Generation shifts, in literary terms, don’t happen all at once, but in shades. A few years ago it seemed John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow would never not be writing and publishing and dominating critical debate. With Roth’s retirement this winter, all of them have entered the long and more brutal critical test of time.
In their absence a debate runs about the nature of the novel, a conversation that takes its cues mostly from British novelists. Has the novel, as Will Self has written, betrayed modernism’s advances and settled into a dreary realism? Or as Zadie Smith and Tom McCarthy have argued, are there ways to saturate a social novel with once-cutting-edge narrative techniques?
The happy part about being a reader in 2012 is that while this debate simmers in graduate schools and bubbles over onto pages of critical reviews, the place it is felt most energetically is in the work itself.
From a masterpiece of the graphic novel, to a stunning historical re-creation of Tudor times, the best fiction of 2012 smashed the notion of orthodoxy by showing how many different ways there are to tell a great story. Here are my nine favorites.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
By Ayana Mathis (Knopf)
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