This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News
By Edward Nawotka
This year proved once again that you never can predict what books readers will turn into best-sellers.
Calling Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels merely erotic might be understating the matter. Loathed by critics and adored by fans, E.L. James’ sexy homage to the Twilight series became the year’s biggest book phenomenon.
Meanwhile, way over at the other end of the literary spectrum, Texas authors won acclaim at the highest levels.
Dallas has a new literary superstar with local writer Ben Fountain, whose first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, chronicled a day in the life of a heroic unit of Iraq War vets as they make a PR appearance at the halftime show of a Thanksgiving Day Cowboys game. Wickedly funny and heartfelt, the broadly satirical novel perfectly captures the diction and demeanor of moneyed Dallasites, wide-eyed cheerleaders, beleaguered military families and our soldiers in uniform. Shortlisted for the National Book Award (it lost out to Louise Erdrich’s The Round House), it will be relished as one of the few novels that crystallized home-front attitudes in Texas in the midst of the war.
More accolades for Texas authors
Kevin Powers sold and published his first novel, The Yellow Birds, before he even graduated from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The novel joined Brownsville native Domingo Martinez’s childhood memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, and SMU graduate Tim Seibles’ poetry collection Fast Animal as finalists for the National Book Award.
The lives of two esteemed Texans were celebrated with fat new biographies. The life of newscaster Walter Cronkite, raised in Houston and a UT-Austin grad, was recounted by Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley in Cronkite. The biggest revelation of this 819-page doorstop: Cronkite was a closet liberal. Meanwhile Robert Caro delivered The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, the fourth edition of his presidential biography. This latest volume covers the years 1958-64, which includes, among other things, that very dark day in Dallas. It, too, was shortlisted for the National Book Award.
No Pulitzer Prize for fiction
Why so much emphasis on the National Book Award? Because in 2012, no Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the fiction category, where the finalists, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace, failed to live up to the Pulitzer board’s expectations. The jurors — Susan Larson, Maureen Corrigan and Michael Cunningham — who chose the nominees from among more than 300 submissions, expressed shock at the decision and hoped it would lead people to read “all three books instead of just one.”
‘Fifty Shades of Grey’
Speaking of shock, book critics everywhere watched in horror as E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy dominated the best-seller lists throughout much of the year, going on to sell more than 30 million copies around the world. (For an intriguing nonfiction take on the same subject, see Austin writer Suzy Spencer’s recently published Secret Sex Lives.)
Justin Cronin and Chris Ware
One book you just knew was going to hit it big was Houston author Justin Cronin’s The Twelve, the sequel to his best-seller The Passage. Graphic novelist Chris Ware, who began his career as a cartoonist for The Daily Texan at the University of Texas at Austin, delivered a true year-end treat: Building Stories, a $50 boxed set of 14 different ephemera — books, pamphlets, etc. — about the daily lives of the residents of a Chicago apartment building. It was lauded in The New York Times Book Review as one of the year’s top 10 books (as were the aforementioned Yellow Birds and Passage of Power).
Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth
In a year that saw ongoing extremist Islamic militant violence around the world, it was heartening to read in Salman Rushdie’s 2012 memoir, Josef Anton, of the courage, humor and unexpected humility with which he faced the fatwa death threat issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini following the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989. This year also saw one of our greatest literary lions, Philip Roth, lose the motivation to carry on. The 78-year-old said Nemesis would be his last published book.
The war on publishing
The Department of Justice dragged to court five of the then “Big Six” New York publishing houses (two of them, Penguin and Random House, announced they would merge in October, creating the largest English-language publisher in the world) for alleged collusion on ebook pricing. Was Amazon behind the case? Some think so.
Even if you don’t like to read, Hollywood thinks you can still enjoy books. After all, six of the nine nominees for best picture at the 2012 Oscars were based on books. The year began with the release of the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games. At the end of the year, we’ve had a slew of book-based movie adaptations: The Hobbit, Lincoln, Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi.