Sometimes when I teach, I become acutely aware of how curtailed we can be in approaching contemporary texts by the frameworks we ourselves have put in place supposedly to help us read better; that habit might flatten vitality of response and familiarity stifle analysis. I get concerned about the reading lists, both of the literature we want students to study, and the contextual, critical, and theoretical works we propose as aids to interpretation. I suspect that something like this is true of all teachers of literature in the university classroom, but I think those of us committed to the study of the contemporary agonize over it most. Without a settled canon, we should surely feel freer in putting together a course of study, yet the decision over what goes in can seem to get even more loaded with significance precisely because it can feel so arbitrary. The sense of responsibility over how contemporary literature is to be framed is rooted in the implicit or explicit claims we make for the significance of the texts and approaches we delineate: this stuff, we tell our students, is what's important about the contemporary.  

Occasionally, I've employed tactics to decenter this idea of responsibility, and to at least mitigate the degree to which I as teacher exercise authority over the materials we meet in the classroom (I'm not sure we can ever fully abrogate this). One year I presented students on a Masters-level contemporary literature module with an entirely blank secondary reading list: it was their job to fill it in. Two students each week would choose appropriate materials to support the literary text we were looking at, and I'd post these to the Virtual Learning Environment for the whole class to review. It wasn't a disaster and students were required to engage in thinking for themselves about how we select the interpretive lenses we deploy in our reading. All the same, though, students tended to default to other scholars' interpretations of our primary list, whenever such texts were available. I certainly don't want to argue that they shouldn't be reading these things, but by reaching for them so quickly they risk closing down that freshness of response that can be so exciting about working with the contemporary.

I joined my institution as a "postcolonialist," and the first "research-led" class I taught here was therefore a survey course of contemporary postcolonial literature, though I soon found this so broad as to lack coherence, even as I was supposed to be demonstrating precisely that. Changing focus, and teaching for a couple of years a module solely focused on contemporary Irish literature helped with coherence, but here I felt particularly an unwelcome sense that my choices over what we should read and in what order were constructing a narrative that "explained" this literature, rather than allowing students to find their own ways into it. By 2013, then, I was frustrated by questions of how I could teach contemporary literature without presupposing what that body of writing looked like, or how we should go about reading it. I wanted something more open, not shaped by my "expertise" but available for students to exercise theirs. I wanted the students to have the freedom and the challenge of working out for themselves how to read contemporary literature most effectively, and how to decide what was most important about it.

In the 2014-15 academic year I first taught a class called "Last Year's Novels," and as I write I am coming to the end of its tenth consecutive iteration. I don't believe I ever thought it would last so long (previous classes having managed only three and two iterations respectively before I felt I had to move on), but it still feels fresh to me, I still greatly enjoy teaching it, and, most importantly, I think it offers something of value to students. Each year we study ten Anglophone novels, published in the previous calendar year. For the module to work at all, the novels themselves must be at its heart.

That is, I don't want the texts to be read as examples of a particular kind of writing, or as encapsulating a certain trend in the contemporary world, or as illustrations of a particular theoretical perspective. To offer them as any of these things would be to presuppose what might be interesting about them, or for the actual topic of the module to be something other than the literature itself. It is this mode of reading, where the text is approached in order find that which we already expect to be there, from which I most wanted to break away.

For the novels then to speak for themselves, without already having a pattern imposed on them as they are selected to serve as syllabus bedfellows, the given selection in any year needs to embody diversity as its defining characteristic: I want the novels, initially at least, to feel unconnected by anything except their year of publication and the shared writing language. The ideal is for the list to feel almost arbitrary, as free from loaded expectations as I can achieve. As a long-time fan of the OuLiPo movement, I know that the best route to freedom is often the imposition of rules, and the rules for Last Year's Novels are crucial to it.

Some rules were perhaps present from the very start, while others formed as new lists were written up. Some rules were the same as on any class I teach (to never include fewer than fifty percent women writers), and some were shaped by practicality (no novels over 500 pages though I have broken this one once, because I couldn't bear to leave that particular novel out of that year's list). I also decided early on never to let the same author feature more than once, to mitigate against my own preferences shaping things too much.

From the start, geographical diversity was important to me, with each list containing English-speaking writers from across the world, and never too many from the same country. Contemporary literature in English is fundamentally global in form and to try to impose ideas of national tradition on such a multi-located archive would have felt like a deliberate hobbling. Placing all on the novels on the same platform, without any need to employ such limiting terms as "British," "American" or "postcolonial" literature, begins to liberate readings from the assumptions and hierarchies such labels promote.

