The year of reading dangerously: books to look out for in 2014

The <i>New Statesman</i>'s culture editor takes a look forward at the books set to dominate the year.

On the morning of 28 June 1914 the Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip fired two shots from his Fabrique Nationale semi-automatic pistol. One of them killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. A month later, the world was at war – a hundred years later, we are still living in its shadow. The publishing industry began its centenary activities early, with histories by Margaret McMillan, Jeremy Paxman and Max Hastings last year. In 2014 the flood of doorstop books continues. Historians are tackling the prelude – in That Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge (Viking, January) – and the epilogue, in The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (1916-1931) by Adam Tooze (Allen Lane, May).

Contemporary literary responses are collected in No Man’s Land: Writings from the World at War (Serpent’s Tale, January), while The Hundred Years’ War: Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe, April), edited by Neil Astley, makes the connection to current conflicts and the nebulous war on terror. Why are we still so obsessed with the Great War, and so anxious about our commemorations? Frank Furedi tackles this head-on in First World War: Still No End in Sight (Bloomsbury/Continuum, January), arguing that those four years of horror bled into a century of entrenched culture wars.

Naomi Klein would argue that there are greater disasters on the horizon. Her The Message (Allen Lane, September) is a call to arms in the face of catastrophic climate change. In Russell Brand’s issue of the New Statesman last year Klein advocated direct action, reasoning that “It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less fucked.”

We are not short of impending crises. In On Liberty (Allen Lane, September), Shami Chakrabati shows that our democratic institutions are under just as much threat as our environment. Danny Dorling’s All That is Solid (Allen Lane, February) examines the UK’s disastrous relationship with housing. Our right to shelter is as fragile as our right to privacy, a theme picked up in two books on last year’s NSA scandal – The Snowden Files: The True Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding (Guardian Faber, April) and No Place to Hide by Snowden’s contact Glenn Greenwald (Hamish Hamilton, May) – and an account of the News International saga, the rather grandiosely titled Hack Attack: the Inside Story of How One Journalist Exposed the World’s Most Powerful Media Mogul by Nick Davies (Chatto & Windus, April). Our right to protest? Equally at risk, as the Kremlin’s treatment of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot showed: Words Will Break Cement: the Passion of Pussy Riot by Marsha Gessen (Granta, February) tells their story.

Rhiannon Cosslett and Holly Baxter, co-founders of the Vagenda blog and authors of The V Spot on newstatesman.com, would approve: their first book, The Vagenda (Square Peg, May) shows readers how to tackle insidious media misogyny through “articulate activism”. Read it alongside Laura Bates’s shocking catalogue of true stories in Everyday Sexism (Simon & Schuster, May) and Laurie Penny’s essays on gender, Unspeakable Things (Bloomsbury, July).

On 18 September, a referendum will ask “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The historian Linda Colley does some groundwork with an examination of what has held the UK together – and what is driving it apart – in Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile Books, January) and the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray presents his vision of an independent Scotland in Independence (Canongate, June).

A contender for “big idea of the year” is Sapiens by Yuval Harari (Harvill Secker, September 4), a number one bestseller in Israel, and nothing less than a 360-degree history of humankind and a prophecy about our future: its publisher claims it will change “the way we view our world”. Michael Lewis has changed the way we view the financial world in books such as Moneyball, The Big Short and Liar’s Poker – his new, as-yet untitled book in April (Allen Lane) is bound to be an event, as will the second volume of Simon Schama’s snappily written The Story of the Jews (Bodley Head, September).

Back on home turf, there are plenty more histories, both sweeping and specific. David Kynaston’s superb Modernist Britain series continues with A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 (Bloomsbury, September). Two Labour MPs take on British institutions: Chris Bryant in Parliament: the Biography, Volume One (Doubleday, March) and Tristram Hunt in Ten Cities that Made an Empire (Allen Lane, June). That magic “ten things” formula is applied to pop music, in A History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus (Yale University Press, September). The New Statesman science columnist, Michael Brooks, goes one better with his account of “11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise”, The Edge of Uncertainty (Profile, October).

Various historical figures are to be disinterred in 2014. To coincide with the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall, the joint chief curator of royal palaces Tracy Borman attempts a biography of the “real” Thomas Cromwell (Hodder & Stoughton, September). Boris Johnson paints Winston Churchill as a “resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians” in The Churchill Factor (Hodder & Stoughton, October) and Churchill’s own biographer Roy Jenkins is given the definitive, doorstopper treatment in John Campbell’s account of a “well-filled and well-rounded” life (Jonathan Cape, March). Across the Atlantic, John Updike gets his first landmark biography in Adam Begley’s Updike (HarperCollins USA, April).

Life stories of the still-breathing include Alan Johnson’s follow-up to his extraordinarily successful memoir This Boy, There’s a Place (Bantam, September); in the year of Monty Python’s reunion, Terry Gilliam’s neatly timed autobiography (Canongate, October); Vivienne Westwood: The Authorised Life Story, co-written with Ian Kelly (Picador, October) and Not That Kind of Girl: a Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned by the creator and star of the cult American comedy Girls, Lena Dunham (Fourth Estate, October). Hillary Clinton’s memoir (Simon & Schuster, June) will be read closely by those curious about her intentions for the 2016 presidential elections.

In fiction, several major British novelists have offerings in 2014. Martin Amis returns to Auschwitz in his 14th novel, The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Cape, August); Hanif Kureishi tells the story of an elderly Indian writer and his white English biographer – echoing the real-life relationship between V S Naipaul and Patrick French – in The Last Word (Faber & Faber, February); the Cloud Atlas author, David Mitchell, goes back to the future in The Bone Clocks (Sceptre, September) and Sarah Waters sets The Paying Guest (Virago, September) in 1920s London. Will Self publishes Shark, a sequel to the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella (Viking, September), and Ali Smith follows There But for The with another intriguingly abbreviated title, How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, August). There’s also a novel from Nick Hornby (Viking, September) and new books from two acclaimed Irish storytellers, Colm Tóibín’s 1960s-set Nora Webster (Viking, October) and Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman (Faber & Faber, April), picking up the story of the McNulty family at the end of the Second World War.

Some Granta Best of Young British Novelists alumni have headline billing and some are still waiting in the wings – but this could be a breakthrough year for Adam Foulds (In the Wolf’s Mouth, Jonathan Cape, February) or Andrew O’Hagan (The Illuminations, Faber & Faber, June), both of whom have novels circling around the Second World War.

Two American masters return in 2014. Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be giddy at the prospect of a new novel, Lila, which lands in October from Virago, after two prime cuts of short stories: Can’t and Won’t (Hamish Hamilton, April) by Lydia Davis, the translator and author who won the Man Booker International last year, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark (Faber & Faber, March), her first collection in 15 years. You never have to wait that long to hear from Joyce Carol Oates, who, at 75, still publishes novels at the same rate as the Beatles released LPs. In January, there’s Carthage (Fourth Estate, January), about a troubled Iraq war veteran, and in June, a collection of Gothic novellas, Evil Eye (Head of Zeus, June). Oates has something of a kindred spirit in the macabre film director David Cronenberg – God knows what evils he will dream up in his debut novel Consumed, first announced in 2008 and now finally coming from Fourth Estate in September.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.