The time in which I’ve been writing these annual posts is also the time in which I’ve become a more-or-less professional literary critic. It’s funny to see them turn from a snapshot of what I, Sarah Ditum choose to read (an awful lot of George RR Martin in 2011) to being a snapshot of how I read as a reviewer.
Firstly, I read a lot: 95 books finished so far in 2017, assuming I polish off the Lovecraft anthology by the end of the year (and if I don’t, nobody can judge me for sliding off of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” because COME ON, IT IS CALLED “THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH”). Secondly, the majority of what I read is directed by work one way or another: either stuff I’m reviewing, critical background for review, or as research for a project or article.
About two-thirds of what I read this year was female-authored, to one-third male. Only six were by black or Asian authors (skip forward to October for some thoughts on publishing’s whiteness). I read more fiction than non-fiction, but not by as much as I thought: fiction only just edges over the halfway mark. I read a pitiable four books of poetry. Six of the books were children’s or YA, and six were translations. More than half of what I read was new – published 2017 or to come in 2018. After that, 15 were otherwise C21st, 18 were C20th, and only one was pre-C20th, which is pretty poor. Four were re-readings (Ariel, Riddley Walker, Nightwood and Emma).
The rules of this post: this is every book I read in 2017, in the order I read them; I finish what I start (dream-quests notwithstanding); if I’ve marked an author with an asterisk, we have the same agent; I’ve noted where I was reading something for review, and linked where possible; like Toulouse Lautrec the magical sitar in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, I only speak the truth. And now, the headlines:
Top five new fiction
Michelle Tea, Black Wave (And Other Stories) – January
Gwendoline Riley, First Love (Granta) – see November
Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire (Portobello) – see November
Anneliese Mackintosh,* So Happy It Hurts (Jonathan Cape) – see June
Fiona Melrose, Johannesburg (Corsair) – see August
Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13 (4th Estate) – see December (yes I know this makes it a top six but I read it late and it’s brilliant and anyway I’ll do what I want)
Top five new non-fiction
Rachel Hewitt, A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind (Granta) – see March
Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply (Fleet) – see April
Jenny Landreth, Swell: A Waterbiography (Bloomsbury) – see April
Angela Saini, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (4th Estate) – see April
Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker: A Biography (Allen Lane) – see July
I’m desperate to read more men tackling the politics of masculinity. Jack Urwin’s Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity* (Icon, 2016) isn’t quite it: while the book starts from an understanding of masculinity’s harms, by the end Urwin is trying to rehabilitate something he calls “true masculinity”, without ever having addressed the relationship between masculinity and power. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray, 2016; 2014) was a brilliantly disturbing gothic which fudged its conceit a little at the end.
Al Alvarez’s The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (Bloomsbury, 2002; 1971) was reading for my Lancet Psychiatry essay on Sylvia Plath. It’s rangy, but whistle-stop, with flashes of insight (especially in his memories of Plath) countered by patches of dullness probably caused by his closeness to the subject of suicide (despite setting out not to glamorise it, he inevitably does). Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (Faber, 1990; 1965) I reread for the same piece (with my awful teenage pencilled marginalia), and then reread again in her original manuscript order – her Ariel is very different to the edition Hughes created, with the wonderful bee poems as the climax rather than a strange interlude between the works of ferocious, morbid genius.
Conundrum by Jan Morris (Faber, 2002; 1974) is my favourite kind of trans memoir: unselfconscious and well-written, although Morris’s airy thoughts on the “eternal feminine” could have been specifically devised to wind me up. I reviewed Michelle Tea’s Black Wave (& Other Stories, 2017; 2016) for the New Statesman and I absolutely adore it: apocalyptic in the most spectacular way and intimate in its sharp-eyed view of the San Francisco queer scene.
I read Karen Finley’s Shock Treatment (City Lights, 2015; 1990) (which I bought from City Lights bookshop when I was in SF last year) to fill in some of Black Wave’s backdrop, and because I thought it would be a nice distraction from Trump’s inauguration day. This was a terrible choice: it includes the poem “A Woman Can’t be President” and the honest-to-goodness line “Trump would rather build the world’s largest building than provide the world’s largest low-income housing project”. As you can probably tell from that, it’s all a bit spoken-word, with the lines split 50-50 between splenetic truth bombs and right-on clangers.
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (Faber, 2001; 1936) is (still; this was a reread of a uni set text) a bewitching tour through the damned underbelly of European “inverts” (the hoary old sexologist’s term encompassing gays, lesbians and cross-dressers). Becky Johnson’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015; 2014) is pleasing sci-fi in the spirit of Star Trek (space liberals) and the style of Firefly (misfit crew of a rickety ship at the frontier of civilisation).
I really liked Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Windmill, 2015), which has one of the least roman-a-clef-ish main characters I’ve ever met in a first novel, and a tremendously horrible kick in the story. That novel’s strange pilgrimage sent me back to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (Picador, 1982; 1980), which remains purest genius, a thing entirely itself and like nothing else.
Then, also by Sara Baume, A Line Made by Walking (William Heineman, 2017), for review in the New Statesman. This is the opposite of Spill Simmer on the autofiction scale: art obsessive main narrator Frankie shares a lot with her creator. “Liked” is not quite the right word for how I feel about Line. Its invocation of Frankie’s depression is so precise that midway through, I started to feel like I was depressed too. It is, however, extraordinary and recommended.
I hadn’t read any of Susan Faludi’s books before I reviewed In the Dark Room for The Spectator last year. This year, I started to remedy that by reading Backlash (Vintage, 1992; 1991). It’s an object lesson in non-fiction writing: tightly argued, comprehensive, clear-eyed, building an argument theme-by-theme. I had to replace my 1992 paperback when I found 30 pages were missing somewhere in the last half, so don’t buy that edition, but do buy it. It remains dismally relevant: her account of Geraldine Ferraro’s treatment as a vice-presidential candidate is basically the Hillary story set in 1984.
Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017) is a deliberate application of the past to politics now: it’s a crisp guidebook to resisting Trump, based on Snyder’s insights as a historian of the Holocaust. In the same line but less successful is What We Do Now, edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians (Melville House, 2017), a patchy collection of essays. I wrote about both for the New Statesman.
I read Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth* (Freight Books, 2014), a brilliant and brutalising collection of stories about grief and violence. Then, I started my reading for a big NS review-essay on trans-themed books with the dismayingly po-faced Trans Like Me by CN Lester (Virago, 2017), read an exciting sci-fi manuscript that’s now on its way to publication, and then back to the trans stuff with Amy Ellis Nutt’s Becoming Nicole (Atlantic, 2016; 2015), an account of one family and their trans child which features some woefully sloppy writing about brainsex and some extraordinary sexism in its ideas about gender roles: Nicole, we are told, “was a girl who wanted to be pretty and feel loved and one day marry a boy – just like other girls did.” (Bad luck, lesbians, you no longer count as girls.)
Benjamin Myers’ Beastings (Bluemoose, 2014) is a rural gothic with a taste for extreme violence. I can image Ben Wheatley filming it. Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (Penguin, 2006; 1932) is also set in the cruel cruel countryside, only with a big dose of funny and a sly seam of unexpected futurism. I’m a jackass for not having read it till now. I’ll definitely read it again. More Benjamin Myers next, as I was reviewing The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose, 2017) for the New Statesman: it doesn’t quite have Beastings’ vicious drive, but it’s a savage portrait of rural lawlessness and a tussle for sovereignty, which feels extremely Brexit-relevant.
The Spectator asked me to review Charlotte Rampling’s Who I Am (Icon, 2017) (written with Christophe Bataille, translated by William Hobson with Charlotte Rampling), a slim and idiosyncratic take on the celebrity memoir that has a shattering loss at its core. Intriguing, but insubstantial.
Also tiny is Adrian Mole: The Collected Poems by Sue Townsend (Penguin, 2017). Sue Townsend was a sublime satirist and social observer, and also – as this volume of the poems she wrote in her most famous creations voice underlines – a brilliant writer of comic verse, who always alighted on not the merely bad but the immaculately bathetic. I wrote about Adrian and his entwined history with Labour for the New Statesman.
Back to the trans books: Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man (Canongate, 2017; 2014) is sometimes thoughtful and often revealing as it recounts McBee’s journey from sexual abuse in girlhood to transitioning to living as a man in adulthood. Then a belated run through Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil (Sceptre, 1984; 1983), which is still a mean-spirited riot.