Diversity of genre was also important. No year's list could contain too many comic novels, or historical fictions, or state-of-the-nation polemics, and so on. The list could never feel too dominated by works of strictly-fulfilled realism, nor of eclectic fabulism. Crucially, I would reject a novel if its content seemed too close to that another I had selected. In 2020, for example, so many great novels appeared that dealt with ongoing and urgent questions around global migration, but I limited myself to just two (which differed greatly from each other in most other respects), to avoid the direction of the module being too predominantly steered by this topic.

Scholars of contemporary literature are certainly not immune to the forces of book marketing and the corporate nature of publishing. However, I try to remain conscious wherever possible of how these influences determine the books about which we learn, and those that might come to dominate conversation. In the early years of the module, I was particularly wary of the distorting impact that the Booker Prize, for example, has on perceptions of contemporary literature, at least in Britain. Over the years, I've become slightly less concerned about whether the selections of that year's Booker judging panel coincide with my own, and have included three winners on the module, but fully resist letting the summer release of the Booker longlist dictate the course of my exploration of that year's new books. Some counterbalance to the pressure exertied by the sales and marketing machines of the major publishers can be  found through paying attention to independent publishers, and the renaissance enjoyed by these over the last ten years has made doing so a pleasurable and profitable endeavor.

To be able to select a list of books able to fulfil the criteria of the module, I had to fundamentally change my own reading practices. It would be dishonest not to admit that here too was another key motivation in wanting to develop this module. Employed as an "expert" in contemporary literatures, I was probably reading no more than ten new novels a year, and sometimes probably only half that. No matter how much I kept up with critical discussion and theoretical innovation in the field, this was a paltry engagement with the primary data over which I was supposed to have mastery. We scholars of the contemporary no doubt face a particular challenge not faced by our colleagues who study earlier periods, in that our archive is continually getting bigger. I now read over fifty new novels each year, which is undoubtedly time-consuming and expensive, and remains of course a tiny fraction of what is being published, but at least begins to allow me some better appreciation of the range of things happening in Anglophone literature right now.

A list of ten novels selected by a single person is inevitably going to be shaped by the preferences and predilections of that individual. I like to think of myself as having broad and open tastes (who doesn't?), but there is also no point in including a novel on the module that I struggled to finish. I think my dislike would be obvious to students, no matter how I tried to mask it, and if I am to convince them that they should embrace their responses to the novels (and not just repeat a stock interpretation), I need them to believe that I too regard the novels themselves as intrinsically, not just instrumentally, valuable.

Working through a year's reading to winnow out a group of ten books is a fairly enjoyable task, and usually one I complete during the festive period, for in the new year I will need to release details of the course of study to the prospective students I hope will register to take the class that September. I make it quite clear to students that I claim no expertise over the novels we will study, having only read them myself once at that point. Not all students will like that idea, so it's important to me that they understand that this class will not be like other literature options, and will progress differently.

By the time we begin, I have usually reread the ten novels once more, and will read each one a third time the day before its dedicated seminar, but this is to ensure my familiarity with details, rather than in service of developing my own particular readings of individual texts, or to divine patterns that run between them. Of course, these things do start to occur to me (it would be impossible for me not to start to accrue such interpretations and venture such connections, given years of training in doing precisely that), but part of the discipline of teaching this course is that I must in large part keep this to myself: the point is to encourage such thinking in the students, not to indulge in it myself.

I teach the class in three separate strands, which share the three contact hours a week I spend with the students (a one-hour plenary session and two-hour seminars with much smaller groups) on a mostly equal basis. The plenary slot is taken up by a lecture, though I have again warned students not to expect the kind of lecture they may enjoy elsewhere. To use this time to work through each of the books in turn would be precisely to assume the mantle of a particular kind of expertise that I do not wish to assume. Instead, the lectures talk generally about ways of understanding the novel as a distinctive form, and important critical stances that have been taken in relation to these. Each lecture will contain examples drawn from the assigned novels of the kinds of things I'm discussing (whether this is how novels represent time, or bodies, or morality), but their aim is to offer concepts and vocabularies for exploration, rather than joined-up readings of the material.

The seminars do allow for the discussion of one novel each week, so each can have its turn in the spotlight. I offer no pre-seminar prompts, however, of what aspects I want the students to think about, or where the discussion might lead. Instead, my opening question each week is simply, "What did you think?" I might provide terminologies that help the students articulate their observations about the books, or push them to think about precisely what features and techniques of the novel caused them to feel as they do, but the content of the discussion is up to them, and often varies enormously between seminar groups.

This discussion, however, takes only half of the seminar time and it is in the other half that the most important work on the module actually takes place. If this module is designed to ask students to articulate original responses to contemporary literary works (the final assignment is a 4,000-word comparison of any two of more of the module texts, on whatever basis the student chooses), and is expressly set up to avoid providing those answers for them, then it is crucial that I help equip the students to do that work themselves.

I'm not sure I fully envisaged this when first proposing "Last Year's Novels," but I've come to realize over years of developing my teaching on the module that it is fundamentally a research skills module. Effectively researching contemporary literature is difficult, and writing about it without dipping into the over-familiar arguments of critical convention is harder still. Students are often required to question assumptions that have, consciously or unconsciously, come to shape how they believe literature should be studied. At the most basic level, the usual practice of familiarizing oneself with the main currents of extant criticism relating to the given literary work simply cannot apply to a novel only published one year before. What then to do instead, and how to do it well, are the most important discussions we have on the novel. Why and how we close read, what it means to identify the "theme" of a literary work, and how we understand the field of cultural production from which the novels arrive with us are all central questions for developing critics of contemporary literature. It is in matters such as these, therefore, that the students and I spend our most productive time.

One of the greatest pleasures of "Last Year's Novels" is in reading the students' essays. I pick novels each year precisely because they do not seem to have obvious connections to each other, but my students find the connections that are inevitably there, and demonstrate how these work and why they are significant. No two essays make the exact same argument, or work it out in the same way, and I never have to read a version of my own thoughts offered back to me with various levels of competence in the repetition. The best work always manages genuinely to surprise me, finding links between texts I hadn't noticed were there, and developing nuanced and original interpretations that help me see the novels in wholly fresh ways.

"Last Year's Novels" began in large part because of the frustrations I felt with my own teaching and my feelings that there had to be a better way to study such an exciting and varied corpus. I deliberately put aside a lot of the things that might usually feel a comfort to the teacher (familiarity with materials, a clear sense of course direction), largely through the continually renewed, and consciously eclectic, syllabus. Instead, the focus is on letting the students lead, and find ways for themselves to read this exciting body of literature. I think they emerge not only as strong readers of contemporary literature, but as better readers more generally.

Ten Years of Last Year's Novel

The 2013 novels taught in 2014

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (Doubleday, 2013)
John Boyne, This House is Haunted (Doubleday, 2013)
Jim Crace, Harvest (Picador, 2013)
Dave Eggers, The Circle (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)
Bernardine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)
Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (Harvill Secker, 2013)
Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggars, 2013)
Taiye Selassie, Ghana Must Go (Viking, 2013)
Meike Ziervogel, Magda (Salt, 2013)

The 2014 novels taught in 2015

Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (Sceptre, 2014)
Cynan Jones, The Dig (Granta, 2014)
Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess (Atlantic, 2014) 
Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (Unbound, 2014)
Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens (Jonathan Cape, 2014)
Fiona McFarlane, The Night Guest, (Sceptre, 2014) 
Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (Picador, 2014)
Ali Smith, How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014)
Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda (Tuskar Rock, 2014) 
Natalie Young, Season to Taste; or How to Eat Your Husband (Tinder, 2014)

The 2015 novels taught in 2016

A. Igoni Barrett, Blackass (Chatto & Windus, 2015)
Sara Baume, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Tramp, 2015)
Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory (Faber & Faber, 2015)
Ryan Gattis, All Involved (Picador, 2015)
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Faber & Faber, 2015)
Miranda July, The First Bad Man (Scribner, 2015)
Tom McCarthy, Satin Island (Jonathon Cape, 2015)
Edna O'Brien, The Little Red Chairs (Faber & Faber, 2015)
Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber & Faber, 2015)
Nell Zink, Mislaid (Fourth Estate, 2015)

