BEST OF YOUNG BRITISH NOVELISTS 2003: INTRODUCTION
14th April 2003
This is the third issue of Granta devoted to the new work of a group of writers deemed the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. The first appeared in 1983, and the second in 1993. The idea behind each has been to recognize twenty British writers under the age of forty who have showed exceptional promise or achievement, and to introduce the lesser-known among them to a wider audience.
It wasn’t originally Granta‘s idea. In January this year, when our twenty novelists were being assembled by the Sunday Times for the by now traditional group photograph, I remembered that I’d witnessed a similar scene in another London studio in the early 1980s. Not the first Best of Young British Novelists, which was still a year or two away, but a promotion called the Best of British Writers, organized by the Book Marketing Council and its chairman, Desmond Clarke. The idea then, quite radical in its day, was to say, ‘Look, Britain has all these jolly good writers, and for the getting of your pleasure and wisdom you should be buying more of their books.’ All kinds of people, none particularly young and many now dead, climbed up a few flights of stairs to have their picture taken by Lord Snowdon.
As a reporter, I went to write about it for the Sunday Times. We had a struggle with John Betjeman in his wheelchair. ‘Very kind of you, dear boy, very kind.’ V. S. Pritchett was there, and Laurie Lee and Beryl Bainbridge. Disparate kinds of writers: poets, children’s writers and essayists as well as novelists. It was odd to see them together; it looked like a piece of cultural nationalism that belonged to the Second World War—Writers Against Hitler. Odd, in fact, to see them at all; we were still in the time when writers were private figures, their public lives mainly confined to what was printed on the page. What they looked like, how they sounded, where they lived, what they believed: these things—always excepting the case of Betjeman—were mysterious to most people outside the narrow world of London publishing houses.
That quiet, and some would argue proper, state of affairs was transformed over the next decade. Literary festivals, bookshop readings, TV shows, marketing campaigns that stressed the writer’s persona as much as his or her book—all of these made writers visible and fashionable. The first Granta list of Best Young British Novelists—Amis, Rushdie, McEwan (see page 352 for the full list)—was a prominent milepost down that road. How writers performed in public began to be important. Even how they looked. Today you’ll hear it said, a popular grudge, that it’s easier for a writer to find a publisher if he, and perhaps particularly she, is young and good-looking.
Given the hype that now attaches itself to many young writers and their novels, the first question that arose in my mind when we were planning Best of Young British for a third time was: is it necessary? Times have changed since 1983, and even 1993. Slowly, dimly, I began to see that the hype that now often surrounds authorship made Best of Young British more necessary rather than less. What had been an exercise to publicize the literary novel, at a time when there were few spotlights on this particular branch of culture, might now have a new role as an independent consumer’s guide to novelists who deserved to be read in an era where ‘a thrilling debut by a young writer of enormous talent’ is the standard blurb, and where there are now so many spotlights directed by marketing money and the size of the writer’s advance.
We needed, I thought, judges who were wise to the ways of publishing, as well as being good readers, good critics and, where possible, good practitioners. There were five of us, with me in the chair. Robert McCrum, the literary editor of the Observer and working on the new authorized biography of P. G. Wodehouse, had a notable track record for finding promising writers, several of whom came good, during his earlier career as editorial director at Faber and Faber. Nicholas Clee, editor of the Bookseller,reads new novels constantly for work, and (perhaps surprisingly, given his reading load) for pleasure. Alex Clark reviews fiction for the Sunday Times (when the judging began she reviewed for the Guardian) and the London Review of Books. Finally, Hilary Mantel: not only an accomplished novelist, but also a reviewer of novels for the New York Review of Books and the New York Times, a great encourager of young writers—and (least, but not unimportant) a woman who lives in Woking, Surrey, where she maintains a sturdy independence from the currents of fashion in London’s literary life.
We asked for submissions from publishers and agents and eventually received the work of 139 writers (sixty-two women and seventy-seven men), sometimes still to be published and in typescript. The rules said that entrants had to be citizens of the United Kingdom born after December 31, 1963.
