Best of Young British Novelists 4 John Freeman (ed)

Granta, pp.256, £12.99, ISBN: 9781905881673

The literary magazine Granta had the bright idea, in 1983, of promoting 20 British novelists under 40 by announcing that they were the ‘best’ around. The first list was a resounding success, taking Granta well out of its habitual mode by featuring some very un-Granta names, like Adam Mars-Jones and A.N.Wilson. Of course, there were some novelists there that anyone could have spotted at the time, such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, but the judges also impressively noticed Kazuo Ishiguro after a single book and Rose Tremain long before she substantially justified it. Ten years later, the exercise was repeated, with another brilliant group including A.L.Kennedy, Louis de Bernières and Alan Hollinghurst, and ten years after that too. It’s time to do it again.

The list has gained a substantial reputation for an authority beyond literary prizes, though many large talents have been excluded in the past, either through their age (Ali Smith) or working in a genre (Douglas Adams) or just short-sightedness about excellence in an unusual form. But Granta has done well to identify future stars, even if it has also pinned too much on a few novelists who have never come to anything.

In recent years, the success and fame of the Best of Young British list has encouraged Granta to branch out. A Best of Young American list in 1997 was a success; the repeating of the exercise in 2007 less so, with only six names who have made any mark outside the US. Its American editor has recently tried to go beyond the English language with a Spanish list and a Brazilian list. I am sorry to report that the magazine approached me to ask if I would write an introduction recommending a story in the Spanish selection. I agreed in principle, then had to decline when I saw how terrible it was. They apologised that this story ‘didn’t work for me’ and offered me one by a different author which was even worse. I don’t know what the Brazilians were like; and I’m surprised that the magazine hasn’t gone down the obvious route of producing a list of Indian writers in English. But the whole thing looked more like an exercise in corporate expansion than an attempt to interest readers in exciting  new writers.

Previous British lists have had the genuine air of discovery, sometimes uncomfortably so, as the magazine had to feature writers with more comic gusto or who were more politically unorthodox than they would normally publish. For the first time, however, this latest list seems to have sprung from a list-making corporate machine. Though it contains a good number of excellent novelists, there are some very poor ones here, too. We’re not talking about taste, but about technical command. Authors who demonstrably can’t write dialogue, handle a point of view, create incident or distinguish characters should not have been included.

Writers were asked to submit stories for publication alongside their already published work, so there is no excuse for the miserable standard of five of these offerings. On investigating the work further, a couple write nothing but bog-standard products of the American creative-writing machine: present-tense narratives introducing western readers to exotic places, with a surface conventional lyricism and a glossary explaining how to pronounce Lagos. On the list, too, there is a money-for-old-rope susceptibility to the experimental author. Faux-naif cuteness about violence, or printing a really inept 19th-century pastiche upside down seems to do it.

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When you look at the seven truly regrettable inclusions it is hard to know what the judges were thinking of. It is still more regrettable when you think of the many really excellent and well-established writers that they have omitted. Jon McGregor is a superb novelist, widely acclaimed. Not here. Samantha Harvey’s novels are simply masterly. They are mad to leave out Joe Dunthorne, Owen Sheers, Gwendoline Riley, Courttia Newland, Nick Laird and Edward Hogan. These are not passing fancies; they are authors who have established their excellence and are real presences in British writing.

One of the chosen writers thinks a plausible line of dialogue might run:

‘Ever since the secessionists moved their headquarters from London to Ethopia they have been bolder and bolder and it is places like these that allow them to think they stand a chance in hell of defeating us.’

Clearly, the magazine wanted to express a notion of British prose as voiced by international writers, to the point where they included an author who doesn’t have a British passport. Kamila Shamsie is excellent, but she should not have been eligible.

There are a dozen competent-to-superb writers here, however, of whom seven are well up to the best previous standards. Zadie Smith needs no introduction: NW, last year, was an exciting step forward in what was always great writing. Sarah Hall’s work is both meticulously physical and drivingly compelling; the extract here is strange and magnificent, like her instant-classic novel The Electric Michelangelo. I love Ned Beauman’s novels, especially The Teleportation Accident, which is wonderfully inventive and vivid, and he supplies a tantalisingly good extract from a new novel. Evie Wyld’s After the Fire was an arresting debut; her new novel, All the Birds, Singing shows a substantial talent for joyous specificity and narrative pull. Ross Raisin’s two novels delight in language, not in a creative-writing lyrical way, but in a crunch, crackle and spit way.

Helen Oyeyemi has the gift of writing about nothing very much, but taking the delighted reader with her. She began very young, and I love her work more and more. Adam Foulds is perhaps a surprise to find here, as his work is intense, quiet and lyrical, as well as very English. The single name on the list that was a discovery for me is the Canadian novelist David Szalay, whose work has a dry but well-crafted aspect which reminds one of Beryl Bainbridge. Joanna Kavenna takes the English domestic novel into bold, direct new areas. Tahmima Anam’s work is getting better all the time: this story has an entrancing quality of a voice captured, and Naomi Alderman is full of verve and fun. She is always going to write too much, trying things out, enjoying herself, passing on to the next thing, but the world belongs, in the end, to that sort of writer. She should write a simply enormous novel.

A couple of the others have some potentia, though for the moment Jenni Fagan’s work is too close to A.L.Kennedy’s, and Sanjeev Suhota is too hobbled by the necessity of his subject rather than its human interest. The editor is at pains to emphasise the ethnic diversity of the list, with four Jewish writers and four ethnically or nationally Asian, but not sexual minorities. Previous lists were made up of between 5 and 15 per cent gay writers. This time, as far as I know, there aren’t any.

What is somewhat lacking, or not clear, is an overall flavour of a generation — the sort of thing that the previous lists possessed in spades. But the generation definitely has one. The best novelists, like Hall, McGregor, Raisin or Smith are minute observers of domestic circumstances; often, as with Harvey or two excellent recent first novels by David Whitehouse and Will Wiles, catastrophe seems innate in the smallest details of lives. The improbability of a life made up as it goes along takes different but compelling narrative aspects in Evie Wyld and Ned Beauman, and, though this list doesn’t show it, there is a genuine revival of interest in contemporary Britain as a subject. You can’t choose writers on the basis of what they want to write about, but the focus on the local and immediate has an arresting technical flavour, of the microscopic examination.

I love the idea of the Granta list at a time when it’s increasingly difficult for writers to make their way in life; the judges have identified perhaps 12 novelists that readers will want to keep their eye on. I’m sorry they couldn’t do better than that, but all such endeavours have their time. They’ve certainly created the perfect conditions for some less corporate-minded reader to put together a much fuller and more convincing list of the brilliant talent on show in Britain today.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated