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Best Books 2012: What This Year's Award-Winning Titles Tells Us

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With an estimated 530,000 different books released per year in the UK and America alone, which of them make it past the panels of book awards - from the historic, high brow accolades to the glitzy, corporate-sponsored trophies for best-sellers - is one useful way of evaluating a publishing year.

So what do the successes - and failures - of the past 12 months tell us about 2012?

Perhaps the biggest shock this year came from the states, where the Pulitzer committee failed to agree upon a single work of fiction that deserved their prize - a first in the 35 year history of America's most prestigious literary award.

The suggestion that their decision reflects a paucity of quality American fiction was swiftly rejected by a number of the literary elite when the news broke in April - not least of all 1992 Pulitzer fiction winner Jane Smiley who wrote a public letter saying: "I can't believe there wasn't a worthy [book]" insisting the decision reflected an unusual scenario in which "a committee really cannot agree".

If timidity of critical opinion was an issue for America's biggest literary award, similar accusations were leveled on a global stage when it came to the Nobel Prize.

While many people in his homeland rejoiced at the victory of poet Mo Yan - the first ever winner from China - others were critical of a decision to reward a member of the country's Communist Party and a defender of censorship.

By contrast, in Britain, the Booker judges were puffing up their chests to insist that our own premier literary prize remained resolutely committed to rewarding critical merit over accessibility.

Chair of the judging panel Sir Peter Stothard was keen to distance himself from his predecessor Dame Stella Rimington, who in 2011 made repeated reference to 'readability' - much to the horror of the literary establishment.

If the irony that year was that in the end, they picked the most literary book on the shortlist anyway (Julian Barnes's The Sense Of An Ending), in 2012, Stothard and his panel went the other way and opted for the closest thing to genre fiction from a list of fairly dense literary efforts. Hilary Mantel's historical novel Bring Up The Bodies was chosen over the other favourite Umbrella by Will Self - easily the most difficult and high brow novel to be nominated for years.

The success of Bring Up The Bodies - the second in a trilogy charting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, which also won Mantel Author of the Year at the National Book Awards - mirrored the success earlier in the year of Madeline Miller, the debut author who picked up The Orange Prize for Fiction with the story about a prince in Ancient Greece (The Song of Achilles). Suddenly, 2012 began to look like the year that historical novels transcended genre fiction to be embraced by the literary establishment.

In an encouraging trend, popular fiction in Britain belonged to female writers in 2012.

Quite aside from its eye-watering commercial success, EL James's 50 Shades Of Grey also won Book of the Year at the National Book Awards. She was joined on the winner list by Clare Balding (Biography/Autobiography of the Year), Miranda Hart (Popular Non-Fiction Book of the Year) and Rachel Joyce (New Writer of the Year), whose novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has been one of the most critically acclaimed works of fiction of the year.

If the headlines from this year's awards circus tell us anything, then, it is perhaps that the book world is in a state of flux.

The rise of eBooks and the decline of print have rendered an age old industry uncertain of its self: should successful proponents of genres like erotica and historical fiction be embraced as saviours, or kept on the critical B-list?

In a time when the industry is under threat, should we still cling to the idea of 'high brow' fiction, or in a world where opinion is increasingly democratized, should we accept popularity as a mark of literary merit in its own right?

This tussle is almost as old as the book industry its self, but as with most areas of life, the internet is moving the goal posts. For book awards to remain a relevant gauge of what we should read, they must move with it. The results to come out of 2012 suggest they are beginning to, for better or worse.

This year's winning books:

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