How Politics, Protests and the Pandemic Shaped a Year in Books
The year in books, like the year everywhere else, was a simultaneously breakneck and slow-motion mixture of exhaustion, peril, controversy, inspiration and resilience.
Its main themes in the United States were very much those found in the culture as a whole: the brutal effects of a pandemic, the protests and conversations about racial justice, and the final year of the Trump administration. As these profound and prolonged trends affected the literary world, more discrete but still significant moments were happening all the while. Here’s a (more or less) chronological recap of an unforgettable literary year.
‘American Dirt’ stirs debate
The publishing year began with a cautionary tale about buzz. Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, “American Dirt,” about a Mexican mother and son who flee their country for the United States after a drug cartel kills their family, was published with great commercial and critical expectations. The commercial part worked out.
Before the book was even available in stores, several writers accused Ms. Cummins, who identifies as white and Latina but is not Mexican, of exploiting the traumatic experiences of migrants for her fast-paced novel. Oprah Winfrey chose the novel for her book club, placing the book and its critics under an even more intense spotlight.
“It was an extraordinary convergence of forces,” The Times’s Jennifer Schuessler and Alexandra Alter reported in January. “Industry hype meets charges of cultural appropriation meets one of the most combustible political issues in America today, immigration.” In her review of the novel, The Times’s Parul Sehgal wrote: “I’m of the persuasion that fiction necessarily, even rather beautifully, requires imagining an ‘other’ of some kind.” But, she continued, “the caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well,” and this particular book’s shortcomings “have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.”
A rare changing of the guard at Knopf
Alfred A. Knopf, the august literary imprint that is now part of Penguin Random House, was founded in 1915. Until this year, it has had only three editors in chief in its history: its founder and namesake; Robert Gottlieb, his successor; and Sonny Mehta, who had presided in the role for 32 years and died at 77 in December 2019. In January, Reagan Arthur was named the fourth.
Arthur had previously been the publisher at Little, Brown, where the writers in her stable included Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Rachel Cusk, Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris.
Hilary Mantel caps off Cromwell trilogy
Given that both “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” the first two volumes of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor-era trilogy, won the Booker Prize, anticipation was high for the third and concluding book, “The Mirror and the Light.” Nearly 800 pages, it was published in February, a couple of years after initially planned, to the consternation of some impatient fans. “The reason it took so long is that it’s difficult, and that is a totally sufficient explanation,” Mantel told The Times.
“The Mirror and the Light” is about the last four years in the life of Mantel’s protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, as he reaches the height of his influence and power in Henry VIII’s court before being — historical spoiler alert — beheaded.
Parul Sehgal called it a “triumphant capstone” to the trilogy, though the “slackest” of the three novels. Thomas Mallon called the trilogy “probably the greatest historical fiction accomplishment of the past decade,” but felt that in the third book, “the enterprise, like Henry, has put on weight and self-importance.” The novel did not win Mantel her third Booker, but it was longlisted for the prize.
Woody gets canceled (literally) and then published
Announcing and publishing a book can be a slow business. Not in this case. The controversy around Woody Allen’s autobiography, “Apropos of Nothing,” crammed a year’s worth of drama into three weeks.
On March 2, Hachette Book Group said it would publish the filmmaker’s book in April under its Grand Central imprint. Three days later, dozens of Hachette employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s decision because of the allegations that Mr. Allen molested his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. He has denied the accusations and wasn’t charged after two investigations decades ago. The next day, Hachette said it wouldn’t publish the book and would return all rights to it to Mr. Allen. Two weeks later, the book was published by Arcade, an imprint of the independent publisher Skyhorse.
The end result? The book itself didn’t make much of a splash. The Times’s Dwight Garner, in his review, called it a “sometimes appealing, occasionally funny, sad and somewhat tawdry book” that, as it goes on, “begins to make the clicking sound cars do when the battery has expired.”
