BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:26 GMT, Monday, 24 August 2009 11:26 UK

Just what is 'annualism'?


By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

There seem to be an awful lot of books these days where the author shows their power of endurance by doing something odd for a year. But why?

Here's the drill.

You're thinking. How hard would it be to live on Smarties for a year? Or spend a year in a toilet cubicle? Or both?

Hephzibah Anderson
A sequence of events caused me to look back over the romantic chaos of my 20s - sexual attraction was not helping things
Hephzibah Anderson

Then you could write a book about it. You could call it LooTube. Or Under the Lid. The papers would all do features. How could any journalist resist a person spending a year in the toilet? So you get plenty of free publicity for the book.

Walk into any book shop and you'll see a slew of these books that conform to a slightly more serious but not dissimilar brief. There's Kath Kelly's How I Lived A Year On Just A Pound A Day. Or Neil Boorman's Bonfire of the Brands, in which the protagonist burned all his branded goods and then lived for a year without them. Both have featured on these pages.

Leo Hickman tried to spend a year living ethically in Life Stripped Bare.

Hephzibah Anderson has recently released her book Chastened: No More Sex in the City which details the year she spent without having sex.

The decision to abstain stemmed from a break-up that caused her to review her romantic life so far, she says.

"That was part of a sequence of events that caused me to look back over the romantic chaos of my 20s. Sexual attraction was not helping things."

Journalistic work where protagonist endures ordeal, usually for year, then writes book about it

So in August 2006, she decided to abstain for a year.

"Actually abstaining from sex, that got harder. It got really hard at the six to seven-month mark. [But] at the end I was wishing I had another month or two."

And the experience changed the literary journalist.

"I do take things at a slower pace. It genuinely has changed things."

Anderson says she only thought that her decision might make a good book towards the end of the year.

"I'm aware of the whole genre of things journalists did for a year," she adds.

Morgan Spurlock
This man ate a lot of fast food, but only for a month

At the opposite end of the spectrum but firmly in the same genre is Charla Muller. As a 40th birthday present for her husband, she decided they would have sex every day for a year. The undercurrent of the book is about keeping the fires lit in a marriage, rather than any effort at titillation.

"I had no intention of writing a book about that part of my life," she says.

"It was never part of my plan. My plan was to put some 'zing' into a part of my marriage and it ended up as the best year of my marriage to date. I was amazed, though, at how my experience was resonating with my girlfriends.

"As I started to share some details about the year of 'The Gift', I realised it was creating a lot of conversation about marriage and how hard it is to keep that part of marriage vibrant.

"We didn't receive a book contract until the year was over."

There have indeed been a lot of these annualist books in the past five or six years, concedes Graeme Neill of the Bookseller magazine.

Danny Wallace and a chimp
One of these is a master of stunt journalism, the other is a chimp

"Publishing is like any form of the art. Where there has been a success, a hit will come out of nowhere, other publishers will look at it and follow it."

And there is something about these year-long ideas that entices publishers.

"It is like pitching a movie in one sentence," says Neill. "It's interesting to talk about and it makes for very readable, straightforward copy."

And of course, it's part of a wider genre where the writer features heavily in their own work, says Neill.

"It's journalists putting themselves at the centre of things. They are protagonists in their own narrative."

Liz Jones, who has written extensively in newspapers and in books about her marriage and other parts of her life, is the queen of the genre. And if Liz Jones is the queen, Danny Wallace is the king.

His books Yes Man, about his decision to say yes to everything, Join Me, about the cult he started, and Friends Like These, about his summer tracking down his old friends, have all sold well.

Nellie Bly: Pretended to be mentally ill to investigate asylum conditions
Jack London: Lived with homeless in east London for The People of the Abyss
John Howard Griffin: Took anti-vitiligo drug in large doses to appear black for expose of racist attitudes
Hunter S Thompson: Pioneered Gonzo journalism
Barbara Ehrenreich: Worked menial jobs to document life on minimum wage

And of course, many would argue that there is nothing wrong with a journalist putting themselves at the centre of the story. What binds all the "annualist" titles together is that while their "year-long ordeal" might be classified as a stunt, they have serious things to say about their subject matter and its importance to society.

