The 5 Books I Wish Someone Would Write in 2016
I pitched this article with the idea of a trawling expedition through those nether reaches of the internet called publishers lists and bringing back to you, my readers, a net bulging with all kinds of exotic fish – everything from giant killer sharks with teeth the size of scimitars to tiny octopi with rainbow tentacles. I’d spill my booty before you, you would forgive me for my wanton use of metaphor and together we would sit on the white sands of Cath’s Book Island and explore the contents together. Possibly we might light a bonfire and roast some of my catch for dinner. Then we might realize that what we have here are books not fish and read the rest instead.
But by the time the list got to two hundred titles, I realized this plan was never going to work. There isn’t a net big enough to hold all the books coming out in 2016 that get me all excited, so I’m going to go for another kind of list. Something shorter and more generic and also more hopeful because it’s unconstrained by the limits of what publishers have decided we want to read. This is my real wish list for 2016. If the year ahead brings us these books, I reckon we can look forward to a much improved literary future.
The novel which explains America
Although America probably seems a perfectly reasonable place to people who live in it, from a vantage point outside its borders, the US often comes across as marginally less sensible than the Wonderful Kingdom of Oz, if Oz were a place where mothers pack heat when walking their kids to school and people involved in industrial accidents have to pay to have their fingers sewn back on. America may see itself as the land of the free, but it’s also the country where millions of people enthusiastically endorse the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, oblivious to the fact that Trump’s hairpiece probably has a better grasp of how to run the country than its owner.
If one of the jobs of fiction is to hold up a mirror to the world and make it explicable, then it has a major US-shaped gap in its resume. Change happens when we reflect and my feeling is that the US will not change until someone holds up that mirror and forces it to take a long hard look at itself. Novelists have occasionally taken bites at this subject (two recent favourites of mine are Want Not by Jonathan Miles and In the Course of Human Events by Mike Harvkey, and an honorable mention has to go to Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This with its exploration of race and gentrification in Detroit) but a book which tackles the true perplexing complexity of life in the world’s richest and poorest country as it is lived right now, has yet to be written. Someone needs to write it and, as Obama prepares to defy Congress on that most divisive and downright baffling of America issues — gun control — they need to write it soon.
The book which does for sci fi what A Game of Thrones did for fantasy
It might not have quite as grand an aim as the first, but just think how utterly cool it would be if someone could create a world as rounded and convincing as Westeros but with technology more advanced than chainmail and Valyrian steel?
Yes I know Frank Herbert basically did this with the Dune series, but that was at least a hundred years ago and the world is now ready for someone to invent a new generation-spanning saga of dynastic intrigue and murder. Only with spaceships instead of warships.
Now it is possible that somewhere out there in sci-fi-land such a series (which is not Dune) currently exists, and if this is the case you can tell me about it in the comments below. All I can say is that as a non-specialist reader of sci-fi, to me the genre currently seems focused on ‘what if the space ships landed?’ scenarios rather than ideas like ‘let’s do the zero gravity version of Macbeth!’, which is a shame because science fiction is readymade for giant, sprawling plots set over time periods of light years, where a Red Dwarf isn’t a rejected little person with a grudge, but a star on the verge of apocalyptic collapse.
Make it so, someone.
A work of fiction which fully exploits the potential of electronic media
We’ve been promised this since the birth of the hyperlink back in 1985 – a novel which uses the connectivity of electronic media to do strange, new and wonderful things with fiction. So far what that has boiled down to in reality is books with embedded Easter eggs and books delivered to your iPhone, one chapter at a time. Hardly the kind of stuff to get William Gibson clapping his hand to his forehead and having a why didn’t I think of that! moment.
It’s almost as though the adoption of electronic media by the mainstream has dulled the cutting edge instead of sharpening it. Most of the innovation in literature over the past couple of decades – I’m thinking Cloud Atlas and House of Leaves here – has arrived in the form of boring old print. Some, like Doug Dorst’s S with its paper trail of napkins and postcards, don’t work in e-form at all. Far from inspiring new forms of e-literature, the rise of virtual print seems to have pushed writers to cherish the printed page, but humans are contrary like that. I have no doubt that when the self-steering car is finally perfected, public transport will finally get its act together and we will all take to the bus and train instead.
But in the case of books, the stalled attempts to make use of e-media represent a huge missed opportunity. Why has no one written a book which reorganizes itself every time you reopen it: a BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates for the age of virtual print? Or one which subtly changes the story depending on certain choices you make? Or one which seamlessly blends words and moving images to create the narrative? Or one which mixes books together according to an algorithm, sticking to a three act structure, but changing the setting, genre and characters?
The potential for FUN is huge and unexploited. Someone must exploit it. Now.
The book which finally obliterates the distinction between ‘genre’ and ‘literary’
We all realize that categorizing books helps guide a reader towards the right choices – no one wants to pick up a horror novel when what they’re looking for is contemporary romance – but some categories only seem to obscure more than they illuminate, and the label ‘literary’ could be fairly assigned to that…erm…category.
But what does the term ‘literary’ actually mean? Ask for a definition and you quickly find yourself mired in a sludge of aspirational waffle. What you can eventually glean from that waffle is that ‘literary’ versus ‘genre’ speaks to a class divide between ‘serious’ and ‘not-serious’ books. ‘Not-serious’ books, by which I mean genre books, have no other purpose than to entertain. ‘Serious’ books, by which I mean literary books, are here to do more than entertain. Literary books are intended to educate, to illuminate, to reveal the beauty behind everyday experience. Having fun is secondary to the experience, or so it would seem if you go by the contents of some of the tomes stacked on the ‘literary’ shelf. I don’t know if authors set out to write a ‘literary’ book with a ‘purpose’ in mind or whether publishers are responsible for deciding that some books are, like Mother Teresa or Joan of Arc, destined for more noble ends than just plain having fun, but the end result is a category of books which routinely get nommed for the big awards, which routinely get reviews from the big outlets and which we routinely feel forced into buying, as a gesture to self-improvement rather than because we think we might enjoy them. Reading literary fiction can be very like choosing a salad for lunch over a tasty meatball sandwich. We might not enjoy the salad as much as the sandwich, but we’ve been told it’s better for us and so that is what we pick.
But reading should be about nothing else but having fun. Yes it is true that books occasionally change the world, but so do advances in sewage processing and no one feels the need to elevate that into an art form. We need to step away from the idea that some books are better for us than others, as though literature came with a calorie count, and the best way to do that is for someone, somewhere to write a book which blurs the distinction so thoroughly that it becomes meaningless. We need a book which is literally unshelvable: important and yet not important, fun to read and yet also deeply dull and full of purpose. We need a book which is unmistakably genre and yet so artfully written, that it wins the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature and is credited with making a nicer person out of Vladimir Putin. Then and only then will we be freed from the dead hand of the literary versus genre dichotomy.
That should be a cinch. Writers of the world, get to it.
And finally here's a book which I know will definitely arrive in 2016, even if I don't know exactly what it is yet. So I'm not wishing for it, I'm just looking forward to it.
Whatever Stephen King happens to write this year
Because he is the King. The glory days of The Stand and Salem’s Lot might be behind him, but Mr. King still reliably turns out at least one and sometimes two excellent products each year (George R.R. Martin who has just missed every deadline possible for Game of Thrones part VI could well take a leaf out of King’s book). When the next Stephen King book hits the stands, I’ll be waiting in line for my copy.
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