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30 Contemporary Fiction Novels for Your Book Bucket List
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These contemporary fiction books will give you plenty of options to add to your lifetime reading list. These are some of the best modern novels, and many of these realistic books straddle the line of literary fiction and popular fiction, making them compelling, highly readable and discussable books.
Looking for the best contemporary fiction books to add to your list of books to read in a lifetime? This list of contemporary novels will help you narrow down your own list of must-read modern books.
I’ve written before about my reading bucket list , and I have tips for putting together your own book bucket list . While you may not read all of the books on this list, the contemporary fiction list goes hand-in-hand with the others in my series on books for your lifetime reading list.
How to Use These Lists of Bucket List Books
I firmly believe that a “reading bucket list” or “lifetime must-read list” (if you don’t like the term bucket list) is a personal thing.
Rather than follow a prescriptive set of classics defined by someone else, I think readers should choose the books that pique their interest–often in ways beyond the entertainment value.
This, for me, is what makes a bucket list book . I try to add books to my list that spark some intellectual and cultural curiosity. I like to use a reading journal to keep track of the books I add to my reading bucket list.
A bucket list book may not be the easiest read, or one that I grab for a cozy curl up with a book , but it’s one that stretches my thinking, understanding, and/or empathy . Sometimes it’s purely a literary thing, and sometimes it’s a broader cultural or political understanding that I’m seeking.
Whatever your reasons for adding a book to your bucket list, use these lists as a jumping-off point. You can also check out my tips for how to create a book bucket list that you’ll actually finish . And be sure to share your own bucket list books in the comments!
If you need a book or two to get started, take the quiz for a personalized recommendation, then check out the full list below.
How I Created These Book Lists
There’s no science to pulling these lists together–any list like this could include countless books.
My point here is to get you thinking about the books you truly want to add to your lifetime must-read list. They don’t all have to be classics! I tried to build out my own bucket list with books from across genres.
The list of fiction books in this includes popular, well-reviewed, realistic books set in modern times; if these are not the type of books that speak to you, build out your own lifetime reading list with books from genres you enjoy.
CHOOSING THE MUST-READ BOOKS OF THE 20TH AND 21ST CENTURIES
Some of the books on my list are award winners (which sometimes get mixed reviews among regular readers, but are always ripe for discussion), some are books I’ve considered for my own reading bucket list, and some are just books that I love.
Some of the books I’ve included have had (or are having) a cultural moment–discussions around the topic, literary trends, screen adaptations, social or political movements–that have kept them in focus and make them candidates for a must-read bucket list.
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Two examples from recent years: A Man Called Ove and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine .
Both of these novels about quirky loners follow some recent trends. Will these stand the test of time and be books that we discuss years from now? It’s hard to say, but for the moment, they epitomize the recent literary trend toward “ up lit ”–books with an overall positive storyline that leave the reader feeling good.
Even the awards are getting in on this lighthearted book trend, if the recent Pulitzer winner Less is any indication. Would we add these to our bucket lists in 10 or 20 years? Time will tell. But many of these books have gotten so much attention and discussion, that I would venture to say that they are modern classic books.
WHAT IS CONTEMPORARY FICTION? AND, DEFINING THE GENRES
A few notes on these lists:
- My genre definitions are rough. Here I’m defining “contemporary fiction” as roughly being realistic books set in the last thirty years or so, but some may be a bit older, or take place over a number of decades. I’ve generally looked at what I consider some of the best books of the late 20th century and the 21st century.
- For the other lists, some books cross the genres as I’ve defined them, but I’ve tried to put most books only on one list, so you have more to choose from for your own bucket list.
- I’ve read many of these, but when I haven’t yet read the book (or don’t have a good review and summary of my own), I’ve included the publisher’s summary in italics.
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30 of the best modern books that everyone should read, three junes.
Author: Julia Glass
This 2002 National Book Award-winning novel brings us into the lives of Paul, Fenno, and Fern over the course of three different summers. Their lives are woven together in different ways, but the story isn’t necessarily about their relationships with one another, but about each of their struggles to come to terms with the deaths of loved ones. A slow-mover, for me, but a nonetheless fascinating look at families , love, and how death and the things learned in the aftermath can define the lives of those left behind.
Author: Ann Patchett
In Commonwealth, Ann Patchett brilliantly weaves together flawed families who fail one another over the decades but keep trying and trusting in spite of the failures.
Where you would expect villains, she instead presents complicated characters struggling with their own hopes, inadequacies, and feelings about the past and how to move forward. Where you would expect broken, bitter relationships, she shows the enduring power of loyalty, love, and forgiveness.
This is not an action-packed novel, but one where the subtle emotional tensions will resonate. Highly recommended, along with all of her other books.
Author: Fredrik Backman
In the declining Swedish town of Beartown, hockey is the one bright spot. The talented junior team–and one player in particular–have the potential to win it all and revitalize the town. But a brutal event at an after-game party could be the downfall of the team, the players, and the future of the town itself. As the residents grapple with their loyalties and their own morality, each one is forced to answer for themselves how much they are willing to sacrifice for the love of a town and game.
Backman veers away from the quirkiness that readers loved about A Man Called Ove , and instead brings sharp observations about small-town relationships, family, and the saving grace of team and sport. I’ll repeat many other readers on this point: you don’t have to love or know hockey to love this book.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
Author: John Boyne
Cyril Avery was born to an unwed mother in Ireland in the 1940s–an unthinkable and shameful thing, at that time. Cyril is adopted by Charles and Maude Avery, who are indifferent and self-centered, but not neglectful.
From an early age, Cyril knows he’s different: not a “real Avery,” as Charles is quick to remind him, and realizing that he is not attracted to girls like his friends are–something that’s even more shameful at that time in Ireland. In fact, Cyril harbors a deep love for his womanizing friend and eventual school roommate, Julian Woodbead.
The book follows Cyril through his life, from his youth and twenties spent in hiding and public denial in a repressive Dublin to a more open life in middle age in Amsterdam and New York. Cyril’s search for identity, belonging, acceptance, and family is by turns funny, frustrating, and sad.
Author: Emma Donoghue
Five-year-old Jack has never known the world beyond Room. He lives there with Ma, who has made it into a world for him. But she has been a prisoner for seven years and she knows it’s time for Jack–and her–to have more of a life. But the terrifying escape plot is only the first part of the challenge. If they can make it out of Room, they then need to find their way to a new life, to feelings of security, to new identities, and ultimately back to each other. Room is terrifying for its basis in real-life events , but it’s also hopeful for its portrayal of the strength of the bond between parent and child.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Author: Gail Honeyman
Eleanor has her routine down to a science: work, weekly phone calls with her mother, and weekends with vodka (and nothing or no one else). She’s fine, and she’s even ready to pursue a relationship with a musician who seems perfect for her (though she hasn’t actually met him).
Never mind that she has no social life, no friends, and she tends to say brutally honest, awkward, and somewhat inappropriate things. She starts working out a self-improvement plan in anticipation of her future relationship with the musician, despite her mother’s cruel discouragement.
Meanwhile, she finds herself in an unexpected friendship with her coworker, Raymond, when they help an elderly gentleman after a fall. Slowly, the friendship helps draw Eleanor out of her isolation , but also pushes her toward difficult truths about herself, her past, and her future.
Eleanor is endearing for her mix of self-awareness and oblivious social awkwardness, and Raymond is an unexpected hero. This book manages to be funny, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at once.
Related: 11 Irresistible Books Like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Four friends move to New York after graduating from college with big dreams of successful careers. JB is an artist, Willem an aspiring actor, Malcolm an architect, and Jude a lawyer. The story brings the reader into the lives of each of the men, finally landing on Jude. It’s at this point that it’s clear that this is not just another post-collegiate New York story. Jude is insular and mysterious, and as the story progresses, the degree of his damage and suffering emerges.
A Little Life covers decades in the life of the men and it is one of the most devastating, riveting books I’ve ever read. Many readers count it among their favorites–just as many say they loved it but could never read it again. For more, also check out The Story of the Story: 15 Things You Didn’t Know about A Little Life .
Related: 11 Devastating Books Like A Little Life
For A Little Life Fans
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Extremely loud and incredibly close.
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is many things–and precocious is definitely one of them. His father died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and you will grieve with Oskar as he wanders New York searching for the lock that fits the key he found in his father’s closet. This book is about Oskar’s search for peace, his efforts to stay close to his father, and his fight to keep hold of his memories. Foer’s writing style isn’t for everyone, and Oskar is sometimes too brilliant to believe, but the handling of memory and grief here is both creative and sensitive.
Fall Gifts for Readers
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
This recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of Arthur Less, a failing novelist on the brink of turning 50. When he receives an invitation to his former lover’s wedding, he decides to embark on an around-the-world journey to avoid the event. Less accepts various speaking engagements, award ceremonies, and teaching appointments to ensure that he will be out of the country. On this journey, Less ruminates on his past and dreads his future as an aging, single gay man (he feels there is no precedent for this) and failed writer .
Less is both frustrating and endearing, a bit bumbling, and above all, certain of his own failures. Those around him rarely disabuse him of these notions, but they also see more in him that he sees in himself. This book won’t be for everyone–it’s light on plot and heavy on wandering musings, and can be slow at times–but for a reader in the right mood it’s a sweet and sometimes funny read. Certain parts had me laughing out loud.
The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
This is the story of a group of classics students at an elite New England college and their relationships with each other and an eccentric but compelling professor. The students seem to strive for elitism and arrogance, and often toe the line of morality. They eventually cross it when they kill one of their own. You learn this on the first page and then are drawn into the tale of how they got to that point and the aftermath.
None of the characters are likable, but they are compelling in their insularity and self-destructiveness. The Secret History is among my favorite books , but it is divisive–people seem to either love it or hate it.
Fates and Furies
Author: Lauren Groff
One marriage, two stories. Fates and Furies tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde over the course of 24 years. Glamorous, fiery, and in love at twenty-two, they each enter into a marriage never fully understanding the perspective of the other. That overarching misunderstanding continues over the years and how they manage it becomes a driving force for their relationship and its successes and failures.
Groff is a talented writer; the story is complex and I enjoyed her use of language, but I can’t say that I enjoyed this book. It’s not an optimistic read, but you might say it’s a darkly realistic view of some marriages–maybe a little too dark for me. Nonetheless, it has received raves and awards (President Obama counted it among his favorites of 2015), so it might be the book for you.
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Author: Marilynne Robinson
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the first in the trilogy set in Gilead, Iowa, takes the form of a father’s letter to his son. Rev. John Ames is 76-years-old and nearing the end of his life, but his son is only seven. In the letter, he reflects on his own life and relationships with his father and grandfather, and realizes some of his regrets–including his difficulty relating to a son so many years his junior, and that he won’t be around to watch him reach adulthood.
Robinson’s writing is quiet and meditative, but often astonishing in its perceptive observations on human nature . I also have Lila on my shelf but am waiting to read it until I need a curl-up-by-the-fire-with-tea book (probably in the fall or winter).
The Kite Runner
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Hosseini’s debut novel was not only the introduction of a new author, but it was also many readers’ first foray into Afghanistan. The innocent friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant takes a dark turn with one horrific incident, forever changing their relationship and their lives. Hosseini brings both the people and the country of Afghanistan to life, and while my favorite of his is A Thousand Splendid Suns , The Kite Runner is still a stunning and essential read.
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
After leaving a Nigeria under military rule, Ifemelu and Obinze plan to move to the United States to start a new life. But 9/11 keeps Obinze from joining Ifemelu, and over 15 years they each seek their own identities in very different ways.
Ifemelu pursues academics while facing her own blackness for the first time, now living in a country where her race is defining in ways that it wasn’t in Nigeria. Obinze, meanwhile, lives a life in dangerous limbo in London, where he is undocumented.
When they finally come together, they must determine if what they’ve learned about themselves and the world can allow them to be together in a new Nigeria.
Peace Like a River
Author: Leif Enger
When Reuben’s brother Davy flees after an encounter with bullies that ends in murder, 11-year-old Reuben, his poetic sister Swede, and his father follow him into the unforgiving Badlands. While the plot centers on the family’s search for Davy, the atmospheric writing touches on poetry, faith, and miracles–for which Reuben’s father seems to be a conduit.
This book manages to be both tragic and hopeful , and Enger is a writer whose prose is worth savoring.
When Theo Decker survives an explosion at the museum, his life is forever changed. His mother is killed, setting Theo on a journey to several homes and a rootless existence. Complicating Theo’s sense of disquiet is his secret: in the confusion of the blast, he took a priceless painting that he carries with him through the years. When he finally finds a sense of home and belonging in an antiques business, Theo’s secret could be his undoing. Tartt’s book won the Pulitzer Prize and I found it just as compelling as The Secret History .
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Author: Junot Díaz
Oscar is a nerdy, overweight, hopeful teenager, growing up in the ghetto with his Dominican family. He wants nothing more than to fall in love and to be the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. Oscar is endearing for his sweet insecurity, but also for how he embraces and immerses himself in the nerdy things he loves: anime, video games, comics, RPGs, fantasy and science fiction.
You hope for him, even knowing he is doomed to a brief life–and he does too, as he grapples with the fuku (curse) that plagues his family. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is both character study and exploration of Dominican history and the immigrant experience.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
Author: Marlon James
On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert to ease political tensions in Kingston, seven unnamed gunmen stormed the singer’s house, machine guns blazing. The attack wounded Marley, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Little was officially released about the gunmen, but rumors abounded regarding the assassins’ fates. A Brief History of Seven Killings is James’s fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time in Jamaica’s history and beyond.
The God of Small Things
Author: Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy’s modern classic is equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevocably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing “big things [that] lurk unsaid” in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest. Lush, lyrical, and unnerving, The God of Small Things is an award-winning landmark that started for its author an esteemed career of fiction and political commentary that continues unabated.
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
(I have actually read Middlesex, and I remember loving it, but it’s been long enough that I don’t remember it well enough to write my own mini-review. I think this is another one for my reread list !) Here’s the publisher’s summary: Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic and the winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Rosemary is 22 and hasn’t seen her brother or sister in years. Her sister was removed from the home before Rosemary was 6, and now she’s determined to learn more about the reasons. It’s been long enough since this book came out that you may already know the “secret” of this family, but if you don’t, I’ve removed it from the longer summary and won’t reveal it here.
Go in blind and don’t read more reviews, if you don’t know. If you have already read more, rest assured: what seems like it could be a gimmick is actually a smartly rendered novel about family, memory, and science. I loved this novel and would like to read it again.
Author: Philip Roth
Often called Philip Roth’s masterpiece, American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. Roth’s protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father’s glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede’s beautiful American luck deserts him.
For Swede’s adored daughter, Merry, has grown from a loving, quick-witted girl into a sullen, fanatical teenager—a teenager capable of an outlandishly savage act of political terrorism. And overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longer-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk. Compulsively readable , propelled by sorrow, rage, and a deep compassion for its characters, this is Roth’s masterpiece.
Author: Zadie Smith
Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families—one headed by Archie, the other by Archie’s best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for “no problem”). Samad —devoutly Muslim, hopelessly “foreign”— weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire’s worth of cultural identity, history, and hope.
Author: Chris Cleave
While the hype on the back of this book is kind of irritating (it’s not the most magical story ever and it’s definitely not a laugh riot), Little Bee is a beautiful, painful, horrifying novel—one worth reading. The story of the connection between Little Bee, a young Nigerian woman, and Sarah, an English wife and mother, unfolds slowly, alternating between their perspectives. Little Bee’s parts shine with lovely language and humorous insights, while Sarah’s fall a little flat, but I feel like this is part of the contrast of their experiences and how they respond. An important read that brings the horrors, fears, and hopes of asylum seekers to the doorstep.
The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
When 16-year-old Starr is witness to a police officer shooting her unarmed best friend, she is torn between staying silent and speaking out. Starr lives in two worlds: the world of her affluent private school and that of her black neighborhood that is rocked by the shooting. The case quickly makes national headlines and as tensions rise, Starr feels the pull to tell her side of the story and refute attacks on her friend’s character, even as she faces intimidation from police and local gangs.
This powerful novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement delves into the shootings of unarmed black people by police officers, the lack of justice in the aftermath, and white privilege. It is not just for a YA audience but is a must-read for everyone. One of the best of 2017.
Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
The community of Shaker Heights is meticulously planned and picture-perfect, and the Richardson family is much the same. When their new tenants–mysterious, free-spirited artist Mia and her daughter, Pearl–move into town, the four Richardson children are enamored of both, and Pearl of them. As the families becomes more entwined, complications arise when the two mothers, Elena and Mia, find themselves on opposite sides of an adoption case. Elena suspects Mia is not all that she seems and starts digging into her past, rocking the worlds of Mia and Pearl and her own children.
Little Fires Everywhere is a study in the characters–their flaws, pasts, dreams, regrets, and fears–and how all of these hidden things affect their relationships and what happens next. Well-written and perfect for anyone looking for a simmering, emotional read.
A Man Called Ove
Ove is a solitary curmudgeon who is set in his ways and unreserved in his criticism of anyone who crosses his path. “Hell is other people” could well be Ove’s mantra. But behind his rough exterior is a sweet, sad backstory and a soft-hearted man committed to his morals who is about to have his world rocked by several people (and a cat) who refuse to be held off by a few cranky words.
Ove is by turns funny, sad, and heartwarming . It’s delightful to watch his persistent new friends chip away at his hard shell to find the kind man lurking within.
Author: Mary Gaitskill
Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old, a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn. Her host family is a couple in upstate New York: Ginger, a failed artist on the fringe of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Paul, an academic who wonders what it will mean to “make a difference” in such a contrived situation. The Mare illuminates the couple’s changing relationship with Velvet over the course of several years, as well as Velvet’s powerful encounter with the horses at the stable down the road, as Gaitskill weaves together Velvet’s vital inner-city community and the privileged country world of Ginger and Paul.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
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Shop my book lists or search Bookshop.org for your next great read:
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You might also like:
- 11 Unputdownable Contemporary Page-Turners
- 7 Must-Read Books about Family Dramas
- Books to Read if You Love This Is Us
- 12 Great Books About Loners and Endearing Misfits
Others in the Reading Bucket List Series:
- 50 Books on My Reading Bucket List
- 30 20th Century Classics by Women for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Historical Fiction Novels for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Middle Grade Books for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Memoirs and Nonfiction Books for Your Reading Bucket List
- How to Create a Reading Bucket List that You’ll Actually Finish
Allison is a dedicated book lover, writer, and lifelong learner with an undeniable passion for books and reading. As the founder of Mind Joggle, she helps busy, overwhelmed women reclaim their mental space and make books a transformative part of their lives. She holds an Ed.M in Technology in Education from Harvard University and a BS in Scientific and Technical Communication from the University of Minnesota.