When a journalist goes to live in the country, or tries to be environmentally-minded for a year, one can see where they are coming from.

And there is a long and honourable history of "stunt" journalism. It goes all the way back to Nellie Bly, the pioneering American journalist.

In 1887, she infiltrated an asylum by pretending to be mentally ill in order to investigate conditions there. Her expose, Ten Days in a Mad-House, outlined the grim conditions, rotten food, and beatings that constituted the life of patients. As well as being a literary sensation, it caused an outcry and an investigation that led to more funding and better conditions for the asylums.

Jack London's The People of the Abyss at the beginning of the 20th Century continued this inheritance, with the American author writing about East End poverty after living in workhouses himself. George Orwell took a similar path in Down and Out in Paris and London.

A very notable modern example is Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, an exploration of life on the minimum wage as Ehrenreich gave up her life as a journalist in favour of a string of menial jobs.

George Orwell and Jack London
George Orwell and Jack London wrote about living with the homeless

But if "annualism" is really a thing of the past five or six years, then it might be suggested that the most inspirational work in the canon is Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary Super Size Me. Spurlock famously lived on McDonald's three times a day for a month, with consequences for his health, in order to expose the dangers of the fast-food culture.

Ultimately, we are impressed by feats of endurance. For many readers, it adds authenticity to an act of criticism.

For many of the authors of course, one "annualist" work is enough.

"It would be really nice to do something that doesn't involve the words 'I', 'me' or 'my'," says Anderson.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Nellie Bly is a great example of early investigative "stunt" journalism, but I'm not sure she was responsible for pioneering it. In 1866, for example, James Greenwood disguised himself as a pauper and spent time in a London workhouse as part of a famous journalistic expose. More notably, in 1885, WT Stead (the eccentric editor of the Pall Mall Gazette who went down with the Titanic) launched an investigation into child trafficking and prostitution, during which he and his reporters regularly disguised themselves and went slumming in the London underworld. He also posed as a customer and bought a 13-year-old girl named Eliza Armstrong to prove that it could be done. The story caused an international scandal and resulted in a change in the law. Rather amusingly, Stead was immediately prosecuted and convicted under this new law for his part in purchasing Armstrong.
Bob Nicholson, Manchester

Perhaps somebody will write a book about a year spent reading only annualist books...
David Richerby, Leeds, UK

"It would be really nice to do something that doesn't involve the words 'I', 'me' or 'my'," says Anderson.

Easy - Have an "I won't use the words 'I', 'me' or 'my'" year.
Roger Steer, Bristol, UK

If merely not having sex for a single, measly year is deemed worthy material for a book, then I ask that publishers get in touch with me at once: I have a blockbuster pending.
Adrian Dunn, Worcester, UK

I'm surprised that you missed out what i would consider the most amazing of all of these social experiments by not commenting on "Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin.

What a lot of these authors manage to do is show us the extremes of a situation which may shed a light on how only a small change in this direction can be worth while... Surely that's invaluable in it's own right.
Rebecca, Bristol

"And if Liz Jones is the queen, Danny Wallace is the king."

That seems rather unfair on Dave Gorman, without whom Danny Wallace would probably not have decided to pursue his own eccentric adventures.
Iain, Scotland

Another journalist using similar techniques to those described in the article is American Norah Vincent. She pulled off perhaps the ultimate undercover journalism stunt by successfully posing as a man in order to learn more about the relations between the sexes.
AR, SE London, UK

This article seems somewhat incomplete without at least a nod to the father of gonzo journalism, Hunter S Thompson.
James, Chilbolton, Hampshire, UK

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific