Even though individual books have quite often provided a source for controversy, I can't imagine another year like this one. In 2001, the book-related controversies that raged had little or nothing to do with the books' contents. Rather, the actions of authors brought notice and sometimes consequences. Does this mean that the author is finally moving into the celebrity stratosphere? Or, more likely, was 2001 just such an odd year in general that -- especially into the autumn -- so many of us started feeling uncomfortable in our own skins?
Just look at it all: the release of the latest novel by British wordsmith Fay Weldon brought on a storm around the propriety of an author taking money from a company for product placement in a novel. It's a controversy worth looking at. After all, is it offensive when (name a movie) takes money from (some company) so that a (name product) can be prominently displayed in a film? Some would say yes. In Weldon's case, hardly anyone said "no." And was it gratuitous? Well, the company was the internationally known Italian jeweler Bulgari and the name of the book was The Bulgari Connection. You be the judge.
Practically on the eve of publication of her new book of essays, Where the Stress Falls, Susan Sontag took quite a hit when she contributed to a New Yorker magazine "Talk of the Town" piece reflecting on the September 11 tragedies. The winner of the National Book Award for Fiction was one of nine illustrious authors sharing their thoughts. The rest of the herd included John Updike, Jonathan Franzen and Rebecca Mead, all noted for strong opinions. Voicing views that would have been lauded, ignored or nodded to in smug agreement in less politically volatile times, in response to her New Yorker essay, Sontag was called a "moral idiot" who deserved to be driven into the wilderness and an "America-hater" and "traitor" who should be "drawn and quartered."
It was a funny old year.
Later -- though not much -- Jonathan Franzen and the venerable Oprah Winfrey crossed swords when Winfrey had the temerity to choose Franzen's book, The Corrections, for a coveted position in her book club. Most authors would die, if not kill, to be so honored if for no other reason than it shoots book sales through the roof.
Franzen's problem, it seems, was not with Winfrey herself, but rather with the guest appearances he'd have to make in conjunction with it. Franzen basically said: Fine, you can choose me, but I'm not going to play. The press went mad -- alternately smacking Franzen and Winfrey -- before Franzen resurfaced to apologize. In the meantime and in the wake of the publicity -- and there was a lot of it -- he sold an even bigger pile of books than he probably would have if he'd just smiled and said "thank you." It sort of makes you think.
The endnote to this story kind of cracks me up. For her next selection, Winfrey chose A Fine Balance by a Canadian author, Rohinton Mistry. Here's what I figure: After being publicly abused by an arrogant countryman, Winfrey thought she'd look north. Canadians, after all, are notoriously polite.
Like the stock market that would have supported it had things only gone another way, the electronic book market went absolutely south in 2001, with large and important early adopters abruptly pulling plugs on fledgling e-book ateliers.
While this surprised some industry insiders, it seems safe to bet that said insiders had their collective heads in the sand. At press time, e-books tend still to be awkward and ungainly, and not enough money or attention has yet been lavished on the development of the hardware that will make these wee beasties household items. However, gentle reader, the sky is not falling. It's only a matter of time. The electronic book is too cool and powerful an idea not to take root at some point. With paper ever more expensive and renewable resources dwindling everywhere, how long can it be before a really good e-book reader is developed? When it happens, let me know, 'cause I'll be the first in line. In the meantime, pass me my hardcover because it's reliable, easily transportable, won't give me a headache and you don't have to plug it in.
Once again, January Magazine's selections for best of the year were of the traditional, not electronic, persuasion, even though several of our selections did also appear in electronic format. For instance, Amitav Ghosh's novel, The Glass Palace, won one of the $50,000 top prizes at the Frankfurt E-book Awards. (And therein lies the problem with distinguishing books by what they're made of, rather than what's inside them.)
Here's how we made our picks: January's editors and contributors were asked to select the titles they liked best. The criteria? The book had to have been published in the English language in 2001. Of course, what's best is subjective and how it's quantified varies from reviewer to reviewer. We're not necessarily looking for an epic canvas, a huge cast of characters or a convoluted plot line. Rather, what's "best" are the books that touched us, made us pause or moved us in some deep and real way.
Our selections are listed in alphabetical order within genre. The book that is listed first in a genre wasn't necessarily our first choice, merely one of those chosen. Each book's description is bylined, so you can see which of our writers chose your own favorites. Did we miss your favorite altogether? Please let us -- and other readers -- know with a public comment.
And thank you for letting us be a part of your year. In 2001, January Magazine moved into its fifth year with a huge rise in readership that began in early autumn and seems to continue with each passing week. The message we hear: books and authors constitute an ever more important spot in our hearts and minds. Good news, I think, for everyone.
Linda L. Richards