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The 100 best books of the 21st century
Dazzling debut novels, searing polemics, the history of humanity and trailblazing memoirs ... Read our pick of the best books since 2000
- Read an interview with the author of our No 1 book
- Read Ali Smith on Autumn
- Read David Mitchell on Cloud Atlas
I Feel Bad About My Neck
By nora ephron (2006).
Perhaps better known for her screenwriting ( Silkwood , When Harry Met Sally , Heartburn ), Ephron’s brand of smart theatrical humour is on best display in her essays. Confiding and self-deprecating, she has a way of always managing to sound like your best friend – even when writing about her apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. This wildly enjoyable collection includes her droll observations about ageing, vanity – and a scorching appraisal of Bill Clinton. Read the review
By alain mabanckou (2005), translated by helen stevenson (2009).
The Congolese writer says he was “trying to break the French language” with Broken Glass – a black comedy told by a disgraced teacher without much in the way of full stops or paragraph breaks. As Mabanckou’s unreliable narrator munches his “bicycle chicken” and drinks his red wine, it becomes clear he has the history of Congo-Brazzaville and the whole of French literature in his sights. Read the review
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
By stieg larsson (2005), translated by steven t murray (2008).
Radical journalist Mikael Blomkvist forms an unlikely alliance with troubled young hacker Lisbeth Salander as they follow a trail of murder and malfeasance connected with one of Sweden’s most powerful families in the first novel of the bestselling Millennium trilogy. The high-level intrigue beguiled millions of readers, brought “Scandi noir” to prominence and inspired innumerable copycats. Read the review
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
By jk rowling (2000).
A generation grew up on Rowling’s all-conquering magical fantasies, but countless adults have also been enthralled by her immersive world. Book four, the first of the doorstoppers, marks the point where the series really takes off. The Triwizard Tournament provides pace and tension, and Rowling makes her boy wizard look death in the eye for the first time. Read the review
A Little Life
By hanya yanagihara (2015).
This operatically harrowing American gay melodrama became an unlikely bestseller, and one of the most divisive novels of the century so far. One man’s life is blighted by abuse and its aftermath, but also illuminated by love and friendship. Some readers wept all night, some condemned it as titillating and exploitative, but no one could deny its power. Read the review
Chronicles: Volume One
By bob dylan (2004).
Dylan’s reticence about his personal life is a central part of the singer-songwriter’s brand, so the gaps and omissions in this memoir come as no surprise. The result is both sharp and dreamy, sliding in and out of different phases of Dylan’s career but rooted in his earliest days as a Woody Guthrie wannabe in New York City. Fans are still waiting for volume two. Read the review
The Tipping Point
By malcolm gladwell (2000).
The New Yorker staff writer examines phenomena from shoe sales to crime rates through the lens of epidemiology, reaching his own tipping point, when he became a rock-star intellectual and unleashed a wave of quirky studies of contemporary society. Two decades on, Gladwell is often accused of oversimplification and cherry picking, but his idiosyncratic bestsellers have helped shape 21st-century culture. Read the review
by Nicola Barker (2007)
British fiction’s most anarchic author is as prolific as she is playful, but this freewheeling, visionary epic set around the Thames Gateway is her magnum opus. Barker brings her customary linguistic invention and wild humour to a tale about history’s hold on the present, as contemporary Ashford is haunted by the spirit of a medieval jester. Read the review
by Helen Dunmore (2001)
The Levin family battle against starvation in this novel set during the German siege of Leningrad. Anna digs tank traps and dodges patrols as she scavenges for wood, but the hand of history is hard to escape. Read the review
by M John Harrison (2002)
One of the most underrated prose writers demonstrates the literary firepower of science fiction at its best. Three narrative strands – spanning far-future space opera, contemporary unease and virtual-reality pastiche – are braided together for a breathtaking metaphysical voyage in pursuit of the mystery at the heart of reality. Read the review
by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008), translated by Susan Bernofsky (2010)
A grand house by a lake in the east of Germany is both the setting and main character of Erpenbeck’s third novel. The turbulent waves of 20th-century history crash over it as the house is sold by a Jewish family fleeing the Third Reich, requisitioned by the Russian army, reclaimed by exiles returning from Siberia, and sold again. Read the review
by Lorna Sage (2000)
A Whitbread prizewinning memoir, full of perfectly chosen phrases, that is one of the best accounts of family dysfunction ever written. Sage grew up with her grandparents, who hated each other: he was a drunken philandering vicar; his wife, having found his diaries, blackmailed him and lived in another part of the house. The author gets unwittingly pregnant at 16, yet the story has a happy ending. Read the review
Noughts & Crosses
By malorie blackman (2001).
Set in an alternative Britain, this groundbreaking piece of young adult fiction sees black people, called the Crosses, hold all the power and influence, while the noughts – white people – are marginalised and segregated. The former children’s laureate’s series is a crucial work for explaining racism to young readers.
By patricia lockwood (2017).
This may not be the only account of living in a religious household in the American midwest (in her youth, the author joined a group called God’s Gang, where they spoke in tongues), but it is surely the funniest. The author started out as the “poet laureate of Twitter”; her language is brilliant, and she has a completely original mind. Read the review
Adults in the Room
By yanis varoufakis (2017).
This memoir by the leather-jacketed economist of the six months he spent as Greece’s finance minister in 2015 at a time of economic and political crisis has been described as “one of the best political memoirs ever written”. He comes up against the IMF, the European institutions, Wall Street, billionaires and media owners and is told how the system works – as a result, his book is a telling description of modern power. Read the review
The God Delusion
By richard dawkins (2006).
A key text in the days when the “New Atheism” was much talked about, The God Delusion is a hard-hitting attack on religion, full of Dawkins’s confidence that faith produces fanatics and all arguments for God are ridiculous. What the evolutionary biologist lacks in philosophical sophistication, he makes up for in passion, and the book sold in huge numbers. Read the review
The Cost of Living
By deborah levy (2018).
“Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want ... ” The second part of Levy’s “living memoir”, in which she leaves her marriage, is a fascinating companion piece to her deep yet playful novels. Feminism, mythology and the daily grind come together for a book that combines emotion and intellect to dazzling effect. Read the review
Tell Me How It Ends
By valeria luiselli (2016), translated by luiselli with lizzie davis (2017).
As the hysteria over immigration to the US began to build in 2015, the Mexican novelist volunteered to work as an interpreter in New York’s federal immigration court. In this powerful series of essays she tells the poignant stories of the children she met, situating them in the wider context of the troubled relationship between the Americas. Read the review
by Neil Gaiman (2002)
From the Sandman comics to his fantasy epic American Gods to Twitter, Gaiman towers over the world of books. But this perfectly achieved children’s novella, in which a plucky young girl enters a parallel world where her “Other Mother” is a spooky copy of her real-life mum, with buttons for eyes, might be his finest hour: a properly scary modern myth which cuts right to the heart of childhood fears and desires. Read the review
by Jim Crace (2013)
Crace is fascinated by the moment when one era gives way to another. Here, it is the enclosure of the commons, a fulcrum of English history, that drives his story of dispossession and displacement. Set in a village without a name, the narrative dramatises what it’s like to see the world you know come to an end, in a severance of the connection between people and land that has deep relevance for our time of climate crisis and forced migration. Read the review
Stories of Your Life and Others
By ted chiang (2002).
Melancholic and transcendent, Chiang’s eight, high-concept sci-fi stories exploring the nature of language, maths, religion and physics racked up numerous awards and a wider audience when ‘Story of Your Life’ was adapted into the 2016 film Arrival . Read the review
The Spirit Level
By richard wilkinson and kate pickett (2009).
An eye-opening study, based on overwhelming evidence, which revealed that among rich countries, the “more equal societies almost always do better” for all. Growth matters less than inequality, the authors argued: whether the issue is life expectancy, infant mortality, crime rates, obesity, literacy or recycling, the Scandinavian countries, say, will always win out over, say, the UK. Read the review
The Fifth Season
By nk jemisin (2015).
Jemisin became the first African American author to win the best novel category at the Hugo awards for her first book in the Broken Earth trilogy. In her intricate and richly imagined far future universe, the world is ending, ripped apart by relentless earthquakes and volcanoes. Against this apocalyptic backdrop she explores urgent questions of power and enslavement through the eyes of three women. “As this genre finally acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalised matter and that all of us have a future,” she said in her acceptance speech, “so will go the world. (Soon, I hope.)”
Signs Preceding the End of the World
By yuri herrera (2009), translated by lisa dillman (2015).
Makina sets off from her village in Mexico with a package from a local gangster and a message for her brother, who has been gone for three years. The story of her crossing to the US examines the blurring of boundaries, the commingling of languages and the blending of identities that complicate the idea of an eventual return. Read the review
Thinking, Fast and Slow
By daniel kahneman (2011).
The Nobel laureate’s unexpected bestseller, on the minutiae of decision-making, divides the brain into two. System One makes judgments quickly, intuitively and automatically, as when a batsman decides whether to cut or pull. System Two is slow, calculated and deliberate, like long division. But psychologist Kahneman argues that, although System Two thinks it is in control, many of our decisions are really made by System One. Read the review
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
By olga tokarczuk (2009), translated by antonia lloyd-jones (2018).
In this existential eco-thriller, a William Blake-obsessed eccentric investigates the murders of men and animals in a remote Polish village. More accessible and focused than Flights , the novel that won Tokarczuk the Man International Booker prize, it is no less profound in its examination of how atavistic male impulses, emboldened by the new rightwing politics of Europe, are endangering people, communities and nature itself. Read the review
Days Without End
By sebastian barry (2016).
In this savagely beautiful novel set during the Indian wars and American civil war, a young Irish boy flees famine-struck Sligo for Missouri. There he finds lifelong companionship with another emigrant, and they join the army on its brutal journey west, laying waste to Indian settlements. Viscerally focused and intense, yet imbued with the grandeur of the landscape, the book explores love, gender and survival with a rare, luminous power. Read the review
Nothing to Envy
By barbara demick (2009).
Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick interviewed around 100 North Korean defectors for this propulsive work of narrative non-fiction, but she focuses on just six, all from the north-eastern city of Chongjin – closed to foreigners and less media-ready than Pyongyang. North Korea is revealed to be rife with poverty, corruption and violence but populated by resilient people with a remarkable ability to see past the propaganda all around them. Read the review
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
By shoshana zuboff (2019).
An agenda-setting book that is devastating about the extent to which big tech sets out to manipulate us for profit. Not simply another expression of the “techlash”, Zuboff’s ambitious study identifies a new form of capitalism, one involving the monitoring and shaping of our behaviour, often without our knowledge, with profound implications for democracy. “Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us.” Read the review
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
By chris ware (2000).
At the time when Ware won the Guardian first book award, no graphic novel had previously won a generalist literary prize. Emotional and artistic complexity are perfectly poised in this account of a listless 36-year-old office dogsbody who is thrown into an existential crisis by an encounter with his estranged dad. Read the review
Notes on a Scandal
By zoë heller (2003).
Sheba, a middle-aged teacher at a London comprehensive, begins an affair with her 15-year-old student - but we hear about it from a fellow teacher, the needy Barbara, whose obsessive nature drives the narrative. With shades of Patricia Highsmith, this teasing investigation into sex, class and loneliness is a dark marvel. Read the review
By javier marías (2011), translated by margaret jull costa (2013).
The Spanish master examines chance, love and death in the story of an apparently random killing that gradually reveals hidden depths. Marías constructs an elegant murder mystery from his trademark labyrinthine sentences, but this investigation is in pursuit of much meatier questions than whodunnit. Read the review
The Constant Gardener
By john le carré (2001).
The master of the cold war thriller turned his attention to the new world order in this chilling investigation into the corruption powering big pharma in Africa. Based on the case of a rogue antibiotics trial that killed and maimed children in Nigeria in the 1990s, it has all the dash and authority of his earlier novels while precisely and presciently anatomising the dangers of a rampant neo-imperialist capitalism. Read the review
The Silence of the Girls
By pat barker (2018).
If the western literary canon is founded on Homer, then it is founded on women’s silence. Barker’s extraordinary intervention, in which she replays the events of the Iliad from the point of view of the enslaved Trojan women, chimed with both the #MeToo movement and a wider drive to foreground suppressed voices. In a world still at war, it has chilling contemporary resonance. Read the review
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
By carlo rovelli (2014).
A theoretical physicist opens a window on to the great questions of the universe with this 96-page overview of modern physics. Rovelli’s keen insight and striking metaphors make this the best introduction to subjects including relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, elementary particles and entropy outside of a course in advanced physics. Read the review
by Gillian Flynn (2012)
The deliciously dark US crime thriller that launched a thousand imitators and took the concept of the unreliable narrator to new heights. A woman disappears: we think we know whodunit, but we’re wrong. Flynn’s stylishly written portrait of a toxic marriage set against a backdrop of social and economic insecurity combines psychological depth with sheer unputdownable flair. Read the review
by Stephen King (2000)
Written after a near-fatal accident, this combination of memoir and masterclass by fiction’s most successful modern storyteller showcases the blunt, casual brilliance of King at his best. As well as being genuinely useful, it’s a fascinating chronicle of literary persistence, and of a lifelong love affair with language and narrative. Read the review
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By rebecca skloot (2010).
Henrietta Lacks was a black American who died in agony of cancer in a “coloured” hospital ward in 1951. Her cells, taken without her knowledge during a biopsy, went on to change medical history, being used around the world to develop countless drugs. Skloot skilfully tells the extraordinary scientific story, but in this book the voices of the Lacks children are crucial – they have struggled desperately even as billions have been made from their mother’s “HeLa” cells. Read the review
By edward st aubyn (2006).
The fourth of the autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels finds the wealthy protagonist – whose flight from atrocious memories of child abuse into drug abuse was the focus of the first books – beginning to grope after redemption. Elegant wit and subtle psychology lift grim subject matter into seductive brilliance. Read the review
This House of Grief
By helen garner (2014).
A man drives his three sons into a deep pond and swims out, leaving them to drown. But was it an accident? This 2005 tragedy caught the attention of one of Australia’s greatest living writers. Garner puts herself centre stage in an account of Robert Farquharson’s trial that combines forensic detail and rich humanity. Read the review
by Alice Oswald (2002)
This book-length poem is a mesmerising tapestry of “the river’s mutterings”, based on three years of recording conversations with people who live and work on the River Dart in Devon. From swimmers to sewage workers, boatbuilders to bailiffs, salmon fishers to ferryman, the voices are varied and vividly brought to life. Read the review
The Beauty of the Husband
By anne carson (2002).
One of Canada’s most celebrated poets examines love and desire in a collection that describes itself as “a fictional essay in 39 tangos”. Carson charts the course of a doomed marriage in loose-limbed lines that follow the switchbacks of thought and feeling from first meeting through multiple infidelities to arrive at eventual divorce.
by Tony Judt (2005)
This grand survey of Europe since 1945 begins with the devastation left behind by the second world war and offers a panoramic narrative of the cold war from its beginnings to the collapse of the Soviet bloc – a part of which Judt witnessed firsthand in Czechoslovakia’s velvet revolution. A very complex story is told with page-turning urgency and what may now be read as nostalgic faith in “the European idea”. Read the review
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
By michael chabon (2000).
A love story to the golden age of comics in New York, Chabon’s Pulitzer-winner features two Jewish cousins, one smuggled out of occupied Prague, who create an anti-fascist comic book superhero called The Escapist. Their own adventures are as exciting and highly coloured as the ones they write and draw in this generous, open-hearted, deeply lovable rollercoaster of a book. Read the review
by Robert Macfarlane (2019)
A beautifully written and profound book, which takes the form of a series of (often hair-raising and claustrophobic) voyages underground – from the fjords of the Arctic to the Parisian catacombs. Trips below the surface inspire reflections on “deep” geological time and raise urgent questions about the human impact on planet Earth. Read the review
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
By michael pollan (2006).
An entertaining and highly influential book from the writer best known for his advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” The author follows four meals on their journey from field to plate – including one from McDonald’s and a locally sourced organic feast. Pollan is a skilled, amusing storyteller and The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed both food writing and the way we see food. Read the review
Women & Power
By mary beard (2017).
Based on Beard’s lectures on women’s voices and how they have been silenced, Women and Power was an enormous publishing success in the “ #MeToo ”’ year 2017. An exploration of misogyny, the origins of “gendered speech” in the classical era and the problems the male world has with strong women, this slim manifesto became an instant feminist classic. Read the review
True History of the Kelly Gang
By peter carey (2000).
Carey’s second Booker winner is an irresistible tour de force of literary ventriloquism: the supposed autobiography of 19th-century Australian outlaw and “wild colonial boy” Ned Kelly, inspired by a fragment of Kelly’s own prose and written as a glorious rush of semi-punctuated vernacular storytelling. Mythic and tender by turns, these are tall tales from a lost frontier. Read the review
By andrea levy (2004).
Pitted against a backdrop of prejudice, this London-set novel is told by four protagonists – Hortense and Gilbert, Jamaican migrants, and a stereotypically English couple, Queenie and Bernard. These varied perspectives, illuminated by love and loyalty, combine to create a thoughtful mosaic depicting the complex beginnings of Britain’s multicultural society. Read the review
by Colm Tóibín (2009)
Tóibín’s sixth novel is set in the 1950s, when more than 400,000 people left Ireland, and considers the emotional and existential impact of emigration on one young woman. Eilis makes a life for herself in New York, but is drawn back by the possibilities of the life she has lost at home. A universal story of love, endurance and missed chances, made radiant through Tóibín’s measured prose and tender understatement. Read the review
Oryx and Crake
By margaret atwood (2003).