Last summer we began to read.
What were we looking for? Our business was to select the most interesting, original writers of the ‘literary novel’, though we would also consider shorter fiction, the story and novella, as allowable evidence of a writer’s intent in the novel’s direction, despite the fact that two writers on previous lists—Helen Simpson and Adam Mars-Jones—had dented this faith by sticking firmly to the short-story form in their careers since. The ‘literary novel’ isn’t an easy thing to define; you know it when you see it. One definition might be ‘an artistically ambitious work of fiction, more than 30,000 words long.’ Other definitions rely on negatives. It isn’t ‘commercial’ (Archer, Grisham, Harris) and it isn’t ‘genre’ (crime, suspense, sci-fi, fantasy, children). Yes, but on the other hand it might be. Only the brave and foolishly strict would argue that the main pleasure of reading Conan Doyle or Chandler is to find out what happened in the end. Writers can cross boundaries. J. K. Rowling wasn’t submitted, though we would have excluded her had she been because in our view, no matter how many adults you see reading her on the tube, she is definitely a children’s writer. Other writers were less easy to keep in their boxes. Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room is a fine crime novel set in Glasgow. China Miéville is an extraordinary writer of dark fantasy. In the end we rejected both. Personally, I was sorry to see Welsh go.
Emails began to go back and forward between us. Rereading them now I see a punitive streak, as though a restaurant reviewer had got into the wrong kind of restaurant. Of writer A: ‘Immense talent, deficient in craft. The punctuation doesn’t serve the rhythm, the structure doesn’t serve the plot. It has a pungent flavour, but a reader must be careful with a book like this not to confuse the preposterous with the original.’ Of writer B: ‘An excruciatingly self-conscious writer, but I believe if she could shake herself free of Eng Lit she could be very good.’ But sometimes we were in the right restaurant after all. ‘I am completely bowled over by Sarah Waters. I read the first 350 pages in one sitting, and only quit when I realized day was breaking.’
We tried to ignore the marketing fanfare which some books had received on publication—not because we were worried that it would persuade us in the book’s favour, but because it might encourage our prejudice in the opposite direction. Sometimes a book can live up to its hype.
Email from Hilary Mantel, August 9: ‘How did this book come to be the “most eagerly-awaited debut of 2002”? Awaited by whom and on what grounds? I am hoping that we discover some person who has been toiling in silence and obscurity, unawaited by anyone except his mum.’
What were we looking for, the Tome of the Unknown Toiler apart? A few critics urged us to find the state-of-England novel. Among books by young novelists Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is probably the closest England can come to that. We don’t, it seems, have young Roths, Updikes, Wolfes and De Lillos—though neither, Jonathan Franzen apart, are the younger Americans much given to the contemporary panoramic sweep. Our novelists like abroad and they like the past; only eight of the twenty we finally chose set their books in modern—i.e. post-Thatcher—Britain, and only five in modern England. Then again, when, since Dickens and Eliot died, have great state-of-England novels been rolling from the press? Instead, we had state-of-sex-and-drugs novels in which self-harming women were a common feature, state-of-marriage novels, state-of-Yorkshire novels.
We met three or four times and decided that one test for writers on the list was a very simple one. Would we have carried on reading their books—for pleasure—if we hadn’t been judging them? That seems an obvious criteria, and yet I think there may be one or two writers on the final list whom we admired rather than enjoyed, and one or two left off for the opposite reason. Most of us had been judges in other prizes, and, as Nick Clee remarked, something strange and not easily explained often happens in the judging process. You read a book and enjoy it, and then at the judges’ meeting you feel you have been seduced too easily. The reader at home in his armchair is replaced by the literary critic in his hard seat, who finds the book has not somehow been clever, or bold, or original enough. A flaw can be an entertaining thing to discuss, but it can also be a good way of forgetting pleasure.
