There's something inescapably retro about the book trade. But then what do you expect from an industry in which the pastiche Victorian novel is still red-hot, the Knights Templar are big news and the biggest success of the last decade was a series about a boarding school?
As persuasive visions of the future go, you still can't beat Russell Hoban's post-Apocalyptic Riddley Walker, and that came out in 1980. Like Hoban, I tend to be suspicious of any future predicated on the continuing stability of domestic light, heat and social structures, but here are a few glimpses of what the future holds for keen readers.
The misery memoir is dying a well-deserved and ignominious death; the happy memoir (Where did it all go right?) never took off. The "extremes of self-abasement" memoir was fun for a while, but the experiences of James Frey highlighted the instability of that genre. Now there's a new climate of honesty, with the faux-modest memoir seguing into the genuinely modest: see Susie Boyt's charming My Judy Garland Life (Little, Brown) and Cosmo Landesman's Star Struck (Macmillan, October), about leaping from a Bohemian upbringing into the arms of, gulp!, Julie Burchill. Next year, Simon & Schuster will be publishing David Carr's The Night of the Gun, Frey-like in its exploration of the author's crack-addicted downfall, survival and rise, but the angle is that Carr, a journalist, turns his own investigative skills on his life story, ending up questioning the nature of memory and identity itself. "The this-is-me, this-is-who-I-am story is a myth in the classic sense, a tale with personal gods and touchstones. It becomes more and more sacred as it is told. And perhaps less and less truthful." Carr's self-interrogation takes the memoir a step further.
Publishing books about global warming seems as paradoxical as taking a private jet to Caracas to attend a climate-change conference, but books such as Thomas L Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the world needs a green revolution – and how we can renew our global future (Allen Lane) will continue to hector us. Taking a leaf from Robert Macfarlane's almost mystical The Wild Places are the elegies to our natural heritage. The trend that started with trees (Deakin's Wildwood, Mabey's Beechcombings, etc) moved on to birds. Following Mark Cocker's Crow Country (Vintage) is Esther Woolfson's Corvus: A life with birds (Granta), while Joseph Smith's The Wolf (Cape) is a novel told in the voice of a starving wolf. There will be many more such titles, as we bid a sad farewell to nature as we've known it.
Long live the experimental novel. Faber wunderkind Richard Milward (only 23) was shortlisted for the Bad Sex Prize with his quirky debut Apples, a zestful tale about working-class Northern teenagers. His follow up, Ten Storey Love Song, named after a Stone Roses track, comprises a single paragraph, 70,000 words in length, and follows the adventures of a druggy young Middlesbrough artist. Christopher Meade's multimedia novella, In Search of Lost Tim, meanwhile, uses fictitious blogs (hosted at www.insearchoflosttim.net) and YouTube videos to tell the story of a blogger who is contacted by a boy who claims he lives in the 1960s and is communicating via his "Futurizer"). Young Tim is trying to contact his future self, the political activist and secret agent Lord Tim. It's a jeux d'esprit, but also, just possibly, the future of fiction.
And the next big children's book is... about a bunch of kids in a boarding school! Andy Mulligan's Ribblestrop (Simon & Schuster, April 2009) is a hilarious and morally questionable tale about a disastrous school whose pupils can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The building was falling down even before a disaffected pupil set fire to it. Health and safety is non-existent, rebuilding and DIY forms a major part of the curriculum, and a donkey sanctuary occupies the playing fields. The book's hapless hero, Sam, is concussed, scalded and stripped of most of his clothes in the very first chapter. Ribblestrop has the "crazy school" appeal of Hogwarts and the grim humour of Lemony Snicket, and looks like a winner.
In October, David Walliams makes his debut as a children's author with The Boy in the Dress, illustrated by Quentin Blake. Dennis is a troubled lad, and the only thing that seems to help is dressing up in silky stuff with the help of an older girl. There isn't a trace of Little Britain's cruel humour in this gentle, funny tale, which pushes the children's novel into new territories.
Why hasn't poetry, with its punchiness and concision, benefited from our cultural impatience and shortening attention span? If we're all going to be reading on our mobile phones in future, perhaps there'll be more texts like Adam Foulds's novel in verse, The Broken Word (Cape). It breaks with traditional poetic content in its portrayal of the Mau Mau uprising and was deemed a brilliant success; as was last year's Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow (Vintage).
On the web, Gillian K Ferguson's Poetry of the Human Genome takes the genetic code as its central motif. The unity of all living creatures, as spelled out by the code, inspired Ferguson to create a vast work, comprising 1,000 pages, in four sections. It's not designed to be read in a linear way and is a marvellous demonstration of how new technology can revitalise an old tradition (www.thehumangenome.co.uk). Looks like poets are destined to remain poor for the foreseeable future, though. Some things never change.
Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis titles (Cape) led the female invasion of a traditionally male genre. Others to watch out for include Marguerite Abouet ( Aya, Cape), Alison Bechdel, whose The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For comes out in the US in November, and Scottish crimewriter Denise Mina's entries in the John Constantine: Hellblazer series. At the end of next month comes Nemi Vol 2 (Titan), a collection of Lise Myhre's strips featuring her twentysomething Goth heroine.
Back to more traditional fare: Alan Moore's latest work, a volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman published only in America, features an encounter between Bertie Wooster and the entities of HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos entitled What Ho, Gods of the Abyss. Please let that be the future of comics! n
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