The 2016 novels taught in 2017

Anthony Cartwright, Iron Towns (Serpent's Tail, 2016)
Emma Donohue, The Wonder (Picador, 2016)  
Elnathan John, Born on a Tuesday (Cassava Republic, 2016)   
Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016) 
Yewande Omotoso, The Woman Next Door (Chatto & Windus, 2016)  
Harry Parker, The Anatomy of a Soldier (Faber & Faber, 2016)
Zadie Smith, Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)
Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton (Viking, 2016)
David Szalay, All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape, 2016) 
Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, 2016)

 The 2017 novels taught in 2018

Xan Brooks, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times (Salt, 2017)
Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun (Oneworld, 2017)
Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom (Chatto & Windus, 2017)
Benjamin Myers, The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose, 2017)
Olumide Popoola, When We Speak of Nothing (Cassava Republic, 2017)
Gwendoline Riley, First Love (Granta, 2017)
Henrietta Rose-Innes, Green Lion (Aardvark Bureau, 2017)
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus, 2017)
Jeff VanderMeer, Borne (Fourth Estate, 2017)

The 2018 novels taught in 2019

Jesse Ball, Census (Granta, 2018)
Anna Burns, Milkman (Faber & Faber, 2018)
Aminatta Forna, Happiness (Bloomsbury, 2018)
Zoe Gilbert, Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018)
Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind (Jonathan Cape, 2018)
Jennifer Nansubaga Makumbi, Kintu (Oneworld, 2018)
Michael Ondaatje, Warlight (Jonathan Cape, 2018)
Anbara Salam, Things Bright and Beautiful (Penguin Fig Tree, 2018)
Malachy Tallack, The Valley at the Centre of the World (Canongate, 2018) Tim Winton, The Shepherd's Hut (Picador, 2018)

The 2019 novels taught in 2020

Nicola Barker, I am Sovereign (Heinemann, 2019)
Season Butler, Cygnet (Dialogue, 2019)
Felicity Castagna, No More Boats (Europa, 2019)
Oisín Fagan, Nobber (JM Originals, 2019)
Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (John Murray, 2019)
David Keenan, For the Good Times (Faber & Faber, 2019)
Joan Silber, Improvement (Allen & Unwin, 2019)
Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift (Hogarth, 2019)
Isabel Waidner, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019)
Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys (Fleet, 2019)

The 2020 novels taught in 2021

Eliza Clark, Boy Parts (Influx, 2020)
Avni Doshi, Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton, 2020)
Catherine Lacey, Pew (Granta, 2020)
Colum McCann, Apeirogon (HarperCollins, 2020)
Laura Jean McKay, The Animals in that Country (Scribe, 2020)
Paul Mendez, Rainbow Milk (Dialogue, 2020)
Dexter Palmer, Mary Toft; or The Rabbit Queen (Corsair, 2020)
Monique Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch (Peepal Tree, 2020)
Sophie Ward, Love and Other Thought Experiments (Corsair, 2020) C. Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills is Gold (Virago, 2020)

The 2021 novels taught in 2022

A.K. Blakemore, The Manningtree Witches (Granta, 2021)
Patricia Lockwood, No One is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus, 2021)
Megha Majumdar, A Burning (Scribner, 2021)
Adam Mars-Jones, Batlava Lake (Fitzcarraldo, 2021)
Jon McGregor, Lean Fall Stand (Fourth Estate, 2021)
Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men (Viking, 2021)
Fiona Mozley, Hot Stew (John Murray, 2021)
Rahul Raina, How to Kidnap the Rich (Little, Brown, 2021)
Sam Riviere, Dead Souls (Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, 2021)
Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland (Merky, 2021)

 The 2022 novels taught in 2023

Robbie Arnott, Limberlost (Atlantic, 2022)
NoViolet Bulawayo, Glory (Chatto & Windus, 2022)
Jan Carson, The Raptures (Doubleday, 2022)
Percival Everett, The Trees (Influx, 2022)
Tess Gunty, The Rabbit Hutch (Oneworld, 2022)
Shehan Karuntilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Sort of, 2022)
Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These (Faber & Faber, 2022)
Jasmine Sealy, The Island of Forgetting (Borough, 2022)
Douglas Stuart, Young Mungo (Picador, 2022) Daniel Wiles, Mercia's Take (Swift, 2022)

Dave Gunning is Reader in English Literature at the University of Birmingham (UK). He is the author of Race and Antiracism in Black British and British Asian Literature (2010) and Postcolonial Literature (2013). He is beginning a project that looks at how the global Anglophone novel narrativizes the connections between economic, ecological and epidemiological ideas of crisis.