The pandemic changes everything
For the publishing industry, the London Book Fair was the canary in the coal mine that was 2020. Organizers called off the annual event on March 4, the same week that major book fairs were canceled in France, Germany and Italy. BookExpo, the biggest industry event in the United States, staged a modified version of the event online in late May.
Around that time, the event’s director said that the future was unclear, and that “if anyone thinks we’re going to go ‘back to normal’ and everything will be as it was, they’re kidding themselves.” And indeed, Reed Exhibitions announced in December that the 2021 event was canceled, and that the company would spend time envisioning what a continuing fair might look like.
Publishers shuffle their decks
When booksellers closed up shop in mid-March in the face of the pandemic and Amazon briefly made shipment of books a lower priority, publishers had some very quick decisions to make.
Hundreds of books originally scheduled to come out in the spring and summer were pushed to the fall or even to 2021, while publishers hoped that stores (and the world in general) would have made some important adjustments to our new reality by then.
Retailers struggle in the chaos
Book sales in the United States fell more than 8 percent in March compared with the same month in 2019. While publishers ended 2020 in unexpectedly strong shape, most book sales were not through independent bookstores, which continued to struggle throughout the crisis.
With stores closed and the country’s attention occupied by the news, writers — perhaps especially debut novelists — had to get creative in spreading the word about their work.
A pandemic novel eerily published into a pandemic
“The book is not prophecy,” Lawrence Wright wrote about his novel “The End of October,” “but its appearance in the middle of the worst pandemic in living memory is not entirely coincidental either.”
Mr. Wright’s imagination was inspired by the global outbreak of SARS in 2003 and the historical memory of the Spanish flu of 1918. A prizewinning nonfiction writer, he consulted scientists and health care workers in order to write a realistic thriller about the rapid spread of a flu pandemic.
Dwight Garner, in his review, said that Wright’s research was put to good use, resulting in a rare specimen: a “sweeping, authoritative and genuinely intelligent thriller.” (Wright’s 31,000-word reported account of the coronavirus takes up most of the current issue of The New Yorker.)
Protests influence reading habits
In late May, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Americans marched in the streets to protest racism and police brutality. Social upheaval and conversations about the nation’s conscience reached a pitch reminiscent of the 1960s.
The literary world reflected this in many ways. By the early days of June, best-seller lists were filled with recent books about race, like “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, and “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, as well as books published a decade or more ago, including “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander.
Publishing reckons with diversity
Around the same time in June, writers on social media began using a hashtag, #PublishingPaidMe, to draw attention not just to the homogeneity of the publishing industry but how much writers of color are (or are not) paid. Jesmyn Ward wrote that she “fought and fought” for her first $100,000 advance, even after her novel “Salvage the Bones” had won a National Book Award in 2011.
The Times spoke to an author, literary agent, marketer, publicist, editors and booksellers about how being Black affects their careers and the books you read. And we asked writers to share with us the histories, novels and poetry that have done the most to deepen their understanding of race and racism in America.
In July, Dana Canedy, a former New York Times editor and the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, became the new publisher of Simon & Schuster and the first Black person to lead a major publishing house. And Lisa Lucas, the former executive director of the National Book Foundation, was named the publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books. Other hires and structural changes in 2020 suggested that the industry was moving past lip service in its efforts to increase diversity.
Alex Trebek shares his story
“There’s a certain comfort that comes from knowing a fact,” Alex Trebek told The Times’s Alexandra Alter in July. “The sun is up in the sky. There’s nothing you can say that’s going to change that. You can’t say, ‘The sun’s not up there, there’s no sky.’ There is reality, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting reality.”
Trebek had publicly accepted the reality of his struggles with advanced pancreatic cancer, and this year he published a moving memoir, “The Answer Is …” Parul Sehgal called it “a friendly, often funny account marked by a reluctance so deep that it confers a curious integrity upon the celebrity tell-all.” Trebek died at 80 in November.
Troubles in the supply chain
In a development that some had predicted when publishers moved their spring books to later in the year, backlogs at major printers caused havoc as the newly crowded fall arrived.
