Ten little trends
If one needed reminding that the United States was a nation in flux this year, bookstores were a good place to start. A flotilla of political titles arrived weekly, with Thomas E. Ricks’ Fiasco bringing the bad news about Iraq six months before the Baker-Hamilton report and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower revisiting the road to 9/11 five years later.
But it wasn’t just nonfiction writers who tussled with politics. Three of the five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction addressed 9/11, as did John Updike’s surprise best seller Terrorist. Even poets got into the act. Frederick Seidel sprinkled Bush barbs into his collection Ooga-Booga, and Adrienne Rich sounded off on our need for politically engaged verse.
There were other trends, however, and here’s a rundown on the 10 most memorable from the year 2006:
1. The literary gotcha story returns: From the defrocking of James Frey to the unmasking of Laura Alpert as JT LeRoy to the discovery that Kaavya Viswanathan stole large sections of her novel, it seemed one scandal had just died down when another began.
2. There is no such thing as retirement: The calendar said 2006, but it could have been 1966. Novels by Anne Tyler, John Updike, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy and the announcement of more soon from Norman Mailer proved there is no mandatory retirement age for novelists.
3. Scientists get into the God game: 2006 was a watershed year for books from scientists defending rational thought and even atheism, from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.
4. Literature went ever more global in the hands of its legacy children: Jonathan Littell, the American-born son of spy writer Robert Littell, became the first American to win France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt. Meanwhile, Kiran Desai, the Indian-born, American-residing daughter of two-time Booker finalist Anita Desai, became the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Inheritance of Loss.
5. African storytelling comes into the limelight again: Exiled Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o sent up corrupt dictators in Wizard of the Crow, Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captured the Biafran conflict in Half of a Yellow Sun, and Dave Eggers conjured a Sudanese refugee’s journey in What is the What.
6. Perennial best sellers take a break from their form: Stephen King floated a literary novel, John Grisham ventured into nonfiction and Margaret Atwood and McCarthy hit the stage, proving the grass is greener even to best-selling novelists.
7. You really can be a kid forever: Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) brought his hugely popular Series of Unfortunate Events books to a close with The End, but the National Book Award should launch M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing into best-sellerdom.
8. Works in Arabic reach a new audience: Egyptian Alaa Al Aswany hit bookstores and some cinemas with The Yacoubian Building, while Lebanese writer Elias Khoury delivered the first masterpiece of the Palestinian Diaspora with The Gate of the Sun.
9. The memoir: damaged, but not dead: Smashed into a million little pieces of disrepute, the form bounced back. Powerful books about parental legacy by Donald Antrim, The Afterlife, and Alison Bechdel, Fun Home, earned high praise, while Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love climbed best-seller lists.
10. You can go to the well too many times: Some of the most highly anticipated works of 2006 were sequels, from Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land to Robert Harris’ Hannibal Rising. All of them failed, except for At Canaan’s Edge, the final installment of Taylor Branch’s study of America in the years of Martin Luther King.