British Writers, World Citizens: Granta’s List of Young Literary Stars
Every 10 years since 1983, the London-based literary magazine Granta names the 20 writers it considers the Best of Young British Novelists. The list has come to be regarded as a bellwether in the literary world, since so many of the writers singled out at that early stage of their careers — starting with Martin Amis, Pat Barker and Salman Rushdie — have gone on to great critical and commercial success.
On Monday night, in a ceremony broadcast on the BBC, Granta announced its fourth list, whose character differs substantially from that of its predecessors and is likely to generate an animated discussion about what it means to be British in the 21st century. A majority of the writers were either born outside Britain or are the children of immigrants, from countries as far-flung as Pakistan, Nigeria, Hungary, China, Australia and Jamaica. And, for the first time, a majority are women — 12, to be exact, compared with only 6 in 1983, 6 in 1993 and 8 in 2003.
Half of the excerpts that are to be published in the magazine’s spring edition take place partly or entirely outside Britain. Some, like Nadifa Mohamed’s “Filsan,” whose main character is a female Somali Army officer, or Benjamin Markovits’s “You Don’t Have to Live Like This,” about a Louisiana Cajun trying to make his way through Yale, do not even feature British characters.
“We didn’t set out to do this,” said Granta’s editor, John Freeman, who served on the seven-member panel that selected the novelists. “We just wanted to find exciting writers, and it happens that the big storytellers of this generation are people with a very complicated sense of home.”
Yet, as novelists, they arrive at a moment when books have never had a harder time getting the public’s attention. This puts the Granta list in the paradoxical position of mattering more to writers when writers matter less to the culture. For this reason, publishers have become increasingly adept at exploiting any effort to cast a spotlight on writers and books. To help that process, the National Book Award in January announced that it would increase the number of finalists and stretch out the judging process, with a long list and a shortlist, so as to emulate the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award.
Taiye Selasi, 33, whose first novel, “Ghana Must Go,” was recently published, is represented in the Granta collection with a short story called “Driver,” set in Ghana and told from the point of view of the striving young chauffeur of a wealthy man. Born in London into a family with roots in Ghana and Nigeria, Ms. Selasi grew up in Brookline, Mass.; studied at Yale and Oxford; and now lives in Rome.
“The options are endless,” she said this month while in New York to promote the novel. “One of the legacies of imperialism is that after you’ve gone far and wide and then come back home, other people can call themselves British too. A story in Accra with characters who have spent huge amounts of time in London — is that any less British than a story over tea in Knightsbridge?”
For Granta itself, the lists have become something of a global trademark. In 1996 it published its first Best of Young American Novelists list, now also a once-a-decade event, and has recently extended that franchise to include Spanish-language novelists in 2010, and young Brazilian novelists last year. Granta’s Brazilian and Chinese editions will publish excerpts by the authors on this year’s British list by the end of the year, Mr. Freeman said.
Through their agents or publishers, more than 150 authors applied for the 2013 best of Britain list. To be eligible under Granta’s rules, writers had to be 40 or younger at the time of the announcement, hold a British passport or be in the process of obtaining one, and have published or have a contract to publish at least one work of fiction.
The list announced on Monday includes two writers who are carry-overs from 2003, Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell. The youngest of the women chosen, Helen Oyeyemi, is 28 and has already published four novels and two plays, and several are 39, among them Sarah Hall, who contributed an excerpt from a novel in progress that takes place partly on a wolf preserve in Idaho and partly in her native Lake District in the north of England.
“I’m the grande dame of this list,” Ms. Hall said jokingly during a telephone interview from her home in Norwich, northeast of London. Her presence underlines another notable feature of the 2013 list: less of a focus on London, even among writers who might be considered “traditionally” British.
“Regional writing does not have the pedigree here that it does in America, which honors writers from the South,” she said. “In the U.K., I am considered strange, this exotic girl from the North who is told she is avant-garde because she is writing about the country.”
Sunjeev Sahota, the son of Punjabi Sikhs, has even managed to combine both the foreign and regional streams in his work. The excerpt submitted to the Granta jury on his behalf, from a second novel he is now writing, is called “Arrivals” and examines what he calls “the hidden lives” of migrants from India, many of them in Britain illegally, working construction in the northern cities of Sheffield and Leeds.
Besides Mr. Freeman, an American, two other people associated with Granta served on the panel: the deputy editor, Ellah Allfrey, who was born in Zimbabwe, and the magazine’s publisher, Sigrid Rausing, a Swedish heiress and philanthropist who lives in London. The jury’s other four members were two British critics and editors, Gaby Wood of The Telegraph and Stuart Kelly of The Scotsman, and two novelists: Romesh Gunesekera, and A. L. Kennedy, who was on the Granta list in both 1993 and 2003.
The British list has always provoked debate there, usually focused on the merits of those selected, as opposed to those who were left off. (Besides the names mentioned above, the other 12 are Naomi Alderman, Tahmima Anam, Ned Beauman, Jenni Fagan, Adam Foulds, Xiaolu Guo, Steven Hall, Joanna Kavenna, Ross Raisin, Kamila Shamsie, David Szalay and Evie Wyld.) This year promises to be no exception, and reactions may be even more heated because of the cosmopolitan backgrounds of the writers who have been chosen.
“The right-wing press will undoubtedly say it’s the end of the world, it’s all these foreigners, people with funny surnames, coming over and taking our novels, yada, yada, yada,” Ms. Kennedy predicted. “It’s the nature of the beast” but unjustified, she added, because London today “is a teeming mass of different voices” that need to be reflected and represented in literature.
For writers fortunate to make the list, the distinction is clearly a career boost, putting them on the radar screens of foreign publishers, who use Granta as a kind of advance talent detection system.
“It was huge, in ways that I didn’t fully understand at the time,” Ms. Kennedy said of her first appearance on the list. “If you get that much publicity for your first novel, everything works better. It makes your publisher like you more, makes your editor happier about your next project, and is enormously helpful abroad.”