Literary Trends of 2020: The Year of Quarantining Books

I pride myself on being psychic, but had no clue what 2020 would hold. Who could have predicted that bookstores and libraries would quarantine books, and that we would not laugh? The books did not get sick, but the humans surely did. Perhaps the humans should have quarantined themselves a bit more … and, by the way, the CDC has no data about how long the virus lives on paper.

Accusations of cultural appropriation can morph into bullying, unfortunately. In January, [some] members of the Latinx community protested the publication of American Dirt, a best-selling novel by Jeanine Cummins about a migrant journey. This fast-paced, issue-oriented novel, which was chosen for the Oprah Book Club, chronicles the flight of Lydia, a bookstore owner, and her eight-year-old son to the U.S. border after her journalist husband and fifteen family members are massacred by a cartel in Acapulco. The conditions of the journey are horrifying, with a high probability of injury, capture by Immigration agents, or death along the way.  

Cummins, a white writer, received death threats, there were protests at bookstores, and the book tour was canceled. And yet Cummins was utterly sympathetic to the plight of illegal migrants. Much of the fury revolved around the six- or seven-figure advance she had received. The consensus among the protesters was that a Latinx writer should have gotten the contract instead of Cummins. Well, since she wrote the book…! My advice is to write a best-seller type book and THEN request the seven-figure contract.

Books about books remain popular. This year, we were reminded of our love of books by many new books about books: Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Rereader, Delpine Minoui’s The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War, Shaun Bythell’s Confessions of a Bookseller, Polly Crosby’s spooky novel, The Book of Hidden Wonders, and Matt Haig’s best-selling fantasy, The Midnight Library.

People are buying more backlist titles, according to Observer. Perhaps it is true: I have read multiple articles about people turning to the classics or at least to books published before this century. While some discussed War and Peace on Twitter, others coped by reading shorter books this year. Chekhov calms one’s nerves, I learned.

The N.B. column at the TLS changed hands. As if the Covid year weren’t bad enough… ! Longtime columnist J.C. (James Campbell), founder and author of the book column N.B., was replaced by M.C. (identity unknown). Naturally, they have different voices, and we can’t expect the same style. Perhaps the title of the column could be changed?

Small reprint publishers like Furrowed Middlebrow and Handheld Press made a strong showing in 2020 (at least with readers like me). I loved Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1958), by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (Furrowed Middlebrow), and Business As Usual (1933) ), by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (Handheld Press). You can read my posts on these, here and here.


3 thoughts on “Literary Trends of 2020: The Year of Quarantining Books”

  1. I haven’t actually read “American Dirt,” so I feel like I can’t speak with 100% authority, but I totally agree that one should write a potentially bestselling book before demanding that someone else should not get a contract. I am all for “own voices,” but I also think that we can’t just judge a book by who its author is. And as a woman I can say that there are a lot of terrible female characters written by men–but there are also some brilliant ones. Should “Anna Karenina” have been banned because Tolstoy was a man? And we can criticize “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” all we like now, but it was hugely important at the time, even though it was the story of a black man written by a white woman.

    1. Yes, exactly! I was surprised by this attack on Cummins, because American Dirt is simply not that important–a well-meaning best-seller that focuses our attention on an issue. People get carried away without thinking things through.

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