In the first book in her dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, the Booker winner speculates about the havoc science can wreak on the world. The big warning here – don’t trust corporations to run the planet – is blaring louder and louder as the century progresses. Read the review
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
By jeanette winterson (2011).
The title is the question Winterson’s adoptive mother asked as she threw her daughter out, aged 16, for having a girlfriend. The autobiographical story behind Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit , and the trials of Winterson’s later life, is urgent, wise and moving. Read the review
By terry pratchett (2002).
Pratchett’s mighty Discworld series is a high point in modern fiction: a parody of fantasy literature that deepened and darkened over the decades to create incisive satires of our own world. The 29th book, focusing on unlikely heroes, displays all his fierce intelligence, anger and wild humour, in a story that’s moral, humane – and hilarious. Read the review
by Marjane Satrapi (2000-2003), translated by Mattias Ripa (2003-2004)
Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel follows her coming-of-age in the lead up to and during the Iranian revolution. In this riotous memoir, Satrapi focuses on one young life to reveal a hidden history.
By seamus heaney (2010).
The Nobel laureate tends to the fragments of memory and loss with moving precision in his final poetry collection. A book of elegies and echoes, these poems are infused with a haunting sense of pathos, with a line often left hanging to suspend the reader in longing and regret. Read the review
Levels of Life
By julian barnes (2013).
The British novelist combines fiction and non-fiction to form a searing essay on grief and love for his late wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Barnes divides the book into three parts with disparate themes – 19th-century ballooning, photography and marriage. Their convergence is wonderfully achieved. Read the review
Hope in the Dark
By rebecca solnit (2004).
Writing against “the tremendous despair at the height of the Bush administration’s powers and the outset of the war in Iraq”, the US thinker finds optimism in political activism and its ability to change the world. The book ranges widely from the fall of the Berlin wall to the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, to the invention of Viagra. Read the review
Citizen: An American Lyric
By claudia rankine (2014).
From the slow emergency response in the black suburbs destroyed by hurricane Katrina to a mother trying to move her daughter away from a black passenger on a plane, the poet’s award-winning prose work confronts the history of racism in the US and asks: regardless of their actual status, who truly gets to be a citizen? Read the review
by Michael Lewis (2010)
The author of The Big Short has made a career out of rendering the most opaque subject matter entertaining and comprehensible: Moneyball tells the story of how geeks outsmarted jocks to revolutionise baseball using maths. But you do not need to know or care about the sport, because – as with all Lewis’s best writing – it’s all about how the story is told. Read the review
by Ian McEwan (2001)
There are echoes of DH Lawrence and EM Forster in McEwan’s finely tuned dissection of memory and guilt. The fates of three young people are altered by a young girl’s lie at the close of a sweltering day on a country estate in 1935. Lifelong remorse, the horror of war and devastating twists are to follow in an elegant, deeply felt meditation on the power of love and art. Read the review
The Year of Magical Thinking
By joan didion (2005).
With cold, clear, precise prose, Didion gives an account of the year her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, collapsed from a fatal heart attack in their home. Her devastating examination of grief and widowhood changed the nature of writing about bereavement. Read the review
By zadie smith (2000).
Set around the unlikely bond between two wartime friends, Smith’s debut brilliantly captures Britain’s multicultural spirit, and offers a compelling insight into immigrant family life.
The Line of Beauty
By alan hollinghurst (2004).
Oxford graduate Nick Guest has the questionable good fortune of moving into the grand west London home of a rising Tory MP. Thatcher-era degeneracy is lavishly displayed as Nick falls in love with the son of a supermarket magnate, and the novel records how Aids began to poison gay life in London. In peerless prose, Hollinghurst captures something close to the spirit of an age. Read the review
The Green Road
By anne enright (2015).
A reunion dominates the Irish novelist’s family drama, but the individual stories of the five members of the Madigan clan – the matriarch, Rosaleen, and her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna, who escape and are bound to return – are beautifully held in balance. When the Madigans do finally come together halfway through the book, Enright masterfully reminds us of the weight of history and family. Read the review
by Martin Amis (2000)
Known for the firecracker phrases and broad satires of his fiction, Amis presented a much warmer face in his memoir. His life is haunted by the disappearance of his cousin Lucy, who is revealed 20 years later to have been murdered by Fred West. But Amis also has much fun recollecting his “velvet-suited, snakeskin-booted” youth, and paints a moving portrait of his father’s comic gusto as old age reduces him to a kind of “anti-Kingsley”. Read the review
The Hare with Amber Eyes
By edmund de waal (2010).
In this exquisite family memoir, the ceramicist explains how he came to inherit a collection of 264 netsuke – small Japanese ornaments – from his great-uncle. The unlikely survival of the netsuke entails De Waal telling a story that moves from Paris to Austria under the Nazis to Japan, and he beautifully conjures a sense of place. The book doubles as a set of profound reflections on objects and what they mean to us. Read the review
Outline by Rachel
This startling work of autofiction, which signalled a new direction for Cusk, follows an author teaching a creative writing course over one hot summer in Athens. She leads storytelling exercises. She meets other writers for dinner. She hears from other people about relationships, ambition, solitude, intimacy and “the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women”. The end result is sublime. Read the review
by Alison Bechdel (2006)
The American cartoonist’s darkly humorous memoir tells the story of how her closeted gay father killed himself a few months after she came out as a lesbian. This pioneering work, which later became a musical, helped shape the modern genre of “graphic memoir”, combining detailed and beautiful panels with remarkable emotional depth. Read the review
The Emperor of All Maladies
By siddhartha mukherjee (2010).
“Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.” In adapting the opening lines of Anna Karenina , Mukherjee sets out the breathtaking ambition of his study of cancer: not only to share the knowledge of a practising oncologist but to take his readers on a literary and historical journey. Read the review
By maggie nelson (2015).
An electrifying memoir that captured a moment in thinking about gender, and also changed the world of books. The story, told in fragments, is of Nelson’s pregnancy, which unfolds at the same time as her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, is beginning testosterone injections: “the summer of our changing bodies”. Strikingly honest, originally written, with a galaxy of intellectual reference points, it is essentially a love story; one that seems to make a new way of living possible. Read the review
The Underground Railroad
By colson whitehead (2016).
A thrilling, genre-bending tale of escape from slavery in the American deep south, this Pulitzer prize-winner combines extraordinary prose and uncomfortable truths. Two slaves flee their masters using the underground railroad, the network of abolitionists who helped slaves out of the south, wonderfully reimagined by Whitehead as a steampunk vision of a literal train. Read the review
A Death in the Family
By karl ove knausgaard (2009), translated by don bartlett (2012).
The first instalment of Knausgaard’s relentlessly self-examining six-volume series My Struggle revolves around the life and death of his alcoholic father. Whether or not you regard him as the Proust of memoir, his compulsive honesty created a new benchmark for autofiction. Read the review
by Carol Ann Duffy (2005)
A moving, book-length poem from the UK’s first female poet laureate, Rapture won the TS Eliot prize in 2005. From falling in love to betrayal and separation, Duffy reimagines romance with refreshing originality. Read the review
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
By alice munro (2001).
Canada’s observant and humane short story writer, who won the Nobel in 2013, is at her best in this collection. A housekeeper’s fate is changed by the pranks of her employer’s teenager daughter; an incorrigible flirt gracefully accepts his wife’s new romance in her care home. No character acts as at first expected in Munro’s stories, which are attuned to the tiniest shifts in perception. Read the review
Capital in the Twenty First Century
By thomas piketty (2013), translated by arthur goldhammer (2014).
The beautifully written product of 15 years of research, Capital made its author an intellectual star – the modern Marx – and opened readers’ eyes to how neoliberalism produces vastly increased inequalities. Full of data, theories and historical analysis, its message is clear, and prophetic: unless governments increase tax, the new and grotesque wealth levels of the rich will encourage political instability. Read the review
By sally rooney (2018).
Rooney’s second novel, a love story between two clever and damaged young people coming of age in contemporary Ireland, confirmed her status as a literary superstar. Her focus is on the dislocation and uncertainty of millennial life, but her elegant prose has universal appeal. Read the review
A Visit from The Goon Squad
By jennifer egan (2011).
Inspired by both Proust and The Sopranos , Egan’s Pulitzer-winning comedy follows several characters in and around the US music industry, but is really a book about memory and kinship, time and narrative, continuity and disconnection. Read the review
The Noonday Demon
By andrew solomon (2001).
Emerging from Solomon’s own painful experience, this “anatomy” of depression examines its many faces – plus its science, sociology and treatment. The book’s combination of honesty, scholarly rigour and poetry made it a benchmark in literary memoir and understanding of mental health. Read the review
Tenth of December
By george saunders (2013).
This warm yet biting collection of short stories by the Booker-winning American author will restore your faith in humanity. No matter how weird the setting – a futuristic prison lab, a middle-class home where human lawn ornaments are employed as a status symbol – in these surreal satires of post-crash life Saunders reminds us of the meaning we find in small moments. Read the review
by Yuval Noah Harari (2011), translated by Harari with John Purcell and Haim Watzman (2014)
In his Olympian history of humanity, Harari documents the numerous revolutions Homo sapiens has undergone over the last 70,000 years: from new leaps in cognitive reasoning to agriculture, science and industry, the era of information and the possibilities of biotechnology. Harari’s scope may be too wide for some, but this engaging work topped the charts and made millions marvel. Read the review
Life After Life
By kate atkinson (2013).
Atkinson examines family, history and the power of fiction as she tells the story of a woman born in 1910 – and then tells it again, and again, and again. Ursula Todd’s multiple lives see her strangled at birth, drowned on a Cornish beach, trapped in an awful marriage and visiting Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden. But this dizzying fictional construction is grounded by such emotional intelligence that her heroine’s struggles always feel painfully, joyously real. Read the review
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night‑Time
By mark haddon (2003).
Fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone becomes absorbed in the mystery of a dog’s demise, meticulously investigating through diagrams, timetables, maps and maths problems. Haddon’s fascinating portrayal of an unconventional mind was a crossover hit with both adults and children and was adapted into a very successful stage play. Read the review
The Shock Doctrine
By naomi klein (2007).
In this urgent examination of free-market fundamentalism, Klein argues – with accompanying reportage – that the social breakdowns witnessed during decades of neoliberal economic policies are not accidental, but in fact integral to the functioning of the free market, which relies on disaster and human suffering to function. Read the review
by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
A father and his young son, “each the other’s world entire”, trawl across the ruins of post-apocalyptic America in this terrifying but tender story told with biblical conviction. The slide into savagery as civilisation collapses is harrowing material, but McCarthy’s metaphysical efforts to imagine a cold dark universe where the light of humanity is winking out are what make the novel such a powerful ecological warning. Read the review
By jonathan franzen (2001).
The members of one ordinarily unhappy American family struggle to adjust to the shifting axes of their worlds over the final decades of the 20th century. Franzen’s move into realism reaped huge literary rewards: exploring both domestic and national conflict, this family saga is clever, funny and outrageously readable. Read the review
The Sixth Extinction
By elizabeth kolbert (2014).
The science journalist examines with clarity and memorable detail the current crisis of plant and animal loss caused by human civilisation (over the past half billion years, there have been five mass extinctions on Earth; we are causing another). Kolbert considers both ecosystems – the Great Barrier Reef, the Amazon rainforest – and the lives of some extinct and soon-to-be extinct creatures including the Sumatran rhino and “the most beautiful bird in the world”, the black-faced honeycreeper of Maui. Read the review
By sarah waters (2002).
Moving from the underworld dens of Victorian London to the boudoirs of country house gothic, and hingeing on the seduction of an heiress, Waters’s third novel is a drippingly atmospheric thriller, a smart study of innocence and experience, and a sensuous lesbian love story – with a plot twist to make the reader gasp. Read the review
Nickel and Dimed
By barbara ehrenreich (2001).
In this modern classic of reportage, Ehrenreich chronicled her attempts to live on the minimum wage in three American states. Working first as a waitress, then a cleaner and a nursing home aide, she still struggled to survive, and the stories of her co-workers are shocking. The US economy as she experienced it is full of routine humiliation, with demands as high as the rewards are low. Two decades on, this still reads like urgent news. Read the review
The Plot Against America
By philip roth (2004).
What if aviator Charles Lindbergh, who once called Hitler “a great man”, had won the US presidency in a landslide victory and signed a treaty with Nazi Germany? Paranoid yet plausible, Roth’s alternative-world novel is only more relevant in the age of Trump. Read the review
My Brilliant Friend
By elena ferrante (2011), translated by ann goldstein (2012).
Powerfully intimate and unashamedly domestic, the first in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series established her as a literary sensation. This and the three novels that followed documented the ways misogyny and violence could determine lives, as well as the history of Italy in the late 20th century.
Half of a Yellow Sun
By chimamanda ngozi adichie (2006).
When Nigerian author Adichie was growing up, the Biafran war “hovered over everything”. Her sweeping, evocative novel, which won the Orange prize, charts the political and personal struggles of those caught up in the conflict and explores the brutal legacy of colonialism in Africa. Read the review
David mitchell (2004).
The epic that made Mitchell’s name is a Russian doll of a book, nesting stories within stories and spanning centuries and genres with aplomb. From a 19th-century seafarer to a tale from beyond the end of civilisation, via 1970s nuclear intrigue and the testimony of a future clone, these dizzying narratives are delicately interlinked, highlighting the echoes and recurrences of the vast human symphony. Read the review
by Ali Smith (2016)
Smith began writing her Seasonal Quartet, a still-ongoing experiment in quickfire publishing, against the background of the EU referendum. The resulting “first Brexit novel” isn’t just a snapshot of a newly divided Britain, but a dazzling exploration into love and art, time and dreams, life and death, all done with her customary invention and wit. Read the review
Between the World and Me
By ta-nehisi coates (2015).
Coates’s impassioned meditation on what it means to be a black American today made him one of the country’s most important intellectuals and writers. Having grown up the son of a former Black Panther on the violent streets of Baltimore, he has a voice that is challenging but also poetic. Between the World and Me takes the form of a letter to his teenage son, and ranges from the daily reality of racial injustice and police violence to the history of slavery and the civil war: white people, he writes, will never remember “the scale of theft that enriched them”. Read the review
The Amber Spyglass
By philip pullman (2000).
Children’s fiction came of age when the final part of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy became the first book for younger readers to win the Whitbread book of the year award. Pullman has brought imaginative fire and storytelling bravado to the weightiest of subjects: religion, free will, totalitarian structures and the human drive to learn, rebel and grow. Here Asriel’s struggle against the Authority reaches its climax, Lyra and Will journey to the Land of the Dead, and Mary investigates the mysterious elementary particles that lend their name to his current trilogy: The Book of Dust. The Hollywood-fuelled commercial success achieved by JK Rowling may have eluded Pullman so far, but his sophisticated reworking of Paradise Lost helped adult readers throw off any embarrassment at enjoying fiction written for children – and publishing has never looked back. Read the review
by WG Sebald (2001), translated by Anthea Bell (2001)
Sebald died in a car crash in 2001, but his genre-defying mix of fact and fiction, keen sense of the moral weight of history and interleaving of inner and outer journeys have had a huge influence on the contemporary literary landscape. His final work, the typically allusive life story of one man, charts the Jewish disapora and lost 20th century with heartbreaking power. Read the review
Never Let Me Go
By kazuo ishiguro (2005).
From his 1989 Booker winner The Remains of the Day to 2015’s The Buried Giant , Nobel laureate Ishiguro writes profound, puzzling allegories about history, nationalism and the individual’s place in a world that is always beyond our understanding. His sixth novel, a love triangle set among human clones in an alternative 1990s England, brings exquisite understatement to its exploration of mortality, loss and what it means to be human. Read the review
By svetlana alexievich (2013), translated by bela shayevich (2016).
The Belarusian Nobel laureate recorded thousands of hours of testimony from ordinary people to create this oral history of the Soviet Union and its end. Writers, waiters, doctors, soldiers, former Kremlin apparatchiks, gulag survivors: all are given space to tell their stories, share their anger and betrayal, and voice their worries about the transition to capitalism. An unforgettable book, which is both an act of catharsis and a profound demonstration of empathy.
by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
Robinson’s meditative, deeply philosophical novel is told through letters written by elderly preacher John Ames in the 1950s to his young son who, when he finally reaches an adulthood his father won’t see, will at least have this posthumous one-sided conversation: “While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been.” This is a book about legacy, a record of a pocket of America that will never return, a reminder of the heartbreaking, ephemeral beauty that can be found in everyday life. As Ames concludes, to his son and himself: “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.” Read the review
by Hilary Mantel (2009)
Mantel had been publishing for a quarter century before the project that made her a phenomenon, set to be concluded with the third part of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light , next March. To read her story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell at the Tudor court, detailing the making of a new England and the self-creation of a new kind of man, is to step into the stream of her irresistibly authoritative present tense and find oneself looking out from behind her hero’s eyes. The surface details are sensuously, vividly immediate, the language as fresh as new paint; but her exploration of power, fate and fortune is also deeply considered and constantly in dialogue with our own era, as we are shaped and created by the past. In this book we have, as she intended, “a sense of history listening and talking to itself”. Read the review
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Best contemporary fiction books 🛋️
Curated by our reviewers this week
SUNDAY 12th NOVEMBER, 2023
Contemporary fiction, a native's tongue.
A darkly moving novel—A Native's Tongue is a perplexing look at love's destructive power.
Reviewed by susan morris
House on Fire
A tough but moving story about the challenges of mental illness and its effects on family. A meaningful read that can open minds.
Reviewed by Electra Nanou
Time for Once
"Time for Once" is a touching and relatable coming-of-age love story that will leave a lasting impression.
Reviewed by Charisma Enigma
Give Me Shelter
A story of a boy, his family and friends, navigating loss, anxiety and uncertainty at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Reviewed by Rachel Deeming
An unmissable debut novel perfect for fans of Megan Nolan, Elif Batuman, Naoise Dolan, and Louise Nealon
Reviewed by Catherine Dent
The Truth Now
A man who has just left prison goes on an unconventional hero’s journey that is at times riveting and at times philosophical.
Reviewed by Ana Carolina Pereira
You Can't Get There From Here: Stories
A beautiful novel of short stories showing the hardest emotions of being a human trying to find a way forward from hard life ex...
Reviewed by Shamitha Devakandan
This interesting story will take you on a mysterious journey into a magical realm where there's suspense, love, & of course the...
Reviewed by Nuraine Sadaf
A great story full of humour and action which rolls along at a good rate - entertaining and an enjoyable read!
Everything I Am
With a twist that this reader didn't see coming, Everything That I Am is a multilayered look at grief and loss.
Reviewed by Nancy Cavillones
The Best Thing About Bennett
Endearing and inspirational contemporary fiction. I would give this book more than five stars if I could!
Reviewed by Gail Kaufman
Fish Heads and Duck Skin
A darkly funny diatribe and celebration of self-discovery in a foreign land
Reviewed by Sacha T. Y. Fortuné
The Prophet Joan
Funny, entertaining, unorthodox, Jay Heinrichs' book is a truly enjoyable read following the story of the reluctant teenage pro...
Driftwood: Stories from the Margarita Road
Anthony Lee Head
Experience the Margarita Road with Anthony Lee Head. It is not one you will regret with its great characters and good storytell...
COMFREY, WYOMING: Birds of a Feather
A whirlwind journey of discovery, acceptance, grief and love, Birkmyer explores the essence of human relationships in this exci...
Reviewed by Helen Wiles
A fun, naughty romp. Cupid is being punished for his childish pranks and he’s taking the world of mortals by storm.
Reviewed by Dorothyanne Brown
A novel about poverty, violence, and the stories we tell ourselves. Found family keeps Alabama Chrome from becoming a depressin...
Reviewed by Meg Stivison
The Shade Under the Mango Tree
A well-structured bildungsroman of a young woman’s quest for identity, adventure, and belonging, centered on a charming meet-c...
Reviewed by Shrav Rao
Like No Other Boy
A heartwarming novel about family, parenting, and the magic of what a connection with animals could do for a young boy with aut...
Reviewed by Daniella Poloni
Cake: a novel
A moving, terrifying and beautiful story, shining light on the abuse some people experience from others, or even themselves.
Reviewed by Christina de Vries
Welcome our new contemporary fiction reviewers 👋
Apply to become a reviewer.
I have a BA and MA in English Literature from Durham University, and am currently working on a Creative Writing MA.
It's not easy to sum up who I am, enough to make me interesting anyway, so what's essential to know? I love to read. I love to review. I love to write and blog at scuffedgranny.com. Short stories and poems are my main writing successes, winning runner-up plaudits on Reedsy Prompts and Vocal.media.
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The best literary fiction books to read right now
Here we share our curated list of some of the most exciting literary fiction of 2023, the best literary books of 2022, and our all-time literary must-reads..
2022 was a remarkable year for literature and 2023 looks equally unlikely to disappoint. Here, we round up some of the most exciting new literary fiction of 2023, reflect on the best literary books of 2022 and recommend some of the best literary fiction of all time.
For even more inspiration, don't miss our edit of the best fiction books.
- Best literary fiction of 2023
- Best literary fiction of 2022
- Best literary fiction of all time
The best new literary fiction of 2023
Western lane, by chetna maroo.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023
Exploring themes of grief and sisterhood, this debut coming-of-age story packs a lot of emotion into just 176 pages. Eleven-year-old Gopi has been playing squash for as long as she can remember. When her mother dies, her father enlists her in a brutal training regimen. Soon, the game has become her entire world, causing a rift between Gopi and her sisters. But on the court, governed by the rhythms of the sport, she feels alive. This novel beautifully captures the ordinary and annihilates it with beauty as we follow a young athlete's struggle to transcend herself.
By cecilia rabess.
When Jess first meets Josh at their Ivy League college she dislikes him immediately: an entitled guy in chinos, ready to take over the world, unable to accept that life might be easier for him because he's white, while Jess is almost always the only Black woman in their class. But as a tempestuous friendship turns into an electrifying romance that shocks them both, Jess begins to question who she is and what she’s really willing to compromise. Can people really ever just agree to disagree? And more to the point, should they? This hugely funny and deeply moving love story offers no easy answers.
By jhumpa lahiri.
Inspired by the city she’s lived in for the past two decades, Jhumpa Lahiri's new work of fiction turns her gaze towards those who call Rome home. Weaving each character’s story around a set of steps they encounter daily, and examining how the city is constantly evolving and changing, Lahiri masterfully illuminates the joys and tragedies of daily life. From a man mourning the person he once was to a couple coming to terms with loss and a family trying to make a new city home, the rich characters she has created will stay with you long after you finish reading.
by Ashleigh Nugent
Aeon is a mixed-up and mixed-race teenager from a leafy Liverpool suburb, trying to understand the Black identity foisted upon him by his friends and his community. To his growing shame, the only Black people in his life are his dad and his cousin, who he's decided don't count. Desperate to find his Black roots he travels to Jamaica. Mugged, stabbed and arrested, he's beaten unconscious in a detention centre for being the 'White Boy'. And then things really start to go wrong.
by James Hynes
This vivid story set at the end of the Roman Empire, follows Sparrow – a boy of no known origin living in a brothel. He spends his days listening to stories told by his beloved ‘mother’ Euterpe, running errands for her lover the cook, and dodging the blows of their brutal overseer. But a hard fate awaits him – one that involves suffering, murder and mayhem. To cope he will create his own identity – Sparrow – who sings without reason and can fly from trouble. This is a book with one of the most powerfully affecting and memorable characters of recent fiction, brought to life through James Hynes' meticulous research and bold imagination.
‘ Utterly engrossing, vivid, and honest, this coming of age story reaches across millennia to grab us by the throat. ’ Emma Donoghue on Sparrow
by Hernan Diaz
Winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this literary puzzle about money, power, and intimacy challenges the myths shrouding wealth, and the fictions that often pass for history. Even through the roar and effervescence of the 1920s, everyone in New York has heard of Benjamin and Helen Rask. He is a legendary Wall Street tycoon; she is the daughter of eccentric aristocrats. Together, they have risen to the very top of a world of seemingly endless wealth — all as a decade of excess and speculation draws to an end. But at what cost have they acquired their immense fortune?
By natalie haynes.
As the sole mortal in a family of gods, Medusa begins to realize that she is the only one who experiences change, the only one who can be hurt, and the only one who lives with an urgency that her family will never know. Then, when the sea god Poseidon commits an unforgivable act in the temple of Athene, the goddess takes her revenge where she can – and Medusa is changed forever. Writhing snakes replace her hair, and her gaze now turns any living creature to stone. Unable to control her new power, she is condemned to a life of shadows and darkness. Until Perseus embarks upon a quest. At last, Medusa's story is told.
The World and All That It Holds
By aleksandar hemon.
Rafael Pinto spends his days crushing herbs and tablets at the pharmacy he inherited from his father. While it's a far cry from his poetry-filled student days in Vienna, life feels peaceful. That is until a June day in 1914 when the world explodes and soon, finding himself in the trenches of Galicia, Pinto's fantasies fall flat. As war devours, all he has left is the attention of Osman, a fellow soldier who complements Pinto's introspective, poetic soul. Together, Pinto and Osman will escape the trenches and find themselves entangled with spies and Bolsheviks. In this story of love and war, it is Pinto's love for Osman that will truly survive.
by Sarah May
Vanity Fair meets Succession as Becky Sharp works her way up the journalistic greasy pole in nineties tabloid-era London. Scoop after scoop, Becky's downfall looms as she becomes more and more involved in every scandal her newspaper publishes and cares less and less about the lives she ruins in the process. A sharply intelligent and funny interrogation of how far society has really come since Thackeray's nineteenth-century Becky Sharp, just like the stories broken by The Mercury , everyone will be talking about Becky .
By henry hoke.
A queer mountain lion lives in the drought-devastated land under the Hollywood sign. The lion spends their days protecting a nearby homeless encampment, observing hikers complain about their trauma and grappling with the complexities of their own identity. When a man-made fire engulfs the encampment, the lion is forced from the hills down into the city. As they confront a carousel of temptations and threats, the lion takes us on a tour that spans the cruel inequalities of Los Angeles. Feral and vulnerable, profound and playful, Open Throat is a marvel of storytelling that brings the mythic to life.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
By danielle evans.
This electrifying short story collection offers a fresh perspective on race and class in today's United States, full of wry, wise characters negotiating the complicated coalescence of inequality, adolescence and family. A college student's unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront her feelings of resentment toward her more privileged classmates. A father’s misguided attempt to rescue a gift for his adult daughter magnifies all he doesn’t know about her. And two teenage girls’ flirt with adulthood leads to disastrous consequences.
Now I Am Here
By chidi ebere.
About to make his last stand, a soldier facing certain death at the hands of the enemy writes home to explain how he ended up there, a gentle man gradually transformed into a war criminal, committing acts he wouldn’t have thought himself capable. A profound reflection on how good people can do terrible things, this is a brave, unflinching and thought-provoking debut.
by Sarah K Jackson
Five years ago, a toxic microplastics storm killed most of the population. Now Katie, a young mother, must forage and hunt for meat as she attempts to feed her little boy, Harry. At a time when stepping outside could kill you, Harry is kept indoors at all costs. Then, after years without human contact, Katie and Harry are terrified by the unwelcome arrival of another survivor. Katie realises she must undertake a previously unthinkable journey in search of a new life for her son. Perfect for fans of Room, Station Eleven and dystopian fiction in general, this gripping novel explores just how far a mother will go to save her child.
An Honourable Exit
By eric vuillard.
From the International Booker Prize shortlisted author comes a searing account of a conflict that dealt a fatal blow to French colonialism. 19 October 1950. The war is not going to plan. In Paris, politicians gather to discuss what to do about Indochina. In this gripping and shocking novel, Éric Vuillard exposes the tangled web of politicians, bankers and titans of industry who all had a vested interest in France’s prolonged presence in lands far from Paris. At just 192 pages, what this book lacks in length, it certainly doesn't lack in drama - short, sharp and brutal, An Honourable Exit is a journey behind closed doors to witness how history is really made.
Five Tuesdays in Winter
By lily king.
With Writers & Lovers , Lily King became one of our most acclaimed writers of contemporary fiction. And now, with Five Tuesdays in Winter , she gathers ten of her best short stories. These intimate literary stories tell of a bookseller who is filled with unspoken love for his employee, an abandoned teenage boy nurtured by a pair of housesitting students and a girl whose loss of innocence brings confident power. Romantic, hopeful, raw and occasionally surreal, these stories riff beautifully on the topic of love and romance.
A Time Outside This Time
By amitava kumar.
A writer called Satya visits a high-profile artists' retreat, and soon finds that the pressures of modern life are hard to shed: the US president pours out vitriol, a virus threatens the world, and the relentless news cycle only makes things worse. Satya realises these pressures can inspire him to write, and he begins to channel presidential tweets, memories from an Indian childhood, and his own experiences as an immigrant into his new novel. A fascinating exploration of memory in a post-truth world, Amitava Kumar's A Time Outside This Time is a beautiful and necessary novel.
Maps of our Spectacular Bodies
By maddie mortimer.
Something is moving in Lia's body, learning her life with gleeful malevolence and spreading through the rungs of her larynx, the bones of her trachea. When a shock diagnosis forever changes Lia's world, boundaries in her life begin to break down as buried secrets emerge. A voice prowling inside of her takes hold of her story, merging the landscape within her body with the one outside. A coming-of-age at the end of life, Maddie Mortimer's compelling debut novel is both heart-breaking and darkly funny, combining wild lyricism with celebrations of the desire, forgiveness and darkness in our bodies.
‘ Compelling and uplifting . . . undeniably impressive: Mortimer is clearly a talent to watch ’ The Telegraph on Maps of our Spectacular Bodies
By emma flint.
Based on a real case from the 1920s, Other Women tells the story of Beatrice, one of the thousands of nameless and invisible unmarried women trying to make lives for themselves after the First World War, and Kate, the wife of the man Beatrice has fallen in love with. When fantasy and obsession turns to murder, two women who should never have met are connected forever.
What You Need From The Night
By laurent petitmangin.
How can a father and son find common ground when everything seems set to break them apart? A father, forced by tragedy to raise his sons alone, releases they are taking two different paths. One plans for university in Paris. The other joins a far-right group. Initially seeking camaraderie, their activities lead him to a violent confrontation.
by Jim Crace
eden begins with a call. The gardeners are asked by their masters, the angels, to view a corpse. It is that of a bird who has escaped beyond the garden walls. Within the garden are lush fields, orchards and lakes, but beyond – where the bird has strayed – lie penury, illness and death. Something is wrong with eden, and the angels fear rebellion. They know that gardener Ebon and Jamie, an angel who has a broken wing, want desperately to leave and find their escaped friend Tabi. A compulsive read about love and the nature of freedom.
By hanya yanagihara.
This amazing new novel from the author of A Little Life begins in the nineteenth century, and spans stories of love, family, loss and promised utopia over the following three centuries. In 1893, New York is part of the Free States, and a gentle young member of a privileged family falls for a charismatic and impoverished music teacher. In 1993 Manhattan is being swept by the AIDS epidemic, and a young Hawaiian man with a wealthy older partner must hide his difficult family background. And in 2093 in a world where plague and totalitarian rule is rife, a young woman tries to solve the mystery of her husband's disappearances.
by Julia May Jonas
The narrator of this provocative and utterly readable novel is a much loved English professor, who finds that her charismatic professor husband is facing a flood of accusations from former students. The couple have long had an understanding about taking lovers, but suddenly life has acquired an uncomfortable edge. And things get even more twisted when the narrator finds herself in the grip of an obsession with Vladimir, a young and feted married novelist who is new to the campus. This explosive, edgy debut traces the tangled contradictions of power and lust.
by Gina Chung
Stuck in a rut, Ro faces the challenges of her thirties: a strained relationship with her mother and a boyfriend who left for a Mars mission. Her days are mundane at the aquarium, and her nights involve consuming sharktinis. With her best friend drifting away and Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus, as her sole connection to her vanished marine biologist father, Ro's world unravels when Dolores is sold to a wealthy investor. On the verge of self-destruction, Ro must confront her past, rediscover her purpose, and embrace the evolving world to heal her childhood scars and rebuild her life.
by André Dao
Anam takes us on a poignant journey from 1930s Hanoi to Saigon, Paris, Melbourne, and Cambridge, exploring memory, inheritance, colonialism, and belonging. The narrator, born into a Vietnamese family in Melbourne, grapples with his grandfather's haunting tale of imprisonment in Chi Hoa prison under the Communist government. Straddling his Australian upbringing and Vietnamese heritage, he faces the impact of his grandfather's death and the birth of his daughter on his own life's trajectory. André Dao artfully weaves fiction and essay, theory and personal experience, revealing forgotten aspects of history and family archives.
Learned by Heart
By emma donoghue.
In 1805, at a boarding school in York, two fourteen-year-old girls cross paths. Eliza Raine, an orphan with an Indian heritage, feels isolated due to her differences. Anne Lister, a rebellious spirit, defies societal norms for women. Their love story blossoms, creating a profound bond that transcends time and shapes their lives forever. Learned By Heart is the heartbreaking story of the love of two women – Anne Lister, the real-life inspiration behind Gentleman Jack, and her first love, Eliza Raine – from the bestselling author of Room and The Wonder.
The complete guide to Emma Donoghue's books
Briefly, a delicious life, by nell stevens.
It's 1838, and Frédéric Chopin, George Sand and her children are en route to a Mallorcan monastery. They are in recovery from life in Paris, seeking a more simple existence. The unexpected witness of their new life is Blanca, a ghost who has been at the monastery for more than three hundred years, her young life having been cut short. And when George Sand arrives, a lovely woman in a man's clothes, Blanca is in love. Meanwhile, the village is looking suspiciously at the new arrivals, as a difficult winter closes in . . .
by Hannah Kent
It's 1836 in Prussia, and teenage Hanne is finding the domestic world of womanhood increasingly oppressive. She longs to be out in nature, and finds little companionship with the local girls. Until, that is, she meets kindred spirit Thea. Hanne is from a family of Old Lutherans, whose worship is suppressed and secret. Safe passage to Australia offers liberty from these restrictions. But a long and harsh journey lies ahead, one which will put the girls' close bond to a terrible test.
Mrs Porter Calling
By aj pearce.
Emmy Lake is the much-loved agony aunt at Woman’s Friend magazine, relied upon by readers across the country as they face the challenges of life on the Home Front. With the problem page thriving and a team of fantastic women behind her, Emmy finally feels she is Doing Her Bit. But when a glamorous new owner arrives, everything changes. With happiness quickly turning to heartbreak and war still raging in Europe, will Emmy and her friends find the inner strength they need to keep keeping on - and save the magazine they love?
The best literary fiction books of 2022
Concerning my daughter, by kim hye-jin.
A mother lets her thirty-something daughter – Green – move into her apartment, with dreams that she will find a good job and a good husband to start a family with. But Green arrives with her girlfriend Lane, and her mother finds it hard to be civil. She is similarly unaccepting of her daughter's entanglement in a case of unfair dismissal from her university employers, involving gay colleagues. Yet Green's mother finds that she has her own moral battle to fight, defending the right to care of a dementia patient who has chosen an unconventional life and has no family. Translated from Korean by Jamie Chang, this is a universal tale about ageing, prejudice and love.
‘ An admirably nuanced portrait of prejudice . . . one that boldly takes on the daunting task of humanizing someone whose prejudice has made her cruel. ’ The New York Times on Concerning My Daughter
By cormac mccarthy.
A sunken jet. Nine passengers. A missing body. The Passenger is the story of a salvage diver, haunted by loss, afraid of the watery deep, pursued for a conspiracy beyond his understanding, and longing for a death he cannot reconcile with God. The first of two novels published in 2022 by literary great Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger is followed by Stella Maris – both are too good to be missed.
The Women Could Fly
By megan giddings.
The Women Could Fly is a speculative feminist novel for our times, set in a time where magic is reality, and single women are monitored in case they turn out to be witches. Josephine Thomas has heard a plethora of theories about her mother's death: that she was abducted, murdered and that she was a witch. This is a concerning accusation, because women who act strangely – especially Black women – can soon find themselves being tried for witchcraft. Facing the prospect of a State-mandated marriage, Jo decides to honour one last request written in her mother's will.
