From “American Dirt” to “Apropos of Nothing” to “A Promised Land,” here is what happened in the literary and publishing world’s unforgettable 2020.
Its main themes in the United States were very much those found in the culture as a whole: the brutal effects of a pandemic, the protests and conversations about racial justice, and the final year of the Trump administration. As these profound and prolonged trends affected the literary world, more discrete but still significant moments were happening all the while. Here’s a (more or less) chronological recap of an unforgettable literary year.
‘American Dirt’ stirs debate
The publishing year began with a cautionary tale about buzz. Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, “American Dirt,” about a Mexican mother and son who flee their country for the United States after a drug cartel kills their family, was published with great commercial and critical expectations. The commercial part worked out.
Before the book was even available in stores, several writers accused Ms. Cummins, who identifies as white and Latina but is not Mexican, of exploiting the traumatic experiences of migrants for her fast-paced novel. Oprah Winfrey chose the novel for her book club, placing the book and its critics under an even more intense spotlight.
“It was an extraordinary convergence of forces,” The Times’s Jennifer Schuessler and Alexandra Alter reported in January. “Industry hype meets charges of cultural appropriation meets one of the most combustible political issues in America today, immigration.” In her review of the novel, The Times’s Parul Sehgal wrote: “I’m of the persuasion that fiction necessarily, even rather beautifully, requires imagining an ‘other’ of some kind.” But, she continued, “the caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well,” and this particular book’s shortcomings “have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.”
A rare changing of the guard at Knopf
Alfred A. Knopf, the august literary imprint that is now part of Penguin Random House, was founded in 1915. Until this year, it has had only three editors in chief in its history: its founder and namesake; Robert Gottlieb, his successor; and Sonny Mehta, who had presided in the role for 32 years and died at 77 in December 2019. In January, Reagan Arthur was named the fourth.
Arthur had previously been the publisher at Little, Brown, where the writers in her stable included Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Rachel Cusk, Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris.
Hilary Mantel caps off Cromwell trilogy
Given that both “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” the first two volumes of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor-era trilogy, won the Booker Prize, anticipation was high for the third and concluding book, “The Mirror and the Light.” Nearly 800 pages, it was published in February, a couple of years after initially planned, to the consternation of some impatient fans. “The reason it took so long is that it’s difficult, and that is a totally sufficient explanation,” Mantel told The Times.
“The Mirror and the Light” is about the last four years in the life of Mantel’s protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, as he reaches the height of his influence and power in Henry VIII’s court before being — historical spoiler alert — beheaded.
Parul Sehgal called it a “triumphant capstone” to the trilogy, though the “slackest” of the three novels. Thomas Mallon called the trilogy “probably the greatest historical fiction accomplishment of the past decade,” but felt that in the third book, “the enterprise, like Henry, has put on weight and self-importance.” The novel did not win Mantel her third Booker, but it was longlisted for the prize.
Woody gets canceled (literally) and then published
Announcing and publishing a book can be a slow business. Not in this case. The controversy around Woody Allen’s autobiography, “Apropos of Nothing,” crammed a year’s worth of drama into three weeks.
On March 2, Hachette Book Group said it would publish the filmmaker’s book in April under its Grand Central imprint. Three days later, dozens of Hachette employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s decision because of the allegations that Mr. Allen molested his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. He has denied the accusations and wasn’t charged after two investigations decades ago. The next day, Hachette said it wouldn’t publish the book and would return all rights to it to Mr. Allen. Two weeks later, the book was published by Arcade, an imprint of the independent publisher Skyhorse.
The end result? The book itself didn’t make much of a splash. The Times’s Dwight Garner, in his review, called it a “sometimes appealing, occasionally funny, sad and somewhat tawdry book” that, as it goes on, “begins to make the clicking sound cars do when the battery has expired.”
The pandemic changes everything
For the publishing industry, the London Book Fair was the canary in the coal mine that was 2020. Organizers called off the annual event on March 4, the same week that major book fairs were canceled in France, Germany and Italy. BookExpo, the biggest industry event in the United States, staged a modified version of the event online in late May.
Around that time, the event’s director said that the future was unclear, and that “if anyone thinks we’re going to go ‘back to normal’ and everything will be as it was, they’re kidding themselves.” And indeed, Reed Exhibitions announced in December that the 2021 event was canceled, and that the company would spend time envisioning what a continuing fair might look like.
Publishers shuffle their decks
Hundreds of books originally scheduled to come out in the spring and summer were pushed to the fall or even to 2021, while publishers hoped that stores (and the world in general) would have made some important adjustments to our new reality by then.
Retailers struggle in the chaos
Book sales in the United States fell more than 8 percent in March compared with the same month in 2019. While publishers ended 2020 in unexpectedly strong shape, most book sales were not through independent bookstores, which continued to struggle throughout the crisis.
With stores closed and the country’s attention occupied by the news, writers — perhaps especially debut novelists — had to get creative in spreading the word about their work.
A pandemic novel eerily published into a pandemic
“The book is not prophecy,” Lawrence Wright wrote about his novel “The End of October,” “but its appearance in the middle of the worst pandemic in living memory is not entirely coincidental either.”
Mr. Wright’s imagination was inspired by the global outbreak of SARS in 2003 and the historical memory of the Spanish flu of 1918. A prizewinning nonfiction writer, he consulted scientists and health care workers in order to write a realistic thriller about the rapid spread of a flu pandemic.
Dwight Garner, in his review, said that Wright’s research was put to good use, resulting in a rare specimen: a “sweeping, authoritative and genuinely intelligent thriller.” (Wright’s 31,000-word reported account of the coronavirus takes up most of the current issue of The New Yorker.)
Protests influence reading habits
In late May, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Americans marched in the streets to protest racism and police brutality. Social upheaval and conversations about the nation’s conscience reached a pitch reminiscent of the 1960s.
The literary world reflected this in many ways. By the early days of June, best-seller lists were filled with recent books about race, like “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, and “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, as well as books published a decade or more ago, including “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander.
Publishing reckons with diversity
Around the same time in June, writers on social media began using a hashtag, #PublishingPaidMe, to draw attention not just to the homogeneity of the publishing industry but how much writers of color are (or are not) paid. Jesmyn Ward wrote that she “fought and fought” for her first $100,000 advance, even after her novel “Salvage the Bones” had won a National Book Award in 2011.
The Times spoke to an author, literary agent, marketer, publicist, editors and booksellers about how being Black affects their careers and the books you read. And we asked writers to share with us the histories, novels and poetry that have done the most to deepen their understanding of race and racism in America.
In July, Dana Canedy, a former New York Times editor and the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, became the new publisher of Simon & Schuster and the first Black person to lead a major publishing house. And Lisa Lucas, the former executive director of the National Book Foundation, was named the publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books. Other hires and structural changes in 2020 suggested that the industry was moving past lip service in its efforts to increase diversity.
Alex Trebek shares his story
“There’s a certain comfort that comes from knowing a fact,” Alex Trebek told The Times’s Alexandra Alter in July. “The sun is up in the sky. There’s nothing you can say that’s going to change that. You can’t say, ‘The sun’s not up there, there’s no sky.’ There is reality, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting reality.”
Trebek had publicly accepted the reality of his struggles with advanced pancreatic cancer, and this year he published a moving memoir, “The Answer Is …” Parul Sehgal called it “a friendly, often funny account marked by a reluctance so deep that it confers a curious integrity upon the celebrity tell-all.” Trebek died at 80 in November.
Troubles in the supply chain
In a development that some had predicted when publishers moved their spring books to later in the year, backlogs at major printers caused havoc as the newly crowded fall arrived.
The ‘Trump Bump’ shows no signs of stopping
More than 1,200 books about President Trump have been published during his term in office, and readers have essentially said: Keep ’em coming. Some of the most high-profile this year included his niece Mary L. Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough” and the former national security adviser John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened.”
“No matter what your political position, there’s really no doubt that the strong feelings around the Trump administration have pushed book sales in a way we’ve never seen before in the political arena,” Kristen McLean, an executive at NPD Books, a market research firm, told The Times in August.
The book sales are likely to stay, even if Trump won’t. Publishers are signing up the next wave of books about the administration. “People say, ‘Well, there have been too many Trump books,’” Ann Godoff, Penguin’s president and editor in chief, said. “I think you haven’t seen anything yet, and the reason for that is the sources are going to come loose; they’re going to be freer to talk.”
Louise Glück wins the Nobel Prize
On Oct. 8, the American poet Louise Glück was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. “Louise Glück’s voice is unmistakable,” Anders Olsson, the chair of the prize-giving committee said. “It is candid and uncompromising, and it signals this poet wants to be understood.” He also said her voice was “full of humor and biting wit.”
In an interview with The Times, Glück said: “It seemed to be extremely unlikely that I would ever have this particular event to deal with in my life.”
“It’s part of her greatness,” Dwight Garner wrote, “that her poems are relatively easy of access while impossible to utterly get to the bottom of. They have echoing meanings; you can tangle with them for a very long time.”
