The year 2011 was another bad year for literature. Few distinguished books were published, book sales declined from month to month, booksellers shuttered their stores, and literary prizes (with a couple of exceptions) went to mediocrities. Before steeling ourselves for the inevitable disappointments of 2012, let’s review the top literary stories of the year:
#10. The Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, an honor bestowed annually upon one of the world’s celebrated second-rate writers with agreeable politics.
#9. Little, Brown recalled 6,500 copies of the spy thriller Assassin of Secrets and turned them into pulp after revelations that Q. R. Markham had plagiarized much of the book. Protesting that he was suffering from an addiction, Markham advanced the Disease Theory of Plagiarism — his first original contribution to literature.
#8. “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” an excerpt from Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, provoked nearly 9,000 comments at the Wall Street Journal and set off an international debate about child-rearing methods.
#7. The American novelist Philip Roth was awarded the International Man Booker Prize, igniting a controversy when the feminist publisher Carmen Callil walked off the prize jury, sniffing that she did not “rate him as a writer at all.”
#6. Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for A Visit from the Goon Squad — a rare example of the prize’s going to the best book of the year (or nearly the best). HBO promptly announced plans to adapt the novel into a TV series.
#5. Judge Denny Chin, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, rejected the $125 million settlement negotiated between Google and the Authors Guild, concluding that it “would give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission. . . .” By the end of the year, Google was seeking to kick the Authors Guild out of the copyright suit.
#4. Literary history was made at the National Book Awards, at least according to the Washington Post fiction critic Ron Charles, when Nikky Finney and Jesmyn Ward, “[t]wo spectacularly powerful African American women,” were awarded the prizes in poetry and fiction respectively.
#3. After filing for bankruptcy in February, Borders was forced to close its last remaining stores and liquidate its inventory in July after failing to receive a single offer to save the bookstore chain.
#2. Amazon.com announced that, for the first time, sales of Kindle-ready ebooks on its website surpassed sales of hardback and paperback books combined.
#1. The courageous and contrarian essayist Christopher Hitchens, who taught an entire generation of young writers the virtue of truth-seeking in literature, died after an 18-month battle with esophageal cancer.
Hitchens’s was not the only important literary voice to be silenced in 2011. Other deaths in the literary world included:
• Joe Gores, American mystery novelist (January 10).
• Wilfrid Sheed, Anglo-American novelist (January 19).
• Reynolds Price, American novelist (January 20).
• Édouard Glissant, Martinican poet and novelist (February 3).
• Bo Carpelan, Finnish poet and novelist (February 11).
• Arnošt Lustig, Czech writer of Holocaust novels (February 26) [h/t: Erika Dreifus].
• John Haines, American poet (March 2).
• L. J. Davis, American novelist (April 6).
• Stephen Watson, South African poet and critic (April 10).
• Patrick Cullinan, South African poet (April 14).
• Jeanne Leiby, editor of the Southern Review (April 19).
• Gonzalo Rojas, Chilean poet (April 25).
• Joanna Russ, American science fiction novelist and feminist (April 29).
• Yannis Varveris, Greek poet (May 25).
• Josephine Hart, British novelist (June 2).
• Robert Kroetsch, Canadian novelist and co-founder of the journal Boundary 2.
• Ágota Kristóf, Hungarian-Swiss novelist (July 27).
• Eliseo Alberto, anti-Castro Cuban novelist and essayist (July 31).
• Stan Barstow, British novelist (August 1).
• David Holbrook, British literary scholar (August 11).
• Samuel Menashe, American poet (August 22).
• Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, American novelist (August 26).
• Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg (September 6).
• Ida Fink, Polish writer of Holocaust fiction (September 27).
• Hella S. Haasse, Dutch novelist (September 29).
• Gerald Shapiro, American Jewish story writer and editor (October 15).
• John Morton Blum, American historian (October 17).
• Piri Thomas, American memoirist (October 17).
• Allen Mandelbaum, American translator of Virgil and Dante (October 27).
• Morris Phillipson, American novelist and director of the University of Chicago Press (November 3).
• Tomás Segovia, Spanish exile poet (November 7).
• F. Springer (pseudonym of Carel Jan Schneider), Dutch novelist (November 7).
• Peter Reading, British poet (November 17).
• Daniel Sada, Mexican poet (November 18).
• Ruth Stone, American poet (November 19).
• Christa Wolf, German novelist and critic (December 1).
• Christopher Logue, British poet (December 2).
• Russell Hoban, American novelist (December 13).
• Joe Simon, American comic-book writer (December 14).
• Paula Hyman, American Jewish historian (December 15).