Sunday, March 17, 2013

Granta's class of 2013 / Picking the 20 best young British novelists

Granta list1983

 Granta's first Best of Young British Novelists list, 1983. back row (l to r): William Boyd, Adam Mars-Jones, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Clive Sinclair. Middle row: Buchi Emecheta, AN Wilson, Ursula Bentley, Christopher Priest, Maggie Gee, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis. Front row: Shiva Naipaul, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Norman, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain and Lisa St Aubin de Teran. (Two winners were missing from the photograph: Alan Judd and Salman Rushdie.) Photograph: Camera Press/Snowdon

Granta's class of 2013: picking the 20 best young British novelists

Howls of outrage are bound to accompany next month's unveiling of Granta's list of top 20 young writers. Here a former Granta editor and veteran of the 2003 judging panel reveals how the list takes shape

Alex Clark
Sunday 17 March 2013 00.05 GMT

en years is a long time in the literary game: it can easily take someone until then to finish writing a decent novel – although that's less and less likely to wash with contemporary publishers. But a decade is also more than enough time for a writer's fortunes to change dramatically.

Take Hilary Mantel. In 2003 she was a highly respected novelist and critic, the author of such enthusiastically reviewed novels as Eight Months on Ghazzah StreetThe Giant, O'Brien and A Place of Greater Safety, the epic fictional portrayal of the French revolution published a decade previously that had probably been her most widely read novel. In the spring of 2003 her extraordinary memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, came out. But Beyond Black, her macabre novel of psychic shenanigans in the home counties, was still two years away; and we would have to wait several more before Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies would scoop two Man Booker prizes and transport Mantel to the highest echelons of writerly fame. Ten years ago she was the very emblem of the seriously talented and audacious female writer who was somehow rarely mentioned in the same breath as the holy trinity of Amis, Barnes and McEwan. Now, she cannot express a mildly contentious view in a literary journal without waking to find an outraged press pack camped on her front lawn.

Both scenarios are mad, and flipsides of the same issue. The pigheaded undervaluing of certain writers and the overnight obsession with others suggest problems with scale and perspective; problems that are perhaps related to Jonathan Franzen's analysis of the trappings that come with mega-successful authorship. The money, the hype, the limo to the Vogue shoot, he wrote, might once have been the perks; these days they're supposed to be the prize itself. Such baubles are, he regretfully maintained, "the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture". In the interests of accuracy, I should point out that Franzen has softened his pessimism a little in subsequent interviews, and one might also retort that the work obviously does matter; people are surely reading The Corrections and Wolf Hall and Freedom and Bring Up the Bodies, not simply waiting for Franzen to appear on Letterman or Mantel on Loose Women. But he has a point. When, these days, a writer becomes well known, when they are successful, when they are said to have "broken through", what does that actually mean?

In 1983, when Granta magazine published its first ever list of the Best of Young British Novelists, it meant something slightly different. That's not to say that the waters were crystal clear, nor that the literary arena was immune to the very idea of celebrity or to the lure of Franzen's consolation prizes. And no enterprise of this nature ever takes place in a vacuum. Work by the first 20 BOYBN created the seventh issue of Granta. Its inaugural issue had been entitled "New American Writing", its second "The Portage to San Christobal of AH", the title of a novella by the French-born, Austrian-descended polyglot George Steiner which appeared alongside pieces about Don DeLillo and William Styron and an interview with John Barth. The issue after that had been called "The End of the English Novel". You get the picture.
Such determined iconoclasm was perhaps unsurprising, given that Granta had been founded by an American, Bill Buford, and one with a nose for an attention-grabbing editorial statement to boot. Now, in the midst of these celebrations of writing from elsewhere, he launched a sort of home talent show, adapting an original initiative from the British Book Marketing Council (allow me a brief and probably deeply unfair diversion: have four words ever so readily summoned up the image of a committee meeting with green cups and saucers and a plate of Peek Freans?). Buford's boldest innovation was to insist that his bright young things be, well, young, imposing an age limit of 40 on candidates.
Then he slapped the work of, among others, Martin Amis (with an extract, of course, from Money, the era-defining novel that would appear the following year), Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and Salman Rushdie between vibrant covers that depicted two fountain pens clashing against an exploding Union flag. He must have known that this kind of thing would be dynamite; the book was called Best of Young British Novelists 1.
Buford's confidence was not misplaced. Every decade since 1983, Granta has produced its 20-strong list of 20- and 30-somethings (although there's no lower age limit, I don't believe a teenager has ever been included). In the mid-90s, the brand was clearly thought to be so successful that it diversified, and there have now been two instalments of Best of Young American Novelists. And since the beginning of this decade, there have been two more additions to the stable: 2010's Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists and last autumn's Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. In one sense, the Spanish-language issue is the most barrier-breaking list to date; bringing together writers from nine countries, its editors argued in their introduction that "the literary homeland, as this collection shows, is the language itself". No wonder they bent the rules to allow themselves 22 writers; they also lowered the age-limit to 35, meaning that all the shortlisted writers had been born since 1975, the year that Franco's death wrought seismic changes in the Spanish-speaking world.

But back to the Brits and, as the sharper among you will have realised, to this year, when the once-a-decade alarm clock is primed to ring again. On 15 April, Granta will announce its fourth list of future fictioneers. The judges – the magazine's publisher, editor and deputy editor, Sigrid Rausing, John Freeman and Ellah Allfrey respectively, novelists Romesh Gunesekera and AL Kennedy and literary journalists Gaby Wood and Stuart Kelly – will have done their work. (This is not quite true of Kelly, who is doing double duty this year on the Man Booker prize jury. He deserves a gong and a lifetime's supply of coffee.)
No sooner have they put their reading specs to one side and allowed themselves a celebratory amontillado, however, than another task begins; that of soaking up the flak. It may come in the form of straightforward disagreement or be of the more politely framed "I beg to differ" variety; it may focus on an outrageous inclusion who has no business even putting pen to paper or on an absent writer who immediately conjures a heart-rending image of genius unrewarded. It may take issue with the whole enterprise. But flak there will be – because there is no list compiled in the whole of contemporary culture that doesn't provoke dissent. And that, in part, is the whole point.
Ten years ago I was on the panel, alongside the chair, Ian Jack, then the editor of Granta, the aforementioned Hilary Mantel, the Observer's literary editor, Robert McCrum, and Nicholas Clee, then the editor of The Bookseller. A very quick word about Mantel, whom I remember – no surprise here – as an exceptionally astute reader and the keeper of more detailed and more illuminating notes than the rest of us put together (no offence, everyone else). But aside from that, an obvious question arises. Why wasn't she a BOYBN?
As is so often the case, it's a matter of the stars aligning. In 1983 Mantel had yet to publish a novel; in 1993, when she had published five, she had just passed 40. Judging that second BOYBN list was AS Byatt, one of this country's greatest novelists; her date of birth meant that she wasn't eligible for even the first list. In 2003, one of those just outside the cut-off date was Ali Smith; there can be little doubt that she would have been included had she been born a while later. I cite these examples not to denigrate either the lists or those on them but simply to underline the fact that they are inevitably snapshots, vivid but partial pictures of a constantly evolving culture.
I cannot pretend, even for the sake of drama, that the creation of that third list was a fraught affair; the general sensibilities and tastes of the panel were too much in accord for trouble, and there were no particularly confrontational or maniacally idiosyncratic temperaments to accommodate. There were, of course, disagreements, and there were also a couple of crises in the form of much-admired writers who turned out, for one reason or another, to be ineligible. But the key to harmony is more than anything else a question of numbers: life is made far easier when you are choosing 20 "winners" rather than one.

I suspect most of the BOYBN panels have had a roughly similar experience: the first five, 10, even dozen places fill themselves pretty quickly with writers whose talents would make their omission merely bizarre, sometimes because of the sureness and quality of their early writing, sometimes because they have, by a comparatively young age, built up an impressive body of work – and sometimes both. But then come the writers who make the endeavour come alive; those in whom one can discern a flash of brilliance and originality that compel you to take a punt. The development and durability of a literary career is an unknowable thing; hence we are keener than mustard to try to divine it.
In 2003 much was made of the fact that we had included two writers whose first novels had yet to be published; Monica Ali and Adam Thirlwell. In both cases, typescripts had arrived late on in the proceedings, unaccompanied by anything much in the way of extraneous information. I recall losing myself in Brick Lane, becoming utterly absorbed in the tragicomedy of Nazneen and Chanu, feeling that I had rarely read a first novel so assured and fresh. Thirlwell's Politics was a different affair: it was explicit, sure, sexually and sexily, but it also seemed to have its roots in Europe, not Britain.
There was much discussion about both – but the fact that neither novel had been published was not a factor. When the list came out, this unavailability was held, by some, to be a weakness, almost a deception, even though it was very short-lived; Brick Lane and Politics were not in the early stages of gestation, and both were published soon afterwards. So the injury was not to the reader; was it, therefore, to the critics and journalists, who were somehow shut out, the evidence necessary to grant or withhold approval denied them?
Whether or not BOYBN 4 includes any as-yet-unpublished writers, the critical landscape has changed vastly in the past three decades. For a start, what Buford seized upon as a firecracker in 1983 is now a more commonplace feature of book promotion. Lists are ubiquitous, and perhaps none more so than those that promise newness or, even better, youth: the New Yorker's 20 American writers under 40, the annual announcement of Waterstones's 11 best debut writers, the less codified lists produced by all newspapers and magazines at frequent intervals. Their popularity might derive from a residual desire to believe in an authoritative critical consensus (although this seems less plausible by the day) or from a more pragmatic need to discover new work or from the understandable, if somewhat self-defeating, impulse to have something to rail against. But their co-dependent relationship with the publishing and bookselling industries mean that they are unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Meanwhile, the way we read is changing – with the probable consequence that the way writers write will change too. Overstating this is unwise; the fact that Jennifer Egan releases a story as a series of tweets, for example, doesn't mean that Karl Ove Knausgaard doesn't write a series of six autobiographical novels that run to thousands of pages. Just because a self-published author hits the jackpot doesn't mean that another writer won't collaborate with an editor to work painstakingly through numerous versions of a book. But it does mean that things are freeing up: that the idea of what constitutes a "literary" novel is changing, that genre writing is becoming less marginalised (look, for example, at the success enjoyed by the graphic form in this year's Costa Book Awards), that the career trajectory of a novelist is even less predictable than it ever was, if such a thing is possible.
Against that backdrop, one should embrace the Best of Young British Novelists and other entertainments of its ilk with a sense of adventure and discovery, rather than as the latest reiteration of a tired orthodoxy. Let's face it: a list is a silly thing. It is designed, as Adam Thirlwell wrote in a piece for Granta ahead of its Spanish-language special, to self-destruct; as an entity in itself, it can't last much longer than the present moment. "And so," he added, "although every novelist wants to be included on a list – sure you do, sure you do – the unread novelist also knows that the deeper history of the novel takes place in the future: where you float free of lists entirely, and enter the stratosphere."
Granta's fourth Best of Young British Novelists list will be announced on 15 April, followed on 16 April by publication of Granta 123 (£12.99), featuring work from all 20 writers.

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