A Flood of Fiction,then More Bad News for Men

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID SEXTON

IN 2002, the autumn publishing season was the most overloaded yet.

All the publishers pushed out their most important titles in September and October, aiming for the literary prizes and Christmas book-buyers.

The result was that many good books didn't get the coverage - or the sales - they deserved. There's no easy answer to this problem. Although such a logjam is obviously undesirable for the trade as a whole, for each individual publisher it still makes sense to put their best books out in the peak season. So on we go. For six weeks, there's a flood, and for much of the rest of the year, something of a drought.

It's in fiction that the 2003 spring lists are strongest. There are plenty of good titles coming up. In January, there's a new novel from Annie Proulx, That Old Ace in the Hole (4th Estate), about a "hog site scout" who works for "Global Pork Rind" in the Texas panhandle. Hamish Hamilton is publishing You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers, the cult author of the memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Two hick friends travel the world in a week, trying to give away a fortune to the people they meet, with mixed results. Think Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure ... In February, Chatto offers the new novel from Nicholson Baker, whose career has never quite recovered from his deviation into books obsessed with phone-sex and voyeurism. In A Box of Matches, Baker returns to the minutiae of ordinary life which made his debut account of an office-worker's lunchtime, The Mezzanine, so remarkable. A family man in midlife gets up earlier and earlier each day to light the fire ... In March, there are two early contenders for the Booker. Graham Swift's The Light of Day (Hamish Hamilton) is about a south London private detective, George, who goes every fortnight to visit a former client, Sarah, now in prison for murdering her husband, after George uncovered his extramarital affair. It's narrated in the humdrum manner that Swift has made his trademark: some think it authentic and moving; others find it about as lively as old cod.

Judge Savage by Tim Parks (Secker) is about a black man recently promoted to become a crown court judge. While, in court, he tries to instil order, his private life is descending into chaos. An affair is exposed in the press and the judge fights to survive. Parks makes most contemporary British fiction seem weightless.

In April, the most brilliant of the younger critics, James Wood, offers his debut novel, The Book Against God (Cape), to the tender mercies of his colleagues. Its narrator, Thomas Bunting, a philosopher of a kind, is a determined atheist but a hopeless liar.

Going back home to northern England, where his father, a parish priest, has been taken ill, all his troubles begin to come together.

Personality by Andrew O'Hagan (Faber) is an examination of modern celebrity and its corrosive effects. Maria Tambini is a 13-year-old with a great singing voice whose career clearly resembles that of Lena Zavaroni.

The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk (4th Estate) contrasts a woman about to give birth in prison with the life of her lawyer, who has just moved to the country with his wife and two children.

Then there are the big names ... John Updike's 20th novel, Seek My Face (Hamish Hamilton, April), imagines a 79-year-old painter, Hope Chafetz, being interviewed about her life by a young New Yorker in a single day in 2001.

Gunter Grass's Crabwalk (Faber, May) is being trumpeted as his most important work since The Tin Drum. In January 1945, a ship carrying 9,000 Germans fleeing the Soviet advance was torpedoed in the Baltic by a Russian submarine - the worst maritime disaster of all time. Grass's narrator is born on one of the lifeboats on that night - and in later life, having become a journalist, he attempts to grapple with his country's agonising history. …