By neema shah.
Neema Shah’s impressive debut literary novel is set amidst the turmoil of the expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin. When a devastating decree is announced which says all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days, Asha and Pran and Pran’s mother Jaya, must leave everything they’ve ever known for a new life in Britain. But as they try to rebuild their lives, a terrible secret hangs over them.
The House of Fortune
By jessie burton.
A glorious, sweeping story of fate and ambition, The House of Fortune is the sequel to Jessie Burton’s bestseller The Miniaturist . Amsterdam, 1705. Thea Brandt is about to turn eighteen and she can't wait to become an adult. Walter, her true love, awaits Thea at the city's theatre. But at home on the Herengracht things are tense. Her father Otto and Aunt Nella bicker incessantly and are selling furniture so the family can eat. And, on her birthday, the day her mother Marin died, secrets from Thea's past threaten to eclipse the present. Nella is feeling a prickling sensation in her neck, which recalls the miniaturist who toyed with her life eighteen years ago.
By emma stonex.
Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week. Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on, when they are given the chance to tell their side of the story. Inspired by true events, this enthralling and suspenseful mystery is a beautifully written exploration of love and grief, perception and reality.
By charlotte mendelson.
Meet the Hanrahan family, gathering for a momentous weekend as famous artist and notorious egoist Ray Hanrahan prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good. His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, sensitive Patrick, and insecure Jess, the youngest, who has a momentous decision to make..And what of Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife? She is an artist, too, but has always had to put her roles as wife and mother first. But Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must finally make a choice.
‘ It takes the most ferocious intelligence, skill and a deep reservoir of sadness to write a novel as funny as this. I adored it. ’ Meg Mason on The Exhibitionist
Of Women and Salt
By gabriela garcia.
A New York Times bestseller, Of Women and Salt tells the story of five generations of fierce Latina women, linked by blood and circumstance. From nineteenth-century cigar factories to present-day detention centres, this novel is a haunting meditation on the choices of mothers and the tenacity of women who choose to tell their truth despite those who wish to silence them.
The Cat Who Saved Books
By sosuke natsukawa.
Rintaro Natsuki loved finding refuge in tiny secondhand Natsuki Books as an insular child. His grandfather's bookstore with its teetering volumes was a home from home. When his grandfather dies, Rintaro is in despair, thinking he must close the beloved shop. Then a talking tabby cat appears, and asks Rintaro for help. The two go on a book lovers mission to rescue abandoned books. But there is one last rescue that Rintaro must attempt on his own.
By douglas stuart.
Mungo is a Protestant and James is a Catholic, both inhabiting the hyper-masculine world of two Glasgow housing estates, split violently along sectarian lines. The two should be enemies but, finding sanctuary in the doocot James has created for his racing pigeons, they grow closer and closer. Dreaming of escape and under constant threat of discovery, Mungo and James attempt to navigate a dangerous and uncertain future together.
The story behind the Young Mungo cover
The dance tree, by kiran millwood hargrave.
It's 1518 in Strasbourg, and in the intense summer heat a solitary woman starts to dance in the main square. She dances for days without rest, and is joined by hundreds of other women. The city authorities declare a state of emergency, and bring in musicians to play the devil out of the dancing women. Meanwhile pregnant Lisbet, who lives at the edge of the city, is tending to the family's bees. The dancing plague intensifies, as Lisbet is drawn into a net of secret passions and deceptions. Inspired by true events, this is a compelling story of superstition, transformative change and women pushed to their limits.
By elaine hsieh chou.
This raucous and heartwarming satire asks – who gets to tell our stories? And can we change the narrative if we get to write it ourselves? PhD student Ingrid Yang can't wait to finish her dissertation on major poet Xiao-Wen Chou so she never has to read about ‘Chinese-y’ things again. Then she finds an enigmatic note in the Chou archive, which leads to an explosive discovery and a roller coaster of misadventures. Ingrid's gentle fiancé doesn't look quite the same in the aftermath, as she confronts her troubled relationship with white men and their institutions and, more importantly, herself . . .
by Keith Ridgway
This prize-winning novel centres around loosely connected characters on the edges of London life, who appear and disappear from the narrative as they cling to sanity and solvency. In a high-wire space between realism and fantasy, Ridgway achieves a miracle of dramatic, pin-sharp writing.
Hearts and Bones
By niamh mulvey.
Hearts and Bones delves into what love does to us, and how we navigate it. Set in London and Ireland in the first two decades of the millennium, Niamh Mulvey's debut short story collection marks the arrival of a major new literary star. A young woman begins to exercise her power, an observant child watches her mother try to stay afloat, first time lovers make mistakes and teenagers fall into headlong devotion to desire. Pin-sharp, funny and tender, these ten stories will have you mesmerised.
Very Cold People
By sarah manguso.
Growing up on the edge of a wealthy but culturally threadbare New England town, Ruth goes under the radar. Nobody pays her attention, but she watches everything – recording with precision the painful unfurling of her youth and enduring difficult and damaging parenting from the mocking, undermining adults in her life. But as the adults of the book fail to grow up, Ruth gracefully arcs towards maturity in a story that grapples with many of life's ugly truths.
Sea of Tranquillity
By emily st. john mandel.
It's 1912, and eighteen-year-old Edwin St. Andrew is on a journey across the Atlantic, having been exiled from society in England. Arriving in British Columbia, he enters a forest, mesmerised by the Canadian wilderness. All is silent, before the notes of a violin reverberate through the air. Two centuries later, and acclaimed author Olive Llewelyn is travelling over the earth, on a break from her home in the second moon colony. At the heart of her bestselling novel, a man plays a violin for spare change in the corridor of an airship terminal, as a forest rises around him. This compelling novel immerses the reader in parallel worlds, and multiple possibilities.
All of Emily St. John Mandel's books in order
Our wives under the sea, by julia armfield.
Leah is back from a perilous and troubling deep sea mission, and Miri is delighted to have her wife home. But Leah has carried the undersea trauma into the couple's domestic life, and it is causing a rupture in their relationship. The debut novel from the author of acclaimed short story collection salt slow , Our Wives Under The Sea is a rich meditation on love, loss and the mysteries of the ocean.
Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter
By lizzie pook.
It's 1886, and the Brightwell family has just arrived at Bannin Bay in Western Australia after a long sea voyage from England. Ten-year-old Eliza has been promised bright pearls, shells like soup plates and good fortunes in a new land. Ten years later, and Eliza's father Charles Brightwell is the most successful pearler on the bay. When he goes missing from his boat at sea, rumours of mutiny and murder swirl across the bay. But Eliza refuses to believe that her father is dead and, in a town mired in corruption, she sets out to find the truth.
Circus of Wonders
By elizabeth macneal.
Circus of Wonders is the eagerly-awaited second novel from Elizabeth Macneal, author of the Sunday Times bestselling debut The Doll Factory . In 1866, in a coastal village in southern England, Nell lives outside of her community, marked as different for the birthmarks that speckle her skin. But her life is turned upside down when her father decides to sell her to Jasper Jupiter's travelling Circus of Wonders. Yet, the greatest betrayal of Nell's life may soon become the best thing that has ever happened to her as she finds friendship and belonging with the other performers. But as Nell's fame grows, will she be able to keep control of her own story?
by Raven Leilani
Raven Leilani is a funny and original new voice in literary fiction. Her razor-sharp yet surprisingly tender debut is an essential novel about what it means to be young now. Edie is messing up her life, and no one seems to care. Then she meets Eric, who is white, middle-aged and comes with a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. And as if life wasn’t hard enough, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s family.
‘ In this cutting, hot-blooded book, the entanglements that unfold are as complicated as they are heartbreaking. ’ New Statesman on Luster
The best literary fiction of all time
White noise, by don delillo.
Possibly DeLillo’s funniest book, White Noise introduced his work to a wider audience than ever before and established his reputation as a master of postmodern fiction. Jack Gladney is the creator and chairman of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. The novel is a story about his absurd life; a life that is going well enough, until a chemical spill from a rail car releases an 'Airborne Toxic Event' and Jack is forced to confront his biggest fear – his own mortality. DeLillo's bestselling story effortlessly combines social satire and metaphysical dilemma, exposing our rampant consumerism, media saturation and novelty intellectualism.
Douglas Stuart’s blistering, Booker Prize-winning debut is a heartbreaking story that lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty and the limits of love. Set in a poverty-stricken Glasgow in the early 1980s, Agnes Bain has always dreamed of greater things. But when her husband abandons her she finds herself trapped in a decimated mining town and descends deeper and deeper into drink. Her son Shuggie tries to help her long after her other children have fled, but he too must abandon her to save himself. Shuggie is different and he is picked on by the local children and condemned by adults as 'no’ right’. But he believes that if he tries his hardest he can be like other boys and escape this hopeless place.
No Country for Old Men
Hunting for antelope near the Rio Grande, Llewelyn Moss comes across a transaction that has gone badly wrong. Discovering bodies ridden with bullets, kilos of hard drugs and a stash of cash, Llewelyn faces a difficult choice – should he leave the scene as is, or take the money and run? The decision he makes will change his life for ever. Adapted by the Coen brothers into an award-winning movie, No Country For Old Men is a richly dark and suspenseful work.
By charles johnson.
Rutherford Calhoun, a puckish rogue and newly freed slave, spends his days around the docks of New Orleans, dodging debt collectors, gangsters, and a woman who seeks to marry him. When the heat from his pursuers overwhelms him, he cons his way onto the next ship leaving the dock: the Republic. Upon boarding, he discovers that he is on an illegal slave ship, looking to capture members of the legendary Allmuseri tribe. The Captain also has a secondary objective: securing a mysterious cargo that possesses an otherworldly power. A blend of allegory, black comedy, naval adventure and supernatural horror, Middle Passage is a true modern classic.
A House for Mr Biswas
By v. s. naipaul.
Written in 1961 and set in post-colonial Trinidad, this is the story of Mr Biswas, a man born into misfortune, and his quest to find a worthy home of his own. A House for Mr Biswas is a multi-faceted read that is all-at-once satisfying, lyrical and humorous.
by Jamaica Kincaid
Much loved only child Annie has always had a tranquil life. She and her beautiful mother are intertwined and inseparable. But when Annie turns twelve, her life shifts. She questions authority, makes rebel friends and wonders about the culture assumptions of her island world. And the unconditional love between Annie and her mother takes an adversarial turn. A coming of age classic, narrated with wonderfully candid complexity.
A Little Life
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and celebrated as ‘the great gay novel’ , Hanya Yanagihara’s immensely powerful story of brotherly love and the limits of human endurance has had a visceral impact on many a reader. Willem, Jude, Malcolm and JB meet at college in Massachusetts and form a firm friendship, moving to New York upon graduation. Over the years their friendships deepen and darken as they celebrate successes and face failures, but their greatest challenge is Jude himself – an increasingly broken man scarred by an unspeakable childhood. This is a book that will stay with you long after the last page.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold
By toshikazu kawaguchi.
First released in Japan in 2015, this bestseller has since been translated for English audiences. The story takes place in a small basement café in Japan, home to a very special urban legend: visitors can travel back in time. There are strict rules, however; you can only travel back to speak to people who have visited the café itself, you cannot leave your seat while in the past, nothing you do will change the present, and you must return before your coffee gets cold. Each character comes to the café with a new reason to time travel. As many of the patrons discover, you can’t change the present, but you can change yourself.
Breasts and Eggs
By mieko kawakami.
This literary debut, which Haruki Murakami called ‘breathtaking’, is a must-read for fans of contemporary literary fiction. Mieko Kawakami paints a radical picture of contemporary working-class womanhood in Japan as she recounts the heartbreaking stories of three women who must survive in a society where the odds are stacked against them.
‘ I can never forget the sense of pure astonishment I felt when I first read Mieko Kawakami’s novella Breasts and Eggs . . . breathtaking . . . Mieko Kawakami is always ceaselessly growing and evolving. ’ Haruki Murakami on Breasts and Eggs
In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover. Agnes is sent to wait out her final months on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s story begins to emerge and with it the family’s terrible realization that all is not as they had assumed.
In this episode of Book Break Emma shares her recommendations for the best new literary fiction.
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Best Contemporary Literary Fiction (Around the Last 30 Years)
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5 Contemporary Literary Fiction Books That Are Game-Changers
Trying to live, love, and say it well in good sentences. Pronouns: she/her. Contact: [email protected]
View All posts by Dee Das
Writing literary fiction that alters the way we think about the world is quite a feat! The stars haven’t been kind to us in the past few years, but they did bless us with incredible literary fiction that forever changed the book industry for the better. In tough times like this, authors who have penned their thoughts to put things into perspective for the rest of us have been a source of great comfort. If you want to do some serious reading to reflect on humanity and its many aspects, this list is for you. Dig in!
Sorrow And Bliss By Meg Mason
Isolation from a loved one can be hard, as proved by the pandemic. But what happens when you’re with everyone you love, yet can’t stop feeling alone? Martha’s story showcases how lonely a journey mental illness can be. She is amidst people who love her in their respective flawed ways, yet she doesn’t feel loved. Hers is a coming-of-age story — the only twist is she has to wait till the age of 40 to get some grip on her life. Evocative and hopeful, this book changes our perception of break-ups and interpersonal relationships.
A Burning By Megha Majumdar
Jivan, a Muslim girl, is wrongly accused of being an insurgent. Coming from an underprivileged family, she has little to no resources or influence to sway the court in her favor, despite being innocent. While she sits in jail, we witness her teacher and her friend rising to fame. Helping Jivan is going to cost them everything they hold dear. A brilliant commentary on the political landscape of India, this novel sheds new light on class hierarchy, ideas of morality and justice, corruption, and the twist of fate.
Detransition, Baby By Torrey Peters
Reese has to fight too hard to string together a life of bourgeois comforts, something her previous generations of trans women could never imagine achieving. She has a fulfilling relationship with her girlfriend, Amy, until the day Amy decides to detransition and becomes Ames. Ames moves on with Katrina, a cis divorced woman, who also happens to be his boss. Katrina gets pregnant, and suddenly, through what might seem like a bizarre proposal to a traditionalist, all three of them are forced to confront their true identities. The ending is outstanding as the book doesn’t leave you with a well wrapped up, binary solution, thus confirming how discovering oneself is an ongoing process that never culminates into a finite conclusion.
Land Of Big Numbers By Te-Ping Chen
This brilliant anthology of short stories ventriloquizes the stories of the people of modern China and its diaspora. Chen has beautifully penned their individual and collective history and messy past. Switching between realism and fabulism, this collection is gripping and offers a compassionate account of the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. The reader empathizes with the many woes the characters go through and how they wage their own silent wars every day to get through.
Thin Girls By Diana Clarke
Twins Rose and Lily have a complicated relationship with food. When Rose develops anorexia, Lily starts consuming more than her share of food. Lily is the yin to Rose’s yang. As Rose is completing a year in a rehabilitation center for anorexics, she has nothing to look forward to besides Lily’s visits. As sisters, they know what the other is feeling, what thoughts are running through their heads. While Rose moves closer to self-annihilation every day, Lily is dating abusive men who traumatize her further. A poignant story of two sisters’ fight with loss, trauma, body image issues, familial dysfunction, and darkness of the past that merges with the present, the ending will leave you with a lot of hope!
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The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages
Or, 50 afternoons well spent.
About a month ago, we published a list of 50 of the best contemporary novels over 500 pages , for those of you who suddenly have a lot of extra time on your hands. But for those of us who suddenly have a lot less extra time on our hands, or who just can’t really pay attention to anything anymore unless it’s a) short or b) what were we talking about? For us, I present this list of 50 of the best contemporary novels under 200 pages.
For our purposes here, “contemporary” means published (in English) after 1970. NB that I’m not making a distinction between novellas and novels—I’m not sure there really is one—but I’m not including short story collections, or books that include a novella and stories. Finally, as ever, “best” is subjective, and this list is limited by time and space and the literary tastes of this editor. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments below.
Mary Robison, Why Did I Ever (200 pages)
Probably the best fragment novel on the block: the saga of Money Breton, errant script doctor, mother of two, obsessive obssesser, is funny, irreverent, and weirdly moving. Not for nothing, but this novel is my own personal ultimate coolness test, because yep, I am an adult who judges other people’s coolness, and I do it based on the books they read.
Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation (177 pages)
My other candidate for the best recent fragment novel—not to mention one of the best novels of the decade , full stop—is of course Offill’s luminous, eye-wormy (this is a term I have just now invented for the literary version of ear-wormy, you’re welcome, and sorry), and consistently wise modern classic, which is ostensibly the story of a marriage but is more importantly the story of a mind.
Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (116 pages)
Johnson’s novella is a shibboleth among a certain kind of reader (and, typically, writer). In our list of the best novels of the decade , editor Dan Sheehan described it as “the incantatory story of a turn-of-the-century logger and railroad laborer, Robert Grainier, who loses his family to a wildfire and retreats deep into the woods of the Idaho panhandle as the country modernizes around him. Johnson’s spare, strange, elegiac prose conjures a world that feels both ancient and ephemeral, full of beauty and menace and deep sorrow. . . . An American epic in miniature, Train Dreams is a visionary portrait of soul untethered from civilization, a man stoically persevering on his own hermetic terms in the face of unimaginable tragedy. A haunted and haunting reverie.”
Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (188 pages)
The Vegetarian has come under scrutiny for its translation, and the accuracy thereof, but since I can only read English, all I know is that whatever came out of the union of Kang and Smith is very, very good. In our list of the best debut novels of the decade, editor Molly Odintz wrote , “Han Kang’s tale begins with a description of a dutiful wife, unusual only in her refusal to wear a bra, whose sudden decision to stop eating meat sends her partner and family into a spiral of confusion, where forcible consumption of meat quickly becomes a metaphor for violation. The vegetarian begins a slow transformation into vegetable itself—first, she stops eating meat; gradually, she stops eating everything. Her withdrawal from culinary delights is mirrored by her withdrawal from the world. She basks in sunlight, is painted all over with flowers by her sister’s husband (a not-so-successful artist), and for all intents and purposes, attempts to become a plant. Is she onto something, or is she out of her mind? Is she denying the world, or is she fully embracing it? Han Kang leaves the answers to these questions deliberately vague, and the sign of a great work is its ability to be read by many people and interpreted differently by each one.”
Milan Kundera, Slowness (176 pages)
A metafictional meditation on modernity and memory—and on “the dancer,” showing off for the abstracted “everyone,” the concept of which gets more relevant every day.
Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills (192 pages)
Ishiguro’s debut, first published in 1982, takes shape through the recollections of an aging Japanese woman, living in England, now alone after her husband’s death. But as she reflects, the memories become less secure—or at least less restricted to the past. Like everything Ishiguro writes, it’s beautiful, subtle, and not a little shadowy.
Clarice Lispector, tr. Alison Entrekin, Near to the Wild Heart (194 pages)
I register that this is something of a cheat, since Lispector’s first novel was originally published in Brazil in 1943—but considering that it wasn’t translated into English until 1990, I’m going to sneak it in here. After all, it is too glorious to ignore: evidence of a mind on fire. We follow Joana through her life in this short novel, but it’s really the sentences you should read for: sometimes inscrutable, sometimes wild, sometimes transcendent.
Susanna Moore, In the Cut (179 pages)
Okay, I’m hereby warning you: this novel is not for the squeamish. My best friend recommended this book to me not too long ago and didn’t tell me anything about it except that it was amazing, and it was totally a replay of that time she made me go see Hard Candy with her and told me it was going to be an indie comedy. And look, it is amazing, in the sense that you will have physical reactions reading this book, and in the sense that Moore perfectly captures a range of emotions and impulses rarely committed to paper. But like . . . you’re not going to feel good at the end. So just know that.
Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell, Fever Dream (189 pages)
This is a weird and terrifying, almost suffocating novel that kept me up for an entire night. In our list of the best debut novels of the decade , our editorial fellow Eleni Theodoropoulos wrote that in this novel, “detail is dramatized through dialogue, and Schweblin knows just what to pick and what to leave out so that characters and readers alike are obsessed with the story about the poison. Everyone is at the mercy of someone: David is at the mercy of Amanda, Amanda at the mercy of David, and the reader at the mercy of both of them. The only way to find out the truth in Fever Dream is by trusting someone else’s narrative. Even in being swept away in the horrific progression of the novel, and simultaneously, the disease, the reader identifies with Amanda, a mother who realizes she cannot protect her child. In just under 200 pages, Schweblin has delivered a poignant, tragic tale of a fear come true.”
Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (191 pages)
If you’ve been reading Lit Hub for any amount of time, you know how much we love Garth Greenwell’s debut (not to mention his latest, Cleanness ), which is, after all, one of the best debut novels of the decade . It’s an exquisite book, both on the sentence and the story level, a mesmerizing work of art.
Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station (181 pages)
I still love Lerner’s debut, which is basically about a poet not writing poetry in Madrid, but is actually very good, despite that. In our list of the best debut novels of the decade, our editor Jessie Gaynor described it as one of the “most subtly hilarious novels around” and wrote that “Lerner invites the reader to laugh with his protagonist as well as with him. The novel feels propulsive rather than meandering, as if the reader is the one whose fellowship is quickly running short.”
Don DeLillo, Point Omega (117 pages)
DeLillo’s the rare writer who excels in both the long and the short form. This one, his fifteenth, is a destabilizing, compelling portrait of grief refracted through art. According to me, at least—it’s also one of DeLillo’s most polarizing novels, so you might as well read it, at least to have an opinion on the matter.
Thomas Bernhard, tr. Jack Dawson, The Loser (190 pages)
Possibly the best ill-tempered 190 page monologue in contemporary literature, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First (160 pages)
This lucid gem is the first-person tale of Margaret Cavendish, a real-life 17th century Renaissance woman and writer whose story would be captivating enough on its own, even without Dutton’s elegant, winking treatment. But the winks do not go unnoticed, of course (nor does that gorgeous cover). In our list of the best novels of the decade , editor in chief Jonny Diamond described the book as a “glinting dagger of novel” and wrote that Dutton “realizes the outsize ambitions of this remarkable book with virtuosic efficiency, braiding first- and third-person perspectives with passages from Cavendish’s original writing. I will be recommending this book for the next decade.”
Leonard Michaels, Sylvia (123 pages)
Michaels’ autobiographical novel is a matter-of-fact retelling of his marriage to his first wife, the “abnormally bright” but depressed and volatile Sylvia Bloch. Reading it feels like looking, through Michaels’ clear eyes, at a moment in his life in his early 20s that has been hermetically sealed, so by the time he tells the story, it’s become a sort of still-water legend. You can discern pretty much right away that this relationship is doomed, but it still feels essential to watch it unfold.
Renata Adler, Speedboat (193 pages)
If you’re a certain kind of woman living in a certain kind of city, this is a bible. If you’re a certain kind of writer with a certain kind of sensibility, it’s a bible too. Adler’s wry, discursive novel is a brilliant portrait of New York and of a singular, elliptical mind—the kind of book that, if you’re a certain kind of person, will have you looking at everything around you a little bit more carefully and taking notes like mad.
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (163 pages)
The winner of the 2001 Man Booker prize is a wonderful if melancholic novel about memory, aging, and what it is to live a good (or at least not a bad) life.
Jenny Erpenbeck, tr. Susan Bernofsky, Visitation (150 pages)
This is another book that I feel like I carp on about all the time on this website, but I don’t actually feel too sorry about that. As I wrote in our list of the best translated novels of the decade , this is a book about a house on a lake outside of Berlin—a house that is as much the subject, as a place in time, as the people who move through it. “There are little human dramas within this grander and colder scheme, ones that secretly hook us in, however minor they seem, so that we are devastated when time passes, so that we mourn the ones we barely knew, for their fixations, their tragedies, their trying. Elegiac, often astoundingly gorgeous, sometimes strikingly brutal, this is one of the most wonderful novels of any sort that you could hope to read.”
Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman, Signs Preceding the End of the World (128 pages)
As I wrote in our list of the best translated novels of the decade , this book “is almost fable-like, both in length and tone: when you begin reading it, you’re not sure (or at least I wasn’t) whether you’re in our world or another—it begins with a sinkhole, a curse, and a quest. Soon it becomes clear that this is our world, or almost, sliced by the border between Mexico and the United States. Borders in this novel—between worlds, between words, between people—are both dangerous and porous, messages meaningless and profound in equal measure. It is an intense, indelible book, an instant myth of love and violence.”
Marguerite Duras, The Lover (117 pages)
I love this novel so much I once made a playlist for it . And I’m not the only one who is obsessed with this assured, severe book, which Duras originally planned as an annotated photo album of her youth. “Through the years, I have come to think of The Lover as a lake without a bottom, or perhaps more accurately with a bottom that is ever-shifting: each dive yields an altered and enriched understanding of the topography, and there is the sense that you could dive forever and never grasp that topography absolutely,” wrote Laura van den Berg . “In every reading, I have been stunned still by language that is at once crystalline and enigmatic: ‘The light fell from the sky in cataracts of pure transparency, in torrents of silence and immobility. The air was blue, you could hold it in your hand. Blue.'”
Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban (125 pages)
I think at this point, every single person on the Literary Hub staff has read Mrs. Caliban —the deceptively simple tale of a housewife who falls in love with a mysterious creature escaped and on the run from a government lab—after its reissue by New Directions during the Autumn of Sea Monsters , we just kept passing it around, one to the other. Our editor Dan Sheehan, who interviewed Ingalls before her death, described it as “an intoxicating mix of sensuality, sorrow, and supernatural horror, and a damn-near perfect novella.”
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (101 pages)
The forever classic of a girl growing up in Chicago.
Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori, Convenience Store Woman (176 pages)
A dry, funny novel about, well, a woman who works in a convenience store. In our list of the best translated novels of the decade , editor Jessie Gaynor writes that “it reads, by turns, like a love story (woman meets store), an unusually charming employee handbook, and a psychological thriller—but somehow, it never feels disjointed. It was interesting to read this novel in the midst of a glut of English books about the dehumanizing nature of underemployment. Convenience Store Woman doesn’t, in my reading, take a stance on the Value of Work. Instead, it presents Keiko in all her glorious strangeness, and invites the reader to delight in it.”
Edward St. Aubyn, Never Mind (197 pages)
A harrowing work of genius—and for the uninitiated, consider this the entry point for many, many hours of literary enjoyment.
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red (149 pages)
Carson’s novel in verse, a retelling of a classic Greek myth, is one of those books that retrains your mind, erasing all the rules about what novels should—or even can—be. Ocean Vuong lists it among the books he needed to write his celebrated debut On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous , writing “perhaps what’s most inspiring to me about this book is Carson’s refusal to enact her protagonist’s development via a false and forced inhabitation of heteronormative ideals. Geyron, a quiet, small, artistic mama’s boy, does not become a masculinist hero in order to “solve” his outcast position. Instead, he bravely embodies his otherness, or “monstrosity,” as Carson writes, through emotionally-informed aesthetic vision. It’s a book that insists on the necessity of alterity as agency instead of succumbing to the readily assimilative.”
Donald Antrim, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (164 pages)
Antrim’s stucco-pink, subtropic suburban nightmare concerns a town gone mad and the schoolteacher determined to get everything back to normal—albeit with highly suspect methods. This surreal mini-masterpiece is one of my favorite novels of all time, and one of the funniest, in the darkest possible way.
Fleur Jaeggy, tr. Tim Parks, Sweet Days of Discipline (101 pages)
An actually perfect novel, which elsewhere I ranked as the fourth best campus novel of all time (give me a book, I’ve ranked it somewhere). It’s set in a boarding school in the Appenzell; when disdainful, mysterious new girl Frédérique, our narrator is enthralled—and determined “to conquer her.” Everly line is ice cold in its deliberation, and yet the whole thing feels hot. Which is not even to mention the incredible new cover designed by Oliver Munday, who I daresay agrees with me about the merits of the book .
Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!! (172 pages)
A truly insane novel about a young woman who decides to live her life by the principles of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island , those principles being Boldness, Resolution, Independence, and, of course, Horn Blowing. One of the most fun reading experiences I can remember.
César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews, Ghosts (141 pages)
Many of Aira’s books could be candidates for this list—Ghosts is a personal favorite: a builder’s family squats in an unfinished apartment building, also populated, for those who can see them, by ghosts. That said, Mark Haber also makes a very good argument for Ema the Captive here . We can just call this the Aira spot.
Elena Ferrante, tr. Ann Goldstein, The Days of Abandonment (188 pages)
Psst. This is the real Ferrante. I mean, look, I love the Neapolitan series as much as everybody (well probably not as much as everybody but I admit they’re good), but in my opinion, this short novel about a woman unraveling is her true masterpiece.
Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine (145 pages)
Baker’s hilarious, cerebral debut takes place over the length of a single escalator ride, but turns out that a single escalator ride can actually contain multitudes. It is about as packed as a book can be with witty observations, cultural criticism, and human behavior. And milk cartons. (Sorry, but this is one of those books you can’t explain to people, you just have to trust me and give it a try.)
Andrés Barba, tr. Lisa Dillman, Such Small Hands (94 pages)
It is my solemn duty to proselytize this vicious little book—in which a girl is sent to an orphanage after her parents are killed in a car crash, and I can’t tell you anymore—everywhere I go. My latest victim was our editor Katie Yee, who wrote in our list of the best translated novels of the decade that the book “reads like logic breaking, like a melon dropping on the ground. It is the unexpected word choice (the seatbelt had become severe !) that makes this work simultaneously sinister and a joy to read. . . . At only 94 pages, Such Small Hands is a cruelly quick read that makes you feel, in the best way, like the walls of language are closing in on you.”
Susan Steinberg, Machine (149 pages)
Steinberg is an undersung genius, and her elliptical novel about one tragic summer—a girl, a drowning—should be a modern classic in the vein of Jenny Offill and Maggie Nelson.
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (144 pages)
Otsuka elegantly employs the first person plural to tell the story of a group of Japanese “picture brides” who come to California to meet their husbands. In our list of the best novels of the decade , our editor Katie Yee writes that “the collective first person narration matches the subject matter beautifully; it mimics the immigrant experience, the way “others” are often seen as the same and the automatic camaraderie and safety we might find among those who share our stories. . . . I’ve re-read this novel many times, trying to understand how it can encompass such a wide scope of things. What Julie Otsuka has accomplished here is both an artful, intimate portrait of individual lives and a piercing indictment of history.”
Paula Fox, Desperate Characters (180 pages)
Scraping through with a 1970 pub date, one of my all-time favorite novels about a woman who may or may not have rabies.
William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (145 pages)
Though he’s better known for being the fiction editor of The New Yorker during its glory days, Maxwell also wrote short stories and several novels—the last of which, a slim autobiographical novel which won a National Book Award in 1982, was shortest and greatest.
Toni Morrison, Sula (192 pages)
Morrison’s Sula features one of the most enduring (and convincing) female friendships/rivalries ever committed to literature: that of Sula and Nel, living in “the Bottom” in Ohio. As Mira Jacob put it , “what I particularly love about Sula is the full complexity of her female characters. It’s like reading those characters when I was younger was seeing, for the first time, who centered dark women. Who centered, who whole-heartedly said this story is hers, and hers, and hers, and they—we are allowed to be as complex as we need to be, and hold the ground in the story. . . . This is the book that I keep by my bed because when things don’t make sense, I will turn to a single paragraph and just meditate on it. Because I feel like everything is very deftly placed, but even within that, I feel a sense of wonder in here. A real curiosity about people and how they work and what they’re willing to settle for and what they’re not willing to settle for, and the real friction of what that looks like.”
Jeanette Winterson, The Passion (160 pages)
A sly little historical fairy tale, in which a web-footed Venetian pickpocket named Villanelle has lost her heart (literally) to a noblewoman, and a stumbling soldier named Henri will try to get it back.
James Welch, Winter in the Blood (160 pages)
In Welch’s brutal, celebrated first novel, our unnamed narrator, a young man living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, seeks both connection—to his tribe, his history, his culture, his fractured family—and independent self-actualization. As Reynolds Price wrote in The New York Times Book Review , “the story it tells, the knowledge it contains, has as much to say of the bone‐deep disaffection and bafflement, the famous and apparently incurable psychic paralysis of several million Americans of varied origins now in their twenties, early thirties, as of any smaller group. Permafrost in the blood and mind—why and how and what to do?”
Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (128 pages)
A lovely, surrealist novel, and one of the most convincing stories about grief I have ever read.
Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney, Faces in the Crowd (162 pages)
Though she’s published a lot of wonderful work since then, I’m still partial to Luiselli’s debut novel, originally published in 2011 and translated into English in 2014, a fresh and compelling portrait of the artist as a young translator taken askance and doubled back on itself.
Tobias Wolff, Old School (195 pages)
An unnamed senior, an unnamed boarding school, a literary world so close you could almost offend it. As Michael Knight put it last year, this is the perfect campus novel (I ranked it twelfth on my list of the best ), both fulfilling and transcending the expectations of the genre. “Here we have the musty but beautiful buildings, the arcana of campus customs, the rivalries and ambitions of the students at his all-male academy, all rendered in Wolff’s spare and lucid prose. We even have a plagiarism case, hardly exotic to the genre. The novel is rich in familiar ways throughout, but it’s not until Wolff shifts point of view in the last section, away from first person and into third, away from student life to an English teacher burdened by a secret of his own, that the book lifts up and out of the boarding school tradition and into something altogether more devastating.”
Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (160 pages)
In Moore’s indelibly observed, sneakily devastating second novel, a discontented woman on a trip to Paris with her husband looks back at the summer she was 15, dragged along by her luminous friend Sils, when everything was still possible and exciting—but soon, like all things, to end.
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (118 pages)
A perfect jewel of a novel about a woman who opens a bookstore in a small town in Suffolk, fights with a local bigwig, and ultimately (spoiler alert) gets evicted.
Stephen Graham Jones, Mapping the Interior (112 pages)
Jones is an extraordinarily prolific writer, and he’s an expert at genre manipulation; no surprise then that Mapping the Interior is both a coming-of-age story and a horror story, a book about menace, memory, and hope.
Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy (192 pages)
Hansen’s gorgeous, precise little novel is set in a Roman Catholic convent in upstate New York in 1906. In The Times , Patricia Hampl called it “a novel whose language is so exquisite that the book runs the danger of being praised only for its diamondlike prose, which is often as pleasing as the most crystalline poetry. And yet Mariette in Ecstasy is not solely a novel of sensibility, a mere esthete’s exercise. For while its descriptions dazzle, they never preen or degenerate into overblown virtuoso riffs. The greatest beauty—and the fundamental success—of this gripping novel is that its author has managed to find a voice that is entirely at the service of its strange and elusive subject.”
Grace Krilanovich, The Orange Eats Creeps (172 pages)
I remember reading this novel when it came out in 2010, and gasping audibly at the audacity of its rule-breaking: this was a novel unlike any I had read before, and boy was it fun, and weird, and gross, and punk. I never hear people talking about it these days, but they should be: it’s a careening, side-elbowing nightmare of a book that you should definitely read if you liked Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream .
Justin Torres, We the Animals (125 pages)
Another skinny novel that made our list of the best debuts of the decade —a barbaric yawp of a book that celebrates and sings boyhood in all its grimy glory.
Marie Redonnet, tr. Jordan Stump, Hôtel Splendid (113 pages)
Allow me to use this space to recommend not just Hôtel Splendid , a weird and charming novel about three sisters maintaining a hotel that seems determined to sink back into the earth, but the whole of the loose trilogy of which it is a part, the other two books being Forever Valley , in which a teenage girls digs holes looking for the dead, and Rose Mellie Rose , in which another young girl in a decaying landscape tries to outline her life.
Ottessa Moshfegh, McGlue (160 pages)
Moshfegh’s debut novella won the Fence Modern Prize in Prose and the Believer Book Award, but it still seems like no one has read it—a shame, but understandable. Rather than explain, I’ll direct you to the opening of the review that made me want to pick it up, which goes like this : “Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel reads like the swashbuckled spray of a slit throat—immediate, visceral, frank, unforgiving, violent, and grotesquely beautiful. McGlue, a transient drunk with a crack in his head, beats (at times quite literally) against his own possibility with overconsumption, nihilism, self-destructiveness, and utter depravity.” You’re either into that kind of thing or you aren’t.
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Fiction » Contemporary Fiction
The best contemporary fiction, recommended by robert eaglestone.
Contemporary Fiction: A Very Short Introduction by Robert Eaglestone
The novel is no longer the king of the narrative arts, says the writer and academic Robert Eaglestone . Yet literature has never been more interesting. Here he discusses five excellent novels that exemplify current trends in contemporary fiction.
Interview by David Shackleton
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Open City by Teju Cole
What is the What by Dave Eggers
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
1 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
2 the accidental by ali smith, 3 open city by teju cole, 4 what is the what by dave eggers, 5 the wolf border by sarah hall.
What is contemporary fiction?
That is a question that is almost impossible to answer. It is very hard to say that contemporary fiction is about this or about that, or it is this shape or it does that, because like life, it covers anything and everything. But there is a long way to answer that question by means of a historical preamble.
Since the novel emerged as a form, it has always been involved with realism. Realism is a series of conventions about representing the world.
You can think about it like this. You can consider whether a novel is like a window you look through to see the people beyond on the other side, or whether the novel is like a painting you just look at. Realism wants to suggest that there are real people on the other side. We could ‘fall into’ a novel: we meet Mr Darcy, or we meet characters from Dickens.
Novels have always been interested in realism. But at the same time, there has been a consistent counter-current to realism, all the time questioning it and investigating it, and sometimes making fun of it. All these different reactions to realism you can think about in terms of literary movements.
For example, early on in the history of the novel, there was a Gothic movement. Gothic novels were full of things that could never possibly happen: giants and ghosts and strange monks. These were produced at the same time as there were realist novels about people living their ordinary lives.
“Realism wants to suggest that there are real people on the other side”
Then in the twentieth century, there was modernism. Writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf tried to be more real than real. For example, when we talk to people, our minds do flash back to the past or flash forward to the future: perhaps we are thinking what we will have for lunch. Modernist writers try to reflect that, and this makes their novels in some ways harder to read, more interior.
After modernism came postmodernism. Writers such as Salman Rushdie or Angela Carter again questioned realism, this time by using pastiche, retelling stories from different angles, and being self-referential. Postmodernism began to lose its energy in the 1990s.
So, is there a major literary movement that succeeds postmodernism? Well, the short answer is no. However, I think we can discern three different strands in contemporary writing.
You propose to identify three major trends in contemporary writing.
Exactly. The first trend is that of writers who use postmodern tricks, yet do so in way that is slightly less adventurous or experimental. This is sometimes called ‘post-postmodernism’. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas , which is one of the books that I have chosen, is a good example of this.
“Postmodernism began to lose its energy in the 1990s”
There has also been a return to modernism. Writers such as Ali Smith have produced difficult and beautiful novels that hark back to Virginia Woolf and to James Joyce in a very self-conscious manner.
The third trend, which extends beyond novels to the theatre, cinema and TV, is to create works that respond to ‘reality hunger’. In fiction, this is the attempt to write novels that are much more ‘real’.
That’s very useful to have a map of the terrain. How does David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas exemplify ‘post-postmodernism’?
There’s a great novel by the Italian postmodernist Italo Calvino called If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller . In that novel, you get the beginning of a story, and then within that story, the characters find a diary, and you get the diary. In the diary, the protagonists find some letters, and then you get the letters. So you have lots of the first half of stories but no ending, no closure. It is funny and moving, but it is also quite frustrating.
“Post-postmodern writers are keen on restituting a sense of narrative”
David Mitchell has learned from Calvino in Cloud Atlas , which is a sort of science fiction novel that has been hugely successful. In this novel, you find stories that interlock like Russian dolls. But here, you also get the second half of all the stories, so your desire to hear the whole story is met.
That is an obvious example of a writer learning clever postmodern tricks, but domesticating them. The novel has a strong storyline, and offers a sense of closure. Post-postmodern writers are keen on restituting a sense of narrative.
Cloud Atlas seems to be very concerned with technology.
Yes, indeed, and with writing as a technology. When you are reading a Dickens novel, you try to ‘go through’ the writing to the actual events. You become so wrapped up in the novel that the writing somehow disappears.
But postmodernism and post-postmodernism are constantly drawing attention to the technology of writing itself. They constantly remind you that what you are reading is only a story.
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One of the things that David Mitchell plays with is different technologies of writing. The story is told by means of a diary, pulp fiction, a film script, and a science fiction orison which is a sort of communication device from the far future. Then the middle story is a type of folktale told in an invented language. So the novel is very interested in the technologies of its own representation, and how they change over time.
You suggested that Ali Smith is a writer who harks back to modernism. Can you expand?
Of course. Ali Smith’s most celebrated novel so far is The Accidental . It is the story of a family that goes on holiday, implodes and then comes back together again.
The story is told in a variety of different ways. There is a narrator who is a very clever young girl. Then another narrator is a pretentious and depressed young man. The step-father is an English academic; his chapter is told in a type of pastiche poetry all the way through.
“These passages are strange and quite demanding, but also beautiful”
You get these different views of what’s going on, but they don’t add up to a full whole. There is a sense that things can’t be entirely pinned down or can’t be fully understood. This is very reminiscent of writers like Virginia Woolf.
Do you also detect a return to the work of James Joyce?
Yes, there are many Joycean elements in this novel. In particular, there are two passages that are made out of film titles taken from history of cinema that echo parts of Ulysses . These passages are strange and quite demanding, but also beautiful.
Teaching and writing about contemporary literature, are you ever tempted to ask writers about their influences?
To a certain extent. It is worth bearing in mind that even when writers are willing to discuss their work openly, what they say is rarely the case. Asking about influence is an exception, and is often illuminating. The writers they have liked, are excited by, try to imitate, or have grown out of, usually tells you a great deal about their work.
What are the important influences on Teju Cole’s Open City ?
One of the most important influences is W G Sebald. Sebald was born in Germany, lived in Britain, and died in a car crash in 2001, just after the publication of his novel Austerlitz .
Sebald has had a huge, almost subterranean influence on literature. His first three or four books are hard to categorise. I think his best one is called The Rings Of Saturn , in which the narrator goes on a walking tour around East Anglia.
“Sebald has also influenced writers like Robert MacFarlane, who intellectualises walking and experiencing in his writing”
The walking tour results in him having a nervous breakdown. Everything he sees is connected to destruction. He sees a beautiful stately home, and it’s tied up with the bombing of the Second World War, and the failure of the sugar-beet crop. Or he sees a small-gauge railway, and he discovers that the train was originally built for the emperor of China, although it was never sent due to the Boxer Rebellion, in which tens of thousands of people were killed.
Sebald has influenced writers such as Robert MacFarlane , who intellectualises walking and experiencing in his environmental writing. Teju Cole’s novel is similarly less plot-driven and more world-driven.
Much of Open City is set in New York.
Yes, Cole’s narrator is a half-American, half-Nigerian man living in New York, although he travels extensively. You learn about the people he meets while travelling. For example, he meets an extremely well-educated Muslim migrant in a phone shop in Brussels, and they talk about left-wing politics. Simultaneously, you learn scraps about the narrator, as it were from his reflections in other people.
Many of the stories in this novel are about migrants, and the movement of people getting into America, or failing to get into America. Although I want to avoid spoilers, as the novel develops, you uncover something very unsettling about the narrating main character.
In the novel, migration is closely related to the theme of looking in the city, and of blindness.
Indeed, there are different levels of blindness. The most obvious blindness is that of the populations of New York or Brussels to migrants and the effects of migration. There is another sort of blindness, in which the narrator is escaping from something, and is blind to his own behaviours in all sorts of interesting ways.
Let’s move on to What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers. How can Dave Eggers write an autobiography of someone else?
This sort of joke is typical for Eggers. His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , similarly plays with our expectations from the very first page, where you normally find publisher’s notes and information for classifying the book. This book switches from autobiography to fiction. He says that writing fiction was like imagining wearing a clown’s suit; initially he could not do it, but he learnt.
“Eggers’ first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, plays with expectations from the very first page”
What is the What is a similarly strange mixture of a book. You might say it was ghost-written by Dave Eggers, but his name is on the front cover as a writer. You might say that it is a novel that is true to life, but it is also an autobiography: Achak Deng is telling his story. When you read it alongside other of Dave Eggers’s books, you realise that although it is about Achak Deng, it is unmistakably by Dave Eggers, in its style and form.
The title alone is supposed to make you a bit anxious. What’s going on? How far can we trust this story about Achak Deng’s life in Sudan and as a migrant in America? What has been left out? So the title is a sort of a joke, but it is also a sort of a question.
There is a blurring between fact and fiction.
The American critic David Shields wrote a book called Reality Hunger , in which he diagnoses a relatively new hunger for reality that has appeared right the way across the arts. This hunger manifests itself in reality TV, and the ‘misery memoirs’ that were popular a few years ago.
But of course, Shields says that reality TV isn’t real. It gives the impression of being real but it is not real. He talks about different ways in which ‘the real’ is made to appear real.
Dave Eggers plays with the relationship between reality and fiction. What is the What might be thought of as containing ‘chunks of reality’. For example, there is a scene in the desert, in which a character who used to be a teacher gives a four page lecture on the history of Sudan.
Tell me about the structure of the novel.
The novel comprises two parts. In the first, the narrator Achak Deng recounts his experience of being robbed violently in his house in the US. He has constant flashbacks to his life in southern Sudan. So the violence of America is contrasted with the violence of Sudan.
In the second part, the robbery is over, and he has to go to work, despite being traumatised by being beaten up. He works three jobs. At the sports club he works in, his boss notices his black eye, but nobody else pays him any attention. He thinks that if only people knew his story, they wouldn’t treat him with such disregard. This second half is about how he is ignored in America, and how the world ignores Sudan.
All the proceeds from the novel go to an organisation set up by Dave Eggers and Achak Deng, which is designed to increase access to education in what is now South Sudan. Is this is a political novel?
Yes, it is. More generally, Dave Eggers is interested in novels that not only raise awareness about political issues, but also have real-world consequences. When I teach this novel, I put up a webpage of the non-profit organisation so that students can look at it. We talk about all the things that Eggers actually does. He is a publisher, and he runs various charities. He is very engaged. This constitutes one type of cross-over between fiction and reality.
Nevertheless, is contemporary fiction aware that there are limits to what it can achieve politically?
Postmodernism was animated by the sense that fiction was terribly important. Supposedly, fiction was shaping the world. If you only read a particular novel correctly, your whole version of the world would collapse: the world would change.
“The novel is no longer the king of the jungle”
Since then, there has been a new humility in fiction. Whereas the novel was the preeminent art-form in the nineteenth century, it now competes with films, computer games and TV series. All of these forms have the power to shape the world through narrative. So the novel is no longer the king of the jungle. Novelists are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Why did you choose Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border ?
I loved Sarah Hall’s previous novel How to Paint a Dead Man . This novel, which I think of as being inspired by modernism, contains three stories about art and death that interlink over different historical periods. The Wolf Border , which has only very recently been published, is every bit as enjoyable.
However, I also chose this novel to gesture to a broader aspect of contemporary fiction. I am currently half way through this book, and so whatever I say about it is in some sense provisional. And this is true about contemporary literature more generally. Contemporary literature is exciting precisely because it is new and constantly changing, and what you say about it now may well not be true in five years’ time.
October 6, 2018
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Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research interests are in contemporary literature and literary theory, contemporary philosophy, and on Holocaust and genocide studies. He is the author of Contemporary Fiction: A Very Short Introduction and The Holocaust and the Postmodern , both published by Oxford University Press, as well as Literature: Why it Matters , The Routledge Companion to Twenty-First Century Literary Fiction , and Brexit and Literature .
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What Is Contemporary Fiction? A Comprehensive Guide for Readers
I used to think I hated contemporary fiction. I liked fantasy; I liked Jane Austen. I did not like “women’s fiction.”
Looking back, it’s because I didn’t really understand what contemporary fiction is. It’s kind of a confusing genre, encompassing vast swathes of books. Nowadays, I’m as big a fan of contemporary fiction as I am in almost every other genre.
Let's start with the basics. What is contemporary fiction, you ask? Simply put, it's fiction that is set in the present day. It's a literary genre that explores current and modern-day themes and issues.
Contemporary fiction can encompass a range of sub-genres, including romance, mystery, science fiction, and more. But what sets it apart from other genres? Let’s find out.
What Sets Contemporary Fiction Apart From Other Genres?
Sometimes it’s helpful to define a genre by comparing it to what it isn’t. Let’s start with some almost-overlapping genres.
Literary fiction: While contemporary fiction can fall under the umbrella of literary fiction, it is not necessarily the same. Literary fiction can be more focused on language and style, whereas contemporary fiction tends to focus more on plot and character development.
Realistic fiction: Some people say these are the same thing, but in my mind there is a distinction. Contemporary fiction can be considered a sub-genre of realistic fiction. But the key difference is the time period. Realistic fiction can happen in the past, while contemporary fiction is more of a modern-day vibe.
Sub-genres: What about other literary sub-genres like mystery or romance? Well, contemporary fiction can overlap with these genres as well. Many contemporary fiction books incorporate elements of mystery and romance into their stories, creating a unique blend of genres.
What truly sets contemporary fiction apart?
It's the focus on the here and now. Contemporary fiction is always set in the present time, dealing with current events, societal issues, and modern technology. It's the genre that captures the essence of the current zeitgeist.
So, there you have it. Now you know what sets contemporary fiction apart from other genres. But don't just take my word for it, read some contemporary fiction for yourself and experience the genre firsthand!
The Evolution of Contemporary Fiction Thanks to More Underrepresented Voices
Contemporary fiction is a constantly evolving genre that reflects the changes in our world. As “contemporary” changes, so too does the genre.
In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on diversity in contemporary fiction, which is fantastic. Finally, we are moving away from white, straight contemporary fiction.
Authors from marginalized communities have been given a bigger platform to tell their stories, and themes of race, gender, and sexuality have become more prevalent. This has led to a more diverse and inclusive range of voices in contemporary literature, and a greater representation of the world we live in. And it’s a pleasure and delight to read them.
Who Writes Contemporary Fiction?
Contemporary fiction is a vast and diverse genre, with a wide range of authors contributing to its many sub-genres. Let's take a closer look at some of the most popular sub-genres of contemporary fiction and who writes them.
It’s a little derogatory; nobody calls Michael Crighton a “men’s fiction” writer. But there’s no better term out there yet, so I’ll use it.
Women's fiction is a sub-genre of contemporary fiction that generally focuses on the experiences of women. Popular authors in this genre include Kristin Hannah , Jodi Picoult , and Liane Moriarty . These authors often tackle themes such as family relationships, love, and womanhood.
Crime fiction is another popular sub-genre of contemporary fiction. Authors such as James Patterson , Michael Connelly , and Lee Child are well-known for their crime novels, which often feature detectives, police officers, and other law enforcement figures trying to solve mysteries and catch criminals.
Science fiction is a genre that explores imaginative and futuristic concepts, often involving advanced science and technology. Popular contemporary science fiction authors include Andy Weir , Margaret Atwood , and Neal Stephenson .
Sci-fi is a weird one, but I think you can successfully classify it into contemporary fiction. Andy Weir’s novels are possibly the best example; he does so much research and uses his physics background to make sure they’re feasible. They haven’t happened yet, but they’re definitely fiction and arguably contemporary.
Other Sub-Genres of Contemporary Fiction
Other sub-genres of contemporary fiction include romance, young adult fiction, and literary fiction. Some well-known authors in these genres include Nicholas Sparks , John Green , and Donna Tartt .
As you can see, there is no shortage of talented authors contributing to the world of contemporary fiction. Whether you prefer science fiction or women's fiction, there is sure to be an author out there who speaks to your interests and passions.
Why Read Contemporary Fiction?
There are as many reasons to read contemporary fiction as there are readers. I read it it both to escape, but also to highlight reflections from my real life.
For example, I’m a queer woman, but I’ve married a man (and I love him and our life together!). I love to read queer contemporary romances to explore a facet of my personality that I wouldn’t want to in real life.
Let's face it, we all need to escape reality sometimes, and there's no better way to do so than by diving into a good book. But why choose contemporary fiction over other genres? Here are a few reasons:
It's relevant: Contemporary fiction deals with current issues and topics that are important to our world today. Reading contemporary fiction can help us better understand these issues and encourage us to think critically about them.
It's relatable: Contemporary fiction often explores the human experience, and we can see ourselves and our struggles reflected in the characters we read about. This can be both comforting and eye-opening.
It's diverse: With a wide range of authors and sub-genres, contemporary fiction offers something for everyone. Whether you're interested in romance, mystery, science fiction, or something else entirely, you're sure to find a book that suits your taste.
It expands your worldview: By reading contemporary fiction from a variety of authors, from James Patterson to Casey McQuiston, we can gain new perspectives and broaden our understanding of the world around us. We can learn about different cultures, lifestyles, and experiences, and develop empathy for people who are different from us.
Whether you're looking for an escape, a new perspective, or just a good story, contemporary fiction is definitely worth checking out.
Not convinced yet? I’ll sway you with some recommended contemporary fiction titles in the next section.
How to Choose a Good Contemporary Fiction Book?
Maybe you're ready to dive into the world of contemporary fiction, but you're not sure where to start. Fear not, dear reader. I’ve got some tips to help you choose the perfect book.
1. Read reviews. Don't rely solely on a book's synopsis or cover. Check out what other readers have to say about the book. Goodreads and Amazon are great places to start for reviews. This is the review that convinced me to read Kiss Her Once For Me, a gay holiday romcom.
Pro Tip: Look for reviews by readers who have similar tastes to yours. If they loved it, chances are you will too!
2. Consider the author's reputation. Have they written other books that you enjoyed? Do they have a strong following in the literary world? A well-respected author can be a good indicator of a quality book.
But don't be afraid to branch out and try new authors. Some of the best books come from debut authors or writers who are lesser known.
3. Trust your personal preferences. Do you prefer fast-paced thrillers or slow-burning dramas? Are you drawn to books with diverse characters or stories that explore universal themes? Keep these factors in mind when selecting a book.
Remember, choosing a book is a subjective process. What may be a favorite of one reader, may not resonate with another. Take the time to find what works for you and enjoy the journey.
Popular Contemporary Fiction Titles
Ready to dive into some contemporary fiction? Check out these popular and critically acclaimed titles:
Here’s where you can buy them.*
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
Such a Fun Age *These are affiliate links, which mean I earn a small commission if you end up buying these books at no cost to you!
These books cover a range of themes and genres within contemporary fiction, from family drama to social commentary to realistic fiction with a hint of romance. No matter what kind of story you're looking for, you're sure to find something compelling on this list.
Where to Find Contemporary Fiction
So, you're interested in reading some contemporary fiction, but you have no idea where to find it. Don't despair, dear reader, for we have some suggestions that will have you knee-deep in pages in no time!
Let's start with the obvious – bookstores. Whether you prefer large chains or quaint independent shops, bookstores are always a great place to start your search for contemporary fiction.
Not only can you browse through a vast selection of books, but you can also get recommendations from knowledgeable staff who are often book lovers themselves. Plus, you get to support local businesses and keep the magic of physical books alive.
If you prefer shopping from the comfort of your own home, then online retailers such as Bookshop.org is a great ethical alternative to Amazon for finding contemporary fiction. Not only do they have a massive selection of books, but they also offer features such as reviews and recommendations to help you make informed decisions. Plus, Bookshop helps support small, indie bookstores. They’ve donated over $26 million so far!
Don't underestimate the power of your local library when it comes to finding contemporary fiction. Libraries not only have current bestsellers but also often have lesser-known titles that you may not find at a bookstore or online. Plus, borrowing books from the library is a great way to save money while still satisfying your reading cravings. Just make sure to return them on time, or you'll be facing some hefty late fees.
Whichever option you choose, we hope you find the contemporary fiction book of your dreams (or nightmares, if you're into that sort of thing).
Frequently Asked Questions About Contemporary Fiction
Still have some burning questions about contemporation fiction? Let me hit you with some FAQs about this fascinating genre.
Is contemporary fiction the same as literary fiction?
This is an opinion. In my mind, no, they’re not the same although the two genres can overlap. Contemporary fiction is a broad term that encompasses any fictional work set in modern times, while literary fiction is typically more focused on exploring complex themes and characters.
I would argue, for example, that Jane Eyre is literary fiction and not contemporary fiction, though it may have been contemporary when it was published in the late 1800s.
Can contemporary fiction be realistic or does it have to be based on fantasy?
Contemporary fiction can be both realistic and speculative. The genre is defined by its modern setting, rather than any specific themes or subject matter. Take MArgaret Atwood, for instance. The woman knows how to speculate. But it’s still contemporary, because it could happen today.
What is the difference between contemporary fiction and other genres like crime or romance?
The main difference is that contemporary fiction encompasses any fictional work set in modern times, while crime or romance are specific sub-genres that have their own distinct characteristics and tropes. But I believe many sub-genres happily fall into the contemporary fiction main genre. Like Kiss Her Once For Me — it’s 100% a romance novel, but it’s also contemporary fiction.
Is contemporary fiction only written by certain authors or can anyone write it?
Anyone can write contemporary fiction ! And there are many exciting new voices emerging in the genre all the time. I encourage you to try new authors! It’s a thrilling time to be a contemporary fiction fan because there are so many new voices and ideas being platformed at the moment.
However, some authors have become associated with specific sub-genres, such as women's fiction or science fiction.
Why should I read contemporary fiction when there are so many classic/fantasy/non-fiction books to choose from?
Reading contemporary fiction can help you stay up-to-date with current cultural trends and spark your imagination with fresh, innovative ideas. Plus, who doesn't love discovering a new favorite author before they become a household name?
How do I know if a contemporary fiction book is worth reading?
Check out reviews from reputable sources, look up the author's previous work, and trust your gut. If a book sounds interesting to you, give it a try! You never know what exciting new worlds you might discover.
Final Thoughts on What Contemporary Fiction Really Is
In short, it’s fiction that could happen int he present day. No magic, no non-fiction, no historical past.
It’s one of my favorite genres thanks to its breadth and depth. I think today’s contemporary fiction scene is the richest yet, and I can’t wait to see what new authors emerge.
Hopefully these answers have helped demystify contemporary fiction for you. Now, go forth and explore all the amazing stories this genre has to offer!
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How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction?
A new book argues that corporate publishing has transformed what it means to be an author.
By Kevin Lozano
In 1989, Gerald Howard had been a book editor for about ten years, and his future filled him with dread. His primary fear, he wrote in a widely read essay for The American Scholar , was “a faster, huger, rougher, dumber publishing world.” He had entered the industry during a time of profound change. In the course of a few decades, American publishing had transformed from a parochial cultural industry, mostly centered on the East Coast, into an international, corporate affair. Starting in the nineteen-sixties, outfits like Random House and Penguin were seen as ripe targets for acquisition by multinational conglomerates like RCA and Pearson, which wanted to diversify their revenue streams, whether through oil, textbooks, calculators, or literary fiction. These parent companies changed the business of books, inciting an arms race that encouraged publishers to grow larger and larger, consolidating and concentrating the industry into a few giant players. Howard’s career had overlapped with this period of flux, and he saw before him a brutal, profit- and growth-obsessed landscape, inimical to his work. Corporate publishers like Penguin moved and grooved “to the tune of big-time finance,” he wrote. This dance was no “fox-trot; it’s a bruising slam dance,” he observed. “From down here on the shop floor, the results often look ludicrous and disastrous.”
Last year, shortly before the antitrust trial that successfully blocked a planned merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, Howard, who had recently retired, wrote for Publishers Weekly looking back on how the industry had changed in the course of his career. The slam dance had continued, its pace only more harried. The corporate houses had grown exponentially since the eighties, and swallowed up their competitors. Trade publishing was dominated by an even smaller group of companies that exerted an immense influence on the reading habits of Americans. When Penguin merged with Random House, in 2013, Howard took to calling the resulting behemoth Cosmodemonic Publishing. The scale of the company, the thousands of employees and hundreds of imprints, were, he says, “simply too large and abstract for a mere editor to get his head around.”
Howard still had hope for publishing; his “worst fears,” that the Cosmodemonic realm would engender a “race to the commercial bottom and a relentless quest for profits above quality,” hadn’t come to pass. Books were still good, the work still worthwhile, despite the stiff headwinds. But he admitted to a nagging unease: “At a certain point in my tenure at Penguin Random House I just gave up trying to understand a lot of the emails that arrived from corporate and would just hit delete, asking myself quizzically, ‘And the contribution this makes to the actual publication of actual books is . . . ?’ ”
That discomforting riddle—what these business machinations contribute to the actual publication of actual books—is the central question of Dan Sinykin’s “ Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature .” Sinykin argues that the corporate ethos that dominates the modern publishing house has exerted such an overwhelming influence on the way books are written and published that it has inaugurated a new epoch: “the Conglomerate era.” As he sees it, the consolidation of the industry that began in the nineteen-sixties and seventies transformed American fiction and “changed what it means to be an author.” The stakes of Sinykin’s inquiry are to explain “how we should read” fiction published in the U.S. during the past half century or so, a period during which every book, no matter its preoccupations or themes, could be said to reflect a greater entity: the corporation.
Sinykin’s study begins in the postwar years, when publishing was a smaller and more cloistered world. The companies were mostly family-owned and -run, bookstores and book critics were influential but far fewer in number, and costs were less daunting. The editor Jason Epstein recalls, at the time, an author could sell “six or seven thousand copies” and “make the average book profitable.” When Epstein joined Random House, in 1958, it was owned by its founders, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, a pair of cultured patricians who were famous for publishing James Joyce’s “ Ulysses ,” in 1934. The company was housed in a Gilded Age mansion that served as a second home for its writers. W. H. Auden felt comfortable enough to show up in house slippers to hand in his latest work.
Soon after Epstein started at Random House, Cerf and Klopfer decided to take the company public. The change had a tangible impact on the way the business was run. Epstein writes in his memoir “ Book Business ,” that Cerf, newly accountable to shareholders, “would chew the corner of his white linen handkerchief in anguish whenever the stock fell.” When Random House was privately owned, it could withstand a “slow season,” because publishers knew that selling books required patience. But the need to balance concerns of taste with sound financial decision-making made it harder to play the long game: enter the profit-and-loss statement, the five-year budget, and, eventually, the need to frame every book as a potential best-seller.
This same story was unfolding across the industry. In 1960, New American Library, one of the country’s largest and most successful mass-market-paperback publishers, was acquired by the newspaper company Times Mirror and then forced to reckon with a McKinsey-led reorganization. Another mass-market publisher, Pocket Books, went public that same year and merged with the trade publisher Simon & Schuster in 1966. A year after its I.P.O., Random House acquired one of its rivals, Knopf, and then the whole enterprise was gobbled up by the electronics conglomerate RCA, in 1965. Across town, Doubleday began a spending spree in the late sixties to keep up, launching a broadcast subsidiary and acquiring a number of radio and TV stations throughout the country. (In a little more than a decade’s time, Doubleday would buy a majority stake in the New York Mets.)
As publishers scaled up their expansionary aspirations, new powers emerged: forces like literary agents and chain bookstores, intricate marketing campaigns and high-stakes auctions, helped to forge a different way of doing business, a process of diversifying and rationalizing that led to a larger, more stratified, and more economically conscious sphere, dominated by daunting hierarchies of power and money.
Today’s publishing house is closer to a hedge fund than a tastemaker. Every book that it acquires is a bet on profitability. The financialization of the acquisition process functions like an index of risk, creating a “system in which homogeneity . . . is encouraged” to minimize bad bets. This system affects all houses, no matter their size. Every season, Big Five publishers are incentivized to pursue best-sellers, authors whose works can scale into a franchise or a movie. Meanwhile, independent publishers and nonprofits such as W. W. Norton and Graywolf Press seek to carve out their own niche in this ecosystem by focussing on books with small but ardent audiences (poetry, the literature of marginalized voices). Sinykin sidesteps the question of whether this system has made books worse. He wants to demonstrate something trickier: how the process of authoring a book has become subsumed by a larger and larger network of interests, changing what it meant to be an author. Critics and scholars, Sinykin contends, are uncomfortable displacing the author when studying literature. His book is an earnest attempt to focus attention on the non-authorial figures involved in a book’s creation. Instead of individual writers, he wants us to think in terms of a “feedback loop.”
If there is a villain in “Big Fiction,” it is the “romantic” conception of authorship—the idea that writing a book is as simple as an author sitting down and marshalling their creative forces. This sense of the author, Sinykin thinks, is “a mirage veiling the systematic intelligences that are responsible for more of what we read than most of us are ready to acknowledge.” By “systematic intelligences,” he means the coördinated efforts of the dozens of people who touch a book before it makes its way into the hands of a reader.
Before conglomeration, Sinykin asserts, writing a book “was a completely different experience.” Once, a would-be novelist’s chances of being published depended on “how easily you could get your book in the right editor’s hands.” As the number of those involved in publication expanded, authors had to meet new criteria. “Could marketers see a market? What would the chain bookbuyers think? Could publicists picture your face on TV, your voice on the radio? Could agents sniff subsidiary rights? Would foreign rights sell at the Frankfurt Book Fair? Might your story be remediated? Would it work in audio? On the big screen?”
Sinykin calls authors who successfully navigated the maze of agents, marketers, and booksellers “industrial writers.” This group includes chart-topping genre writers, such as Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, and Stephen King , and also literary novelists who managed to work within the new system. Among Sinykin’s most succinct and persuasive case studies involves the career of Cormac McCarthy . In 1965, McCarthy’s first novel, an allusive Southern gothic called “ The Orchard Keeper ,” was published by a legendary editor at Random House named Albert Erskine. Erskine, who had been a steward for the company’s most distinguished writers, including William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison , found a manuscript by McCarthy in the slush pile and committed himself to fostering his career. Though McCarthy’s early books rarely sold, he was able to survive outside the market with the help of fellowships and grants secured through Erskine’s influence.
When Erskine retired, in 1987, McCarthy needed a new patron. He reached out to Lynn Nesbit, an agent who represented Robert Caro , among others. Nesbit passed McCarthy on to her protégée, Amanda (Binky) Urban. By chance, Urban was an admirer of McCarthy’s work. She made it her mission to insure that his next book would be a hit. She called up Sonny Mehta, who had recently been installed as the editor-in-chief of Knopf. Mehta sent McCarthy to an ambitious editor named Gary Fisketjon. As Fisketjon went to work on McCarthy’s prose, Mehta and his most trusted publicist, Jane Friedman, the woman credited with inventing the author tour, set about “aggressively marketing” McCarthy’s reinvention. They enlisted the photographer Marion Ettlinger to shoot a dashing author portrait and the designer Chip Kidd to create an enticing cover for his next book. That book was 1992’s “ All the Pretty Horses ,” which sold a hundred and ninety thousand copies in its first six months and was adapted into a Hollywood movie in 2000, starring Matt Damon. By 2007, when Oprah’s Book Club and the Pulitzer Prize anointed “ The Road ,” McCarthy was no longer perceived as a writer of difficult, obscure fiction but an approachable mainstream celebrity author.
Many of Sinykin’s claims about how fiction has changed in the past fifty years—that novelists are under pressure to bring in consistent profit, that literary writers have incorporated genre tropes into their work—are broadly true. But his account of how individual authors have responded to conglomeration requires us to take on faith many of his claims. We never see a manuscript page or editorial interventions that might illustrate these writers’ explicit acquiescence to the market interests of their stakeholders.
In an extended section on Toni Morrison’s “ Beloved ,” Sinykin argues that the novel’s success was partly due to its incorporation of horror elements in a time when horror authors like Stephen King were the industry’s most consistent commodities. In “Beloved,” Sinykin writes, Morrison “made good on the trend, deploying a ghost, a haunted house, terrifying violence, and trauma in her high modernist neo-slave narrative.” But there is no evidence that Morrison was consciously modelling her novel on horror fiction in response to the genre’s success, or that her editor, or her publisher’s marketing department, was urging her in this direction.
Sinykin’s reading of “Beloved” is part of a larger argument that “conglomeration led to the production of fiction that allegorized conglomeration itself.” “Beloved” is not just a horror novel, he argues; it is a novel about “publishing.” As evidence, he offers a preamble on Morrison’s career as an editor and the challenges that she faced at Random House. One of the publishing house’s only Black editors, she battled indifference from a white staff and grew to resent the demands placed on her as a trade editor. In 1983, she quit her job to write full time.
In a foreword she wrote to “Beloved” some years after the novel became her most successful, she returned to the frustrations of her editorial job, acknowledging that the book had been made possible when she was freed from her nine-to-five:
I had no agenda and couldn’t hear the telephone if it rang. I heard my heart, though, stomping away in my chest like a colt. . . . Then it slapped me: I was happy, free in a way I had never been, ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment . . . Enter Beloved .
Sinykin takes this as a testament that the book’s meditation on the fragility of freedom after slavery was inspired by the freedom that Morrison felt after leaving her editorial job.
“Big Fiction” is explicitly indebted to Mark McGurl’s “ The Program Era ,” a historical study of the structural and creative effects of creative-writing programs on postwar American fiction. McGurl provides his own reading of “Beloved” that argues the plantation in the novel is a metaphor for the education system.
The clumsiness of these readings points to the limitations of works like “Big Fiction” and “The Program Era.” These are daring attempts to map the larger structures that shape how books are written and published, but their attention to the big picture can obscure how novels operate on a visceral, textual level. Still, Sinykin’s study is valuable because it speaks to the same fear that Gerald Howard voiced in 1989: that the balance of culture and commerce at the heart of publishing is increasingly weighted toward profit.
Sinykin won’t render a direct verdict on whether conglomeration has been bad for literature. But the processes he describes have been bad for writers, whose livelihoods are subject to the vicissitudes of a boom-and-bust economy. And they have been bad for publishing employees, from the warehouse to the cubicle, who are at the mercy of layoffs and constant reorganizations forced upon publishers by their parent companies. Nine months after the Justice Department won its case to block the merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, a private-equity firm won the bidding sweepstakes to take over Simon & Schuster. The future of corporate publishing seems as uncertain and chaotic as ever.
In a postmortem of the P.R.H. trial , a reporter for New York pointed out that there has long been a fear that the company was “too bureaucratic, too unwieldy,” a place that stifled creativity. Resources were put behind books that were “safe bets,” homogeneity was rewarded, and risks were rarely taken. Though contemporary corporate publishing is superficially more diverse, less reliant on an exclusionary social sphere, than publishing of the postwar years was, the industry still struggles to foster a heterogeneous literary culture. According to a 2020 study by the academic Richard Jean So , between 1950 and 2018, ninety-five per cent of the English-language fiction books major publishers put out were written by white authors. A 2019 survey showed eighty-five per cent of the people who acquire and edit books in the U.S. are also white.
When it comes to individual writers, the effect of corporatization on fiction is apparent less in the quality of any single novel than across an author’s career. Cormac McCarthy benefitted from a close working relationship with a devoted editor that afforded him the opportunity to write without fear of having to earn back his advance. By the time he became a celebrity and best-selling author, he had established a distinctive style and had amassed a body of work, two key factors in his ability to secure a durable readership. As Sinykin points out, a career like McCarthy’s would not be possible today. Most young writers never receive the attention and care needed for their talent to come to maturity; if their first novel fails, as most débuts do, they are written off as a bad investment before they have a chance to publish another.
In casting a spotlight on the many players—editors, publishers, agents, booksellers—whose coördinated labor is required to create a book, Sinykin makes a compelling case that books are not produced by a single author but through a collective effort. But does that mean that the corporation itself should be thought of as an “author,” as Sinykin suggests? At times, he seems to overstate the “systematic intelligence,” the machinelike efficiency, of the publishing houses under whose imprints books appear. As a parade of industry executives testified in the course of the P.R.H. antitrust trial last year, a certain amount of randomness defines everything about literary success. No one ultimately knows which books will make money, let alone make it onto the classics shelf. The editor Daniel Menaker once compared the acquisition process to a bad night at a casino, saying, “You put your money down and most of the time you lose.” In this respect, at least, nothing about the math of publishing has changed in the conglomerate era. ♦
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