A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind by Rachel Hewitt (Granta, 2017) is essential. It’s a history of the 1790s that makes a persuasive case for this as the decade that defined the way we “feel about feeling”, and a provocative argument for putting emotion back into politics. (I interviewed Rachel for my regular books page in In the Moment Magazine.)
Fay Weldon’s Death of a She Devil (Head of Zeus, 2017) revisits her breakout book and craps all over it. You can read the full debrief on its dull, plotless and unfunniness in my Guardian review. Man, I needed something good after that: a week in France and a reread of Emma by Jane Austen (Penguin, 2003; 1815) fit the bill, waspishness and wisdom in immaculate proportions.
When Ariel Levy turned her journalistic eye on herself in her extraordinary 2013 New Yorker article “Thanksgiving in Mongolia”, she was as unsparing and acute as she is on any subject. Her full-length memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply (Fleet, 2017) surveys her upbringing, her career in journalism, her partner’s alcoholism, her infidelity and the miscarriage of “Thanksgiving” with sharp insight and precise prose. For example: “lurching between lives is hell. Even if one life is manifest and the other mostly hypothetical, the inability to occupy your own reality is torment, is torture. It is sin and punishment all in one.” For example: “There was no due date to anticipate now, but I was often distracted by a poisonous kind of counting.” Is she too harsh on herself over the miscarriage? Yes. But her honesty regarding this harshness tells us something that is rarely spoken about the self-torture of in-utero bereavements.
Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (Fourth Estate, 2017) is a brisk tour of the sexism has infected medicine, evolutionary theory and biology which in a smart twist suggests that while misogyny isn’t be justified by reproductive inequality, it is explained by it: women are a resource, and this is a strategy for men to control it.
The Little Buddhist Monk by César Aira, translated by Nick Caistor (And Other Stories, 2017; 2005) was a big no for me – regrettably, because I love the publisher. Throwaway and weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness, it left me with no desire to dig into Aira’s absurdly massive back catalogue. I wish Jesse Loncrane’s In the Field* (Blue Mark Books, 2017; 2016) had gotten more coverage. Sons, mothers, witness and war in the intertwined tales of a junky foreign correspondent and the child soldier he’s trying to track down.
Then back to the UK and back to work reading with a bump, as I slogged through Rhyannon Styles’ The New Girl: A Trans Girl Tells It Like It Is (Headline, 2017). I was considering it for the NS review essay, but I cut it in the end. For some reason, the memoir has been the main literature of the trans tipping point, and 2017 saw a glut of them. If Styles’ retelling of a ’90s Britpop-obsessed midlands adolescence couldn’t captivate me (a Britpop-obsessed midlands adolescent in the 1990s), then it wasn’t going to work on anyone. Prose like “this was a pivotal turning point” and “I had tears streaming down my face as I was trying to find the quinoa” didn’t help.
Caroline Paige’s True Colours (Biteback, 2017) also didn’t make the cut. Paige’s story – successful RAF career, transition in middle age – is an interesting one on paper, but neither part is compellingly told. Section heading (“Into the Blue” for cross-dressing boyhood, “The Edge of Pink” for the beginning of transition) underline that this is a life with not so much examination.
I wish I’d enjoyed Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Penguin, 2014). “The Rape Joke”, which is the standout poem, is superb. A lot of the rest felt less like verse than like artfully disjointed prose supporting hyperextended puns. Oh my God, The Nothing by Hanif Kureishi (Faber, 2017). If I hadn’t read Death of a She Devil, this would easily be my worst book of 2017; as it is, it’s a battle of giants, but Kureishi comes out underneath. Which is the kind of low grade double entendre he’d probably reject as too subtle, given the relentless stream of misogynist grot in The Nothing. I reviewed it for The Guardian.
Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human (Hutchinson, 2017) falls in a witchy place between nature writing and psychological thriller, about a woman who (seems to) fall in love with a fox (but does she) (she does) (ah but does she). It would have been better with more plot to underpin the musk-heavy atmosphere, but it did leave me with one unforgettable phrase: “a rewilding of the heart”.