Our trickiest problem was the weighing of the one-book author against the author with an established career. With a one-book author you are taking a large gamble—what will his second be like, or his third? On the other hand, a three-book author may be getting worse with each book, leaving the brilliance of the original behind. We tried to be reasoned and fair about this, but in the end we chose to back our hunches (and may be proved wrong). After four months of reading, emails and meetings, it was interesting to see how detailed argument about language and narrative strategy boiled down to the straightforward, ‘Sorry, but I just couldn’t stand it.’
What were we looking for? In the context of Monica Ali’s still-to-be-published first novel, Brick Lane, about a Muslim housewife in east London, I’d mentioned to Hilary something that V. S. Naipaul wrote or said: that one of the points of a novel was to bring the reader ‘news’. Ali’s novel was pertinent to now; she’d imagined what such a woman’s life might be like. Hilary returned to this in an email:
This process has made me think what I want from a novel, and I realize that one of the things I want is ‘news’—in the sense that you mentioned earlier. It seems to me a reader should expect a novel to take her outside the tight circle of her own knowledge and concerns. News may be from alien places or other eras, properly realized on the page. Or it may be from places and people very familiar, reappraised and reinterpreted, or made strange so that the reader has to think about their meaning. It may be news from the inarticulate, who have not spoken for themselves (or who we can’t hear). Or it may be news from the writer’s psyche. What it mustn’t be, for me, is false news, where tricks of style dress up lack of content, or where inauthenticity creeps through a text—that is what happens when a writer is either insufficiently observant about day-to-day life, or has not imagined their fictional world thoroughly enough. It is not only facts that need rigour; fiction needs it badly.
Many writers lived up to this standard; three of those who did and who nearly made the final list—Nick Barlay, Andrew Crumey and Claire Messud—turned out to have been wrongly submitted by their publishers (they were either too old, or not British). But many more didn’t. At our last meeting, one judge mentioned the sense of ‘entitlement’ that rose from the page, as if knocking off a novel was an easy thing to do. Hilary again:
Many of the books we have read have left me perplexed. I understand about those books which are shallow ‘instant’ books, catering to a perceived market. What I don’t understand is novels that aim to last a bit longer, but which are ragged, confused and under-realized… For as long as I’ve been publishing people have been moaning ‘no one does any editing any more’. It’s become a commonplace—so much so that you wonder if there ever was a golden age that reviewers are nostalgic for. But if that is so, if there are fewer good editors, or fewer editors with time to spare, writers have an even stronger obligation [on themselves] to give their public something that hangs together… It’s as if publishers are leaving their young authors to sink or swim, to get their advice from adverse reviews or a disdainful public. Can that be good business? My private hate are those books with a fulsome acknowledgement to the editor, where it is obvious that the editor has done no more than leave the author’s complacency unbruised.
What do our twenty chosen writers tell us about British fiction in this new generation? Perhaps mainly that the novels of young British writers—the good ones—show an energy, a liberty and variety (a spunk which may be the upside of ‘entitlement’) that many other countries would envy, even the US, where the craft is more professionalized and disciplined. As for the writers themselves, here are some crude demographics: forty per cent are women; twenty per cent have a parent of non-European ancestry; fifteen per cent are Scottish, 7.5 per cent Welsh (the 2.5 per cent is the Welsh half of Peter Ho Davies, a Granta author—I excluded myself from the vote in his case); five per cent Northern Irish.
All very fine and various, and broadly reflecting the country or countries that Britain has become. Less various, however, is the interesting majority (sixty per cent) whose education included the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The Oxbridge proportion among writers in 1983 was fifty-five per cent, and in 1993, again sixty per cent. There may be a compelling thesis in this. All I can say here is that the most sinister explanation should be resisted: the proportion of Oxbridge-educated Granta judges has shrunk to forty per cent from seventy-five per cent in 1993.
There have been many comparisons with the famous list of 1983, and no doubt there will be more. They do no good at all. That was a special generation. This may be one as well. We have another ten years to find out.