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No year is complete without its aspirational tag, and 2008 was no exception. Scarcely had the infant 12 months begun its Government-sponsored career as the "Year of the Reader" before the booksellers, Waterstone's, announced that it was also "The Writer's Year". In doing so, it covered all literary bases and providing the ideal backdrop for a swingeing attack by the novelist Will Self on the contemptible complacency of both readers and writers of modern fiction.

Addressing Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival of Ideas in November, Self excoriated the enduring tradition of 19th-century realism in modern British fictional depictions of consciousness. He administered a vigorous duffing-up, both to literary authors and readers - especially those infected by the creeping middle-brow malaise of the Book Group - who cherish and support the realist novel for its comforting ability to "make them feel normal".

Perhaps there are as many reasons for reading fiction as there are readers, or novels. But there is no disputing Will Self's assertion that 21st-century British fiction is dominated by realism. Among the babble of titles competing for the major fiction prizes of 2008, experimental writing was represented by A-X, John Berger's novel of letters between a woman and her imprisoned lover, which made the Man Booker Prize longlist, and Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt, which quietly won this year's James Tait Black Prize by using language in unorthodox ways to convey the non-verbal internal discourse of a variety of consciousnesses, including that of Philomena, a First World War cavalry horse.

Despite the preference of the Common Reader for conventional literary forms, the Year of the Reader (and Writer) was rich in bookish controversy. In the summer, the inclusion on the Man Booker longlist of Tom Rob Smith's first novel, Child 44, a detective thriller set in Stalinist Russia, began a row about whether genre fiction counted as literature. And if so, where should the dividing line be placed? Somewhere this side of Child 44, reckoned Amanda Ross, who runs the Richard and Judy Book Club, and thought that there were worthier Booker candidates from the "important" genre of crime fiction than Tom Rob Smith's "neat, trite" novel.

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