2017 was a moment for swimming books. Jenny Landreth’s Swell: A Waterbiography (Bloomsbury, 2017) took the prize for me: a memoir of Jenny’s unlikely journey from back-of-the-bikeshed smoker to obsessive coldwater swimmer, and a history of women swimming – despite men’s best efforts to stop us with peeping, bylaws and straight-up assault. Glorious and inspiring. (I chose it for the first issue of In the Moment.)
Look, I didn’t want to enjoy Caitlyn Jenner’s The Secrets of My Life (Trapeze, 2017), but you know what? It won me over. Jenner’s flagrant disregard for the trans rulebook – embracing deadnaming and cheerfully acknowledging a sexual kick from femininity – made it a lot more frank and a lot less stressful than, say, Trans Like Me. It helps that Jenner has had an interesting life, with plenty of athletic and celebrity exploits. Plus, it’s co-authored with Buzz Bissinger (Vanity Fair writer, Friday Night Lights author and self-confessed leather perv – one of the reasons Jenner considered him a good match for the project), which means the prose kicks along with no boring bits. This was the last book that made it into the NS essay, and probably the best of them.
I did Will Storr’s Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us (Picador, 2017) for Literary Review. I’ve got reservations, but I can set them aside for great reporting and a strong argument. Then I read an early manuscript version of a novel that will be out next year, and that I cannot wait for. Natalie Haynes’ The Children of Jocasta (Mantle, 2017) was a treat: a realist retelling of the Oedipus myth through the eyes of Ismene that locates the human and specific in the epic and immortal. I reviewed it for The Spectator.
I did some chairing for the Bath Literature Festival, which was an absolute joy. My first event was with Alys Fowler on her memoir Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017). If I precis it as “woman takes up urban canoeing, discovers she’s a lesbian” I won’t have done justice to this celebration of the unexpected wildness of our cities and ourselves. Plus, it taught me the indispensable word “synanthropic” to describe animals which thrive in human-made habitats, like foxes, pigeons and rats. The next event was a panel with Jenny Landreth (see April) and fellow swim-author Alexandra Heminsley, whose Leap In (Hutchinson, 2017) helped me finally fix my front crawl.
Lili: A Portrait of the First Sex Change, edited by Niels Hoyer (2015, Canelo Digital; 1933) (better known as Man Into Woman) is such a weird book. Largely composed of the letters and diaries of Lile Elbe (who was actually called Elvenes), it’s credited to Hoyer, who is a pseudonym for journalist Ernst Harthern. For a book that claims to be about revealing a true self, an awful lot is hidden or invented. Elbe died after an inevitably botched womb transplant (immunosuppressant drugs had yet to be invented), and it’s hard to disagree with Jan Morris’s verdict: “There never was a sadder tale.”
Elbe’s initial treatment was overseen by Berlin sexologist Marcus Hirschfeld, whose clinic was destroyed by Nazi Youth. But though much was lost, his work continued, and one of his inheritors was the endocrinologist Harry Benjamin. I read his book The Transsexual Phenomenon (Symposium Publishing, 1999; 1966), which was a defining text in the treatment of trans people. Benjamin has a humanitarian concern for the anguish of people with dysphoria, and a remarkably blatant seam of sexism: for example, he describes the “genetically normal man” as “sexually attracted to women” while claiming the “genetically normal woman” merely desires to “be attractive to men”. Hoo boy, I was glad I already had Saini (see April) in the clip when I was reading that.
Syd Moore’s Strange Magic (Point Blank, 2017) – Essex witches, Essex girls, a hairsbreadth caper to avert diabolical evildoings – was loads of fun. It’s the opener for a series (book two came out in the second half of 2017), and I’m looking forwarding to hoovering up the rest of the adventures. (I interviewed Syd for In the Moment.)
Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of Privilege (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) has a compelling argument: that the “privilege” framework is not just unhelpful but corrosive to social justice, turning structural issues into personal faults that must be punished or atoned for. I buy that, and her analysis of how badly “privilege” obscures both anti-Semitism and misogyny, though there was more rehashed Twitter drama at some points than made for elegant reading.
Muster your holy water: I read Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (Teachers College Press, 1994; 1979). It’s very interesting to read Raymond’s criticisms of John Money, well in advance of Milton Diamond’s exposé of the John/Joan horror – especially given that feminists have subsequently been blamed for Money’s heartily anti-feminist practice. In her 1994 introduction, Raymond also foresees the Rachel Dolezal business with remarkable acuity. She explicitly disavows legislation forbidding surgery, and calls for legislation that “lessens the support given to sex-role stereotyping”. She says trans people need their “own unique context of peer support”, which still sounds like a good idea. There’s no way to set aside rhetoric like “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies”, though.
Then Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto (privately issued, 2014; 1987), which is Stone’s response to Raymond. (Ah, the pre-Twitter days when it could take eight years to get a take together.) In lots of ways, it’s the foundation of contemporary trans politics: critiquing “passing”, attacking “gatekeepers” and drawing on Judith Butler, although a line like “Transsexuals do not possess the same history as genetic ‘naturals,’ and do not share common oppression prior to gender reassignment” would be considered hate speech now. It’s also a good example of using poststructuralism to obfuscate rather than analyse: “In the transsexual as text we may find the potential to map the refigured body onto conventional gender discourse and thereby disrupt it, to take advantage of the dissonances created by such a juxtaposition to fragment and reconstitute the elements of gender in new and unexpected geometries.” Excuse me, would you repeat that please, I have lost track of the nouns. And Stone gets Raymond plain wrong at points: “neither the investigators nor the transsexuals have taken the step of problematizing ‘wrong body’ as an adequate descriptive category” is untrue, given that Raymond spends a great deal of her book doing precisely that.
God I love James Baldwin, and Giovanni’s Room (Penguin, 1990; 1957) is superb. Two decades on from Nightwood, Paris is still a hell where expats have the freedom to be gay, but can’t escape their homophobic self-loathing. It’s also an extraordinary novel about woman-hating. Baldwin gives this speech to a female character: “Men may be at the mercy of women – I think men like that idea, it strokes the misogynist in them. But if a particular man is ever at the mercy of a particular woman – why, he’s somehow stopped being a man. And the lady, then, is more neatly trapped than ever.”
Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques (Verso, 2015) is firmly in the middle rank of trans memoirs: not exceptionally badly written, not strikingly insightful. Savannah Knoop’s Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy (Seven Stories Press, 2008) sounds like it’s going to be a trans memoir, but it isn’t – not exactly. Knoop was the public face of one of my favourite literary hoaxes. In the 1990s, unsuccessful author Laura Albert invented the alter-ego Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy and gave him a compelling biography: an HIV-positive truck-stop rent-boy transgirl, with a beloved white-trash hooker mom. LeRoy rapidly became a full-on star. Everyone read “his” “autobiographical” 2000 novel Sarah (including me). Everyone loved it. Albert – an overweight, unglamorous mother IRL – recruited her androgynous sister-in-law Knoop to play the part of LeRoy at celebrity readings and fashion shows, and the whole thing spiralled. This is a great story told by Knoop with lots of trashy dash (if not quite the amount of remorse warranted), containing a horde of revealing details about performing gender and getting away with big lies.
I reviewed Catherine Lacey’s novel The Answers (Granta, 2017) for The Guardian (nice concept goes AWOL in the execution), and did Damon Youngs’s pop-philosophical manifesto of bookishness The Art of Reading (Scribe, 2017) for In the Moment. I loved Anneliese Mackintosh’s So Happy It Hurts (Jonathan Cape, 2017) – an untidy, generous and funny story of alcoholism, loss and tenderness. I reviewed it for The Guardian.
I’d flicked through Juno Dawson’s The Gender Games (Two Roads, 2017) when considering it for the NS essay, and now I decided to finish it. It vacillates unpredictably between defining gender as an inherent identity and defining gender as a social force, and though Dawson claims to be a feminist, lines like “traditional, basic-bitch definitions of male and female” don’t suggest a thoroughgoing critique of misogyny.
If only I’d read Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (Allen Lane, 2017) before I picked up the book of poetry that came with them. I nearly didn’t read it at all after that disappointment, which would have been a great loss. Luckily my friend Matthew Adams set me right, and so I did not miss out on this incredibly funny account of an incredibly weird life with a Catholic convert for a father. In a year without Levy, this would have easily been a standout piece of life-writing. The line “the nearly stupid genius of Hemingway” alone is a standout piece of criticism.
Read part two (July-December) here