The ‘Trump Bump’ shows no signs of stopping
More than 1,200 books about President Trump have been published during his term in office, and readers have essentially said: Keep ’em coming. Some of the most high-profile this year included his niece Mary L. Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough” and the former national security adviser John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened.”
“No matter what your political position, there’s really no doubt that the strong feelings around the Trump administration have pushed book sales in a way we’ve never seen before in the political arena,” Kristen McLean, an executive at NPD Books, a market research firm, told The Times in August.
The book sales are likely to stay, even if Trump won’t. Publishers are signing up the next wave of books about the administration. “People say, ‘Well, there have been too many Trump books,’” Ann Godoff, Penguin’s president and editor in chief, said. “I think you haven’t seen anything yet, and the reason for that is the sources are going to come loose; they’re going to be freer to talk.”
Louise Glück wins the Nobel Prize
On Oct. 8, the American poet Louise Glück was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. “Louise Glück’s voice is unmistakable,” Anders Olsson, the chair of the prize-giving committee said. “It is candid and uncompromising, and it signals this poet wants to be understood.” He also said her voice was “full of humor and biting wit.”
In an interview with The Times, Glück said: “It seemed to be extremely unlikely that I would ever have this particular event to deal with in my life.”
“It’s part of her greatness,” Dwight Garner wrote, “that her poems are relatively easy of access while impossible to utterly get to the bottom of. They have echoing meanings; you can tangle with them for a very long time.”
Barack Obama’s memoir arrives
Near the end of a challenging year, booksellers were as eager as readers for Barack Obama’s highly anticipated “A Promised Land.” Obama had planned to write a memoir about his presidency within a year or so of leaving office. Instead, he took nearly four years to produce what is just the first of what will now be two volumes.
In her review, The Times’s Jennifer Szalai said that the book offers “frank confessions of his own uncertainties and doubts. At a time of grandiose mythologizing, he marshals his considerable storytelling skills to demythologize himself.” And in the Book Review, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote: “For all his ruthless self-assessment, there is very little of what the best memoirs bring: true self-revelation. So much is still at a polished remove.”
A big week for big prizes
The same week Obama’s memoir was published, the National Book Awards and the Booker Prize announced their winners for 2020. Charles Yu took home the National Book Award for fiction for “Interior Chinatown,” his sendup of Hollywood and Asian-American stereotypes. The nonfiction prize went to “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,” a biography by Les Payne and his daughter Tamara Payne, who finished the book after her father’s death in 2018.
The Booker Prize was awarded to Douglas Stuart for “Shuggie Bain,” which was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Stuart began writing the book, an autobiographical novel about a boy and his single, alcoholic mother in 1980s Glasgow, when he was a senior director of design at Banana Republic.
Enter the megapublisher
The world’s largest publisher, Penguin Random House, agreed in late November to acquire Simon & Schuster, the third largest publisher, for more than $2 billion from ViacomCBS. The move arrived after a decade already rife with consolidation in the industry.
The Authors Guild opposed the sale, writing in a statement: “The number of large mainstream publishing houses will go from five to just four, further reducing competition in an already sparse competitive environment.”
Markus Dohle, the chief executive of Penguin Random House, said that concerns about the deal’s possible effects on competition were based on “politics and perception,” not data. “We are very confident we’ll get clearance for the deal,” he said.
In a year far too suffused with loss, the world of books said goodbye to its share of admired figures. Here are just a few of them, with links to their full Times obituaries.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Mary Higgins Clark, Alice Mayhew, George Steiner, Charles Portis, Clive Cussler, Tomie dePaola, Patricia Bosworth, Carolyn Reidy, Larry Kramer, Pete Hamill, Gail Sheehy, Shere Hite, Stanley Crouch, Harold Evans, Diane di Prima, Jan Morris, Alison Lurie, John le Carré, Anthony Veasna So; Barry Lopez.
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