Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4
256 pages, £12.99
In 1993, Granta magazine published the second iteration of their Best of Young British Novelists series. Alongside the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro and Alan Hollinghurst, the editors picked out the young tyro Will Self. Although he was yet to release a full-length novel, Self had already been marked out as the natural successor to Martin Amis. His short fiction collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity and twin novellas Cock and Bull, published in the preceding years, were visceral statements, bricks through the window of the literary establishment. At this point, Self felt he could do no wrong. Quickly though, the critics became hostile. My Idea of Fun, published shortly after the Granta list was announced, received savage reviews. The following year, Self issued a further collection of short fiction, Grey Area, which included A Short History of The English Novel. In this story, Self satirises a publisher who spurns the ‘literary tradition in this country’, before finding himself besieged on all sides by frustrated young writers with a story to sell. Turning on the Granta editors, the narrative questions the whole notion of ‘British writing’ as a concept, before one character directly asks ‘surely we won’t be able to judge the literature of this decade for another thirty or forty years?’
This question may bring to mind Zhou Enlai’s response when asked in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution (‘too soon to say’), but it does highlight the inexact science of defining a decade of literature from within. Notable authors such as Irvine Welsh, Maggie O’Farrell and Jon McGregor (eligible for both 2003 and 2013 lists) have been omitted, whilst the likes of Susan Elderkin and Ben Rice failed to soar as expected. So what did this decade’s judges look for when making their selection? Editor John Freeman says in his introduction that ‘our happiness…increased greatly when we stopped looking for the next Will Self’. He also gives hints into the thought processes of his fellow judges. Ellah Allfrey, sounding rather like an undergrad who hasn’t prepared for a seminar, was looking for ‘an engagement with language’. Romesh Gunesekera wanted to find a writer with a sense of an overall project, Stuart Kelly prized authors who ‘expand what is possible for an author to do’, and AL Kennedy deplored ‘wine-bar show-offs’. How successful were they in meeting these aims? Let us delve into the pages of Granta 123 to find out.
There was a significant change in the way this decade’s edition was compiled. Rather than make a list and then commission pieces from the selected authors, this time each applicant was asked to send a piece for inclusion ahead of the decision being made. The aim of this was to cut down on ‘lead times’; an unintended consequence was that no author wanted to spend months writing a piece for submission if there was a chance they wouldn’t make the final cut, so 18 of the 20 stories here are excerpts from forthcoming novels. Fans of the well-rounded short story may be disappointed to find themselves reading what is basically a series of trailers for forthcoming attractions. Naomi Alderman’s ‘Soon and In Our Days’, one of the only stories written specially for the publication, stands out as a clearly defined and self-contained narrative. By contrast, Jenni Fagan’s stream of consciousness ‘Zephyrs’ is a good piece but suffers through a lack of context, and Xiaolu Guo’s ‘Interim Zone’ frustrates – there is a sense of great promise in her account of life at the Lausanne immigration camp, but this promise will be fulfilled in the full novel, not here.
In terms of an engagement with language, a reader should be able to pick up a novel by any author on a Granta list and expect to see excellent prose. A Best Young British Writer should not be including phrases like ‘I went the other day to the loft of a friend’s house’ (Joanna Kavenna) or ‘planes were drifting as usual like goldfish’ (Adam Thirlwell). There are some excellent stylists here though, notably Kamila Shamsie and Adam Foulds, whose stories, based in world wars one and two respectively, stand out from the crowd.
It is when we look for the authors who are trying to expand the horizons of the novel that the project starts to fall down. Of the twenty authors, only Thirlwell and Steven Hall could really be said to be pushing the limits. Here, Thirlwell adopts a pulp-y, postmodernist style faintly reminiscent of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminati! trilogy, whilst Hall is the only author to help the reader to see the familiar in a new light, with his discussion of the laws of entropy in relation to the tidiness of kitchens. As in The Raw Shark Texts, he explores the way in which humans reach beyond their means when engaging with technologies which are too new to be fully understood. Other than these two, there is a real absence of authors engaging with theory or style in a meaningful sense. Naomi Alderman and, to an extent Xiaolu Guo, dabble with magical realism, and Jenni Fagan’s writing has a manic momentum of its own, but too many of the authors adopt the pared-down stylings of McSweeney’s and the UEA. There is very little humour or imagination on display – by halfway, I was desperate for the sardonic wit of Sam Byers or the intoxicating rush of Sam Mills’ work. A wine-bar show-off or two would have livened things up no end, compared to the ennui-laden prose of Benjamin Markowits and David Szalay.
In the absence of style, what can the themes of Granta 123 tell us about modern British literature? Much has been made of the international flavour of the selection, and there is a recurring motif of displacement. The likes of Ned Beauman, Sunjeev Sahota, David Szalay and Tahmina Anam describe strangers arriving in new countries, interacting with the social structures of their adopted homes with varying degrees of success. Taiye Selasi and Kamila Shamsie explore the end of empire, whilst racial segregation in America is tackled by Zadie Smith and Helen Oyeyemi. Sadly for Granta, 2013 has seen the publication of another, better, book of short stories about the ambiguities of globalisation and the sense of being a stranger in a new land. It was called LoveSexTravelMusik and it is by Rodge Glass, who was eligible for this list but inexplicably overlooked.
How much the selection was driven by commercial concerns is open to question. At a recent event to promote the book’s launch, Steven Hall commented that, in his view, writers were now more entrepreneurial than they had been in the past. In the current financial (and cultural) climate, the market for highbrow fiction has diminished, and writers are forced to be more proactive in promoting themselves as a brand. Publishers also clearly face this issue. The original Granta list in 1983 was born of a Book Marketing Council promotion, supported by the likes of WH Smith and the Society