Barack Obama’s memoir arrives
Near the end of a challenging year, booksellers were as eager as readers for Barack Obama’s highly anticipated “A Promised Land.” Obama had planned to write a memoir about his presidency within a year or so of leaving office. Instead, he took nearly four years to produce what is just the first of what will now be two volumes.
In her review, The Times’s Jennifer Szalai said that the book offers “frank confessions of his own uncertainties and doubts. At a time of grandiose mythologizing, he marshals his considerable storytelling skills to demythologize himself.” And in the Book Review, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote: “For all his ruthless self-assessment, there is very little of what the best memoirs bring: true self-revelation. So much is still at a polished remove.”
A big week for big prizes
The same week Obama’s memoir was published, the National Book Awards and the Booker Prize announced their winners for 2020. Charles Yu took home the National Book Award for fiction for “Interior Chinatown,” his sendup of Hollywood and Asian-American stereotypes. The nonfiction prize went to “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,” a biography by Les Payne and his daughter Tamara Payne, who finished the book after her father’s death in 2018.
The Booker Prize was awarded to Douglas Stuart for “Shuggie Bain,” which was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Stuart began writing the book, an autobiographical novel about a boy and his single, alcoholic mother in 1980s Glasgow, when he was a senior director of design at Banana Republic.
Enter the megapublisher
The world’s largest publisher, Penguin Random House, agreed in late November to acquire Simon & Schuster, the third largest publisher, for more than $2 billion from ViacomCBS. The move arrived after a decade already rife with consolidation in the industry.
The Authors Guild opposed the sale, writing in a statement: “The number of large mainstream publishing houses will go from five to just four, further reducing competition in an already sparse competitive environment.”
Markus Dohle, the chief executive of Penguin Random House, said that concerns about the deal’s possible effects on competition were based on “politics and perception,” not data. “We are very confident we’ll get clearance for the deal,” he said.
In a year far too suffused with loss, the world of books said goodbye to its share of admired figures. Here are just a few of them, with links to their full Times obituaries.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Mary Higgins Clark, Alice Mayhew, George Steiner, Charles Portis, Clive Cussler, Tomie dePaola, Patricia Bosworth, Carolyn Reidy, Larry Kramer, Pete Hamill, Gail Sheehy, Shere Hite, Stanley Crouch, Harold Evans, Diane di Prima, Jan Morris, Alison Lurie, John le Carré, Anthony Veasna So; Barry Lopez.
Week In Politics: President Biden's First Days – NPR
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Joe Biden is now president of the United States. He’s called for national unity and knows that will be a test.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep, and they are real. But I also know they are not new.
SIMON: And with the House sending at the Senate an article of impeachment against President Trump on Monday, it’s one of the more immediate challenges.
With us now is NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: So, Ron, how does President Biden pursue unity while Democratic senators are actively pursuing President Trump’s impeachment over his role in causing the January 6 riot at the Capitol?
ELVING: We’ve got a couple of weeks before the actual impeachment trial begins in the Senate. And President Biden can do those things, but it’s going to take extraordinary skill. The challenge is to move in more than one direction at once, not just multitasking, but multitracking. He’s got to work with one side sometimes and sometimes with the other, keeping the necessary relationships open and operating, reaching out for compromise, but without selling out the people who got you elected. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but it’s what Biden asked for, and it’s what the Democrats asked for. And it’s what the country needs right now.
SIMON: And let me ask you about this extraordinary report from The New York Times last night that President Trump was plotting to get rid of the acting Justice Department attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, and replace him with a loyalist who would pressure Georgia lawmakers into overturning the state’s presidential election results, obviously with no proof. Tell us about this story.
ELVING: It’s an amazing story, Scott. It shows how far Trump was willing to go. It tells us that in the final days of his presidency, he was not only pressing those state officials you mentioned to produce different results, and he was not only pressuring Vice President Pence to reject certified electoral votes from states, but he was trying to install a new attorney general who would contradict his own Justice Department findings and tell the states that there was evidence of fraud when there was not – all this before the day he incited the riot at the Capitol, and all this in an unlawful effort to overturn the results of the election and remain in office. And that matters, especially because in two weeks, the most important question before the Senate is whether to bar Trump from future office.
SIMON: But let’s get to President Biden – a multitude of pens to sign executive orders almost as soon as he was sworn in. President Trump once called – disdained executive orders as the easy way. But, boy, he signed a lot. Are executive orders President Biden’s best options to get things done to both undo what he wants to do that President Trump did – and President Trump, who was largely trying to undo what President Obama did?
ELVING: Yes, and that’s not the best way to run a railroad, I think everyone would agree. But it may be the best that you can do right now, given how little you can expect Congress to do in the usual way, how difficult it is to get the contemporary Congress to do anything other than taxes and budgeting. And you can understand why a president who wants to make a difference or even to just make a mark feels he has to use these quickie policy measures in place of actual laws that are barred by the Senate’s filibuster rules, among other things, especially in a moment of crisis.
And right now, everything has to begin with the pandemic response. That has to be ramped up to wartime levels of effort and focus. That’s the key to restoring the economy, to restoring confidence. But during the campaign, Biden made many statements about what he would do on his first day in office – getting the U.S. back into the Paris climate accords to combat climate change, stopping the wall with Mexico, redefining our response to immigration, especially redefining our policies on asylum, talking about lifting restrictions on people from Muslim countries, ending the deportation threat against the DREAMers. All these were touchstones of Trumpism, and Biden went after them all on Day 1.
SIMON: NPR’s Ron Elving, thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Mandryk: Keystone XL fight is just sad old politics with a new twist – Regina Leader-Post
Article content continued
Alas, much of this is about both new-style virtue signalling and old-style politics.
Much has been made about how KXL’s cancellation — tied to the U.S. environmental left’s rhetoric about “dirty tarsands” oil — has always been about Biden consolidating the left of the Democratic party/ the coalition that helped oust Trump. Cancelling KXL — a move that doesn’t reduce current greenhouse gas emission levels but creates the need for more offshore oil — may be the ultimate virtue signalling.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of not having this pipeline will be U.S. railways. And one of the biggest American railways investors is billionaire Warren Buffet. What often gets missed isBuffet’s political interest as a big-time Democratic donor and his willingness to use his position to sway policies.
Sadly, we seem to be right back where we were before Trump. Even more sad is that how we react may make things worse.
Kenney’s talk about retaliatory trade action aimed at our biggest trading partner is unhelpful. Moe — presumably understanding our agriculture trade interests — wisely didn’t go quite that far.
But if this is now about the old politics of both sides ginning up their base, it gets us nowhere.
Mandryk is the political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
The news seems to be flying at us faster all the time. From COVID-19 updates to politics and crime and everything in between, it can be hard to keep up. With that in mind, the Regina Leader-Post has created an Afternoon Headlines newsletter that can be delivered daily to your inbox to help make sure you are up to date with the most vital news of the day. Click here to subscribe.
Newfoundland ex-pat makes waves pairing politicians with their cartoon doubles – TheChronicleHerald.ca
An effort to shake off some homesickness led Adam DuBourdieu to mix pop culture and provincial politics — namely, taking politicians involved in this election and matching them with their visual counterparts on “The Simpsons.”
Originally from Kippens on the province’s west coast, DuBourdieu, 30, moved to Edmonton just before the COVID-19 pandemic set in.
As with many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, he experienced homesickness in the months that follow such a move.
A keen follower of local politics, DuBourdieu set about combatting his traveller’s lament by having some fun with the upcoming provincial election.
“Let’s have a laugh with it, It’s a good thing. It’s a bit of good fun.” — Jim Dinn (aka Principal Skinner)
Combining his love for “The Simpsons” and politics, he matched the politicians running in the upcoming election with the Simpsons character he saw as their cartoon counterparts.
“It is something people are familiar with,” DuBourdieu said about why he chose to use “The Simpsons” as a reference point.
Some matchups were tough, while others were easy fits, such as the NDP’s Jim Dinn, a former schoolteacher, and his match with Principal Skinner.
“You can’t take yourself too seriously. Being a teacher, that’s par for the course,” Dinn said of that character match.
Dinn has seen the rather large social media thread containing the pictures.
He said that as a teacher, he learned long ago that you have to have a sense of humour, and it’s a lesson he’s taken with him to politics. Seeing the thread, he took it in good fun.
He said it could be worse. It could turn into a meme like a recent picture of United States Senator Bernie Sanders.
“Let’s have a laugh with it,” said Dinn. “It’s a good thing. It’s a bit of good fun.”
The result was a 47-part thread on Twitter filled with pictures of the politicians placed alongside images of characters from the show. It involves a mixture of retiring MHAs, incumbents and party leaders of all political stripes.
“The Simpsons” and politics have a bit of history. Across its 32 seasons, the show has mixed humour and politics.
The show seemingly predicted the start of the United States presidency of Donald J. Trump, and the Lisa Simpson presidency that followed him.
“I hope people get a good chuckle out of it.” — Adam DuBourdieu
Coincidentally, Torngat Mountains MHA Lela Evans is paired with the presidential Lisa.
The relationship, however, between “The Simpsons” and the political arena doesn’t stop at a coincidental presidential prediction.
The show has often tackled topics of the day, such as same-sex marriage and gun control, and it has often been accused of having a liberal bias. Springfield’s Mayor Quimby is a regularly appearing character, and DuBourdieu saw him as a perfect match for Conception Bay East-Bell Island incumbent David Brazil.
Homer Simpson — coupled with Topsail-Paradise MHA Paul Dinn — once fought former U.S. president George H.W. Bush after the two became neighbours. Former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford have also made cameo appearances on the show.
DuBourdieu tabbed Ford as the right match with Mount Pearl North MHA Jim Lester.
“Politics has always been in ‘The Simpsons,’ and Newfoundland politics has some characters,” said DuBourdieu, who says he always the show.
“I watched it with my dad.”
Some of his political subjects have a similar appreciation of the show,
Harbour Grace-Port de Grave MHA Pam Parsons knew at once who voiced Bart Simpsons’ former babysitter, Laura Powers.
“That’s the one where Darlene from Roseanne voiced the character. Sara Gilbert,” she said.
Like other children of the ’80s and early ’90s, Parsons grew up in the early years of “The Simpsons.” She saw the show move from animated shorts on “The Tracy Ullman Show” to a pop culture phenomenon on Fox.
“Growing up as a child, I certainly watched ‘The Simpsons.’ I loved Bart Simpson. I think we all did,” said Parsons. “I even had the little toys that McDonald’s was putting out.”
Parsons is one of 10 women featured in the long Twitter thread. Of the 10, nine are incumbent MHAs and their animated doppelgangers. The other is Newfoundland and Labrador Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote.
She was paired with Springfield Elementary second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hoover.
“I like that (Dubourdieu) was non-partisan (in his choices),” said Parsons, who appreciated the comedic break it offered.
“I got a good chuckle out of it.”
The response to the sizeable thread has been favourable online.
It was something that surprised DuBourdieu at first.
“I like that (Dubourdieu) was non-partisan (in his choices). I got a good chuckle out of it.” — Pam Parsons (aka Mrs. Hoover)
Since it went online, there have been dozens of interactions between politicians and the public. People have marvelled at how spot-on some of the comparisons are, such as independent MHA Eddie Joyce being matched with oil tycoon Rich Texan.
Still, there have been alternative suggestions, including by the subjects themselves. Liberal candidate George Murphy tweeted he thought of himself as the lovable barfly Barney Gumble instead of Police Chief Wiggum, his chosen match by Dubourdieu.
Other candidates, such as Progressive Conservative candidate Kristina Ennis and the NDP’s Jenn Deon, have expressed interest in being connected to animated doubles.
Lake Melville NDP candidate Amy Hogan even went ahead and did her own. It was Jerri Mackleberry, the mother of notable twins Sherri and Terri.
“I think I’m probably the twins, Sherri and Terri’s mom, Jerri. It’s is the purple hair and the glasses,” Hogan tweeted.
DuBourdieu pledged to add a third part to the thread if there is enough interest.
In the days since the original post, a link to the thread made its way around the Progressive Conservative email chain.
“We got a good kick out of it,” said Conservative MHA Barry Petten. “You can’t help but laugh.”
“We got a good kick out of it. You can’t help but laugh.” — Barry Petten (aka Superintendent Chalmers)
The Conception Bay South representative readily admitted he wasn’t much of a Simpsons watcher and had little background on Superintendent Chalmers or why he was paired with him.
Still, Petten said he appreciated the work and the humour it brought to the election.
“It’s all good humour,” he said.
Given how dull and uninspiring the rollout of the 2021 election has been I thought #nlpoli could all use some mild entertainment.
So do y’all think any of our current and former-turned-wannabe MHAs look like the Simpsons characters? Because I sure do! 1/n
— Dewbeeedew (@dewbeeedew) January 18, 2021
DuBourdieu has enjoyed the work that’s gone into his humourous entry into the Newfoundland and Labrador political scene,
Some comparisons were easy, while others required a bit more thought, he said, and he learned a little along the way, including how male-dominated this province’s legislature is.
As the province rolls toward the Feb. 13 election, DuBourdieu will watch from his home in Alberta.
In the meantime, he is glad he got to contribute to the run-up in some way.
“I’m glad I did it and I hope people get a good chuckle out of it,” said DuBourdieu.
Nicholas Mercer is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering central Newfoundland for SaltWire Network.
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