Thursday, 24 December 2009

Greatest Literary Achievement of the Decade

I had intended for Day 8 of the Books, Time, and Silence 10 Days of Christmas to return to my staple diet and offer up a review of Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee

But I’ve found myself listening intently to Radio 5 Live’s Greatest Sporting Achievement of the Decade debate tonight with absolute fascination. Where I should have been typing away at these ‘ere keys I’ve been reliving a host of momentous sporting moments and trying to decide which most deserved to win.

Aside from captivating my attention the debate got me thinking: what have been the greatest literary achievements of the decade? Which moments in literature have most defined our decade? Which authors have shaped our consciousness? Which books will be celebrated for years to come?

Eighteen months ago, in the spring of 2008, Robert McCrum wrote an article in which he cast a retrospective glance at the ten years he had spent as Literary Editor (1997-2008) of The Observer, summing up the changes he had witnessed in ten small chapters. These chapters included the emergence of Amazon, JK Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon, the rise of the literary festival, and the shift in power from academic reviews in newspapers to the book blog. Reading the article tonight I was pleasantly struck by his mention of Vulpes Libris as an example of the “highly responsible” sort of reviewing that “could take over and hand the power back to…the Common Reader.” Nice man, that Robert McCrum! These transitions, he argues have transformed the world of literature from a world of “cigarettes, coffee and strong drink” to, well, the world we have today. Whatever that may be.

Robert McCrum’s narrative explanation of the trials and tribulations of the literary decade is enthralling, but for the purposes of this article, I want to do something far simpler: determine the single achievement in literature this past decade has been the greatest.

But how do you define a great achievement? It is difficult to say the least. Is there a difference between a great achievement and a great moment? I think so. While a moment may consume public consciousness for a time, and even have a lasting influence on the literary landscape, its impact is greater than the work itself. On the other hand an achievement is something in which the quality of the work itself is the prime motivation for any wider influence it may have. With this in mind I’ll define a great achievement as excelling in the following three areas:

  • Quality. Above all else a great achievement has to be a great work.
  • Era Defining. When people look back on the naughties in ten or twenty years time, what books and literary events will sum up this decade?
  • Wider Impact. Did it transcend literature to impact on wider public consciousness?

These are the three factors which I have established to help me whittle the contenders down a shortlist of eight.

  1. Harry Potter by JK Rowling (2000-2007). Before this decade even started Harry Potter was a global phenomenon yet it continued to grow throughout the decade. Selected not only for getting millions of children worldwide reading and selling more than double the number of books as any other author, but for bringing a smile to readers, instigating the midnight opening party, and managing to finish the saga in the face of massive public pressure without letting the quality slip (too much).

  2. No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000). It seems impossible to believe this was published within the last ten years but many of the social debates and forces of the past decade, from mass G8 protests to moves toward more organic and locally sustainable living, took their cue from this one book.

  3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000). For better or worse, Eggers autobiographical work set in motion the endless stream of misery memoirs that were to follow. (Well, it’s not exclusively Eggers fault, Dave Pelzer was at least as culpable and his weren’t even very good.) Eggers remained a cut above though; supremely inventive and never dull, with emotional transition between pages that few authors could pull off.

  4. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002). In 2002 no other book so divided critics as Everything is Illuminated. Even today the hyperbole which greeted its publication continues to overshadow what signalled the emergence of a major author and the start of an influx of inventive new young American novelists.

  5. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2003). The popular success of Life of Pi meant that it almost single handedly restored the Booker to the top of the British literary calendar. It’s not a bad book, either.

  6. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003). Well, no, not the book itself but the jacket designer. No-one can have had a greater impact on the look of books in the past decade than whoever it was who designed the Transworld UK cover of The Da Vinci Code. How many have copied the look since?

  7. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006). What Philip Pullman started when he killed God in The Amber Spyglass Dawkins crystallised in his atheist manifesto The God Delusion. Few books have had such a wide impact on social debate as The God Delusion or so monopolised the often ridiculous conflict between atheism and religion.

  8. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006). To be found in many a top five list, Cormac McCarthy’s blacker than black post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son’s quest for survival will be read for many years to come.

So there are my eight. What do you think? I’m looking for two more titles to join this list and make a top ten which people can then vote on over New Year. So, what have I forgotten?


Abi said...

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is my all-time favorite book. I don't know why it's less popular than her husband(Jonathan Safran Foer)'s books. The three books have a lot in common.

Bournemouth Runner said...

No poetry I see? Which is a shame, but probably correct.

I'd go for -:
1. McSweeneys magazine and books (rather than Eggars debut) - era defining, influential, and good.
2. 2 music books: Rip it up and start again by Simon Reynolds and The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross.
3. David Peace's series of northern-based novels, Red Riding but also The Damned Utd and GB84.
4. Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (began in 1999 but still going strong).

Sam Ruddock said...

You're right, no poetry? Think Carol Ann Duffy's selection as Poet Laureate deserves a mention, and a popular choice no less. How very un-poetry!

Great suggestions, Bournemouth Runner. You might well be right about McSweeneys being more influential than his debut, though perhaps the 826 Valencia project is his most influential and important work. I'm not a big fan of his work but he is a very impressive man.

Haven't read the music books but I agree about David Peace's Damned Utd and I think that will the final choice. To write a work of fiction on sport and to make it good is an almost unrivalled feet, and to do so while using the second person makes it even more so. A great book and I really should read more by him.

Not read Alan Moore's League of Extroardinary Gentlemen either, and wasn't too enamoured with Watchmen, but again its a great suggestion and I thought long and hard about including a graphic novel in the list. After all, this has been the decade when graphic novels have really come into their own.

Abi, I agree about the similarities between JSF and Nicole Krauss. Oddly, they never share their work until it is finished and The History of Love was written before they even met! I do prefer Everything is Illumiinated to History of Love, but that could be because I read it first. Not sure. Have you read Krauss's other book 'Man Walks into a Room'. It is very different and fascinating for it. Well worth a read.