persona non grata in Literary London and her own home. The Betamax Award for the technology that only makes life harder should go to e-book readers, which also win the More Money Than Sense gong for their sheer, unwieldy pointlessness. And there was something of a Lifetime Achievement for Magnus Mills, the bus driver-turned-literary wunderkind-turned bus driver again, who wrote his first novel about buses this year, 11 years after he made his literary name with The Restraint of Beasts.

Finally, congratulations to the first female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and let's raise a glass to the late John Updike and Harold Pinter, among those we have sadly lost. And here's to the next 100 years of the Poetry Society, which has been celebrating its centenary all year with spoken-word performances, hip-hop and grime, as well as more traditional forms. I wish I could be around to see what they're up to in 2109.

The Alternative Awards: 2009's big winners

The Hug a Hoodie Award for Youth Engagement goes to the Orange Prize, whose erudite and thoughtful youth judging panel this year engaged many adults. And all without any squabbling.

The You Can't Judge a Book By its Cover award: thanks to its gold-and-pink jacket and a press marketing push that saw literary editors sent lip gloss and Clinique moisturiser to alert them to [gasp] a book, you'd be forgiven for not noticing that Marian Keyes' The Brightest Star in the Sky is actually really rather good.

Two literary elder stateswomen competed valiantly for the Apocalyptic Futurology prize, but Margaret Atwood and Fay Weldon, with The Year of the Flood and Chalcot Crescent respectively, were just beaten out by Douglas Coupland's creepy tale of a world without bees, Generation A.

A three-way tie for the Best Sequel by Another Author prize: Dave Eggers, Eoin Colfer and David Benedictus all fought nobly, but The Wild Things, And Another Thing and Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, respectively, cannot be separated.

The Riding on Someone Else's Coat-Tails award goes to Bonnie Greer, for Obama Music, after a hard-fought battle against a dozen or so "The Michael Jackson I Knew" biographies. While undeniably a scholarly and entertaining musical memoir, Greer's book nonetheless has little to do with the President, really.

And finally, two very different debutants share the Most Impressive Debut award. The Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley's Talk of the Town lived up to its name, while the 36-year-old Brooklynite Wells Tower dazzled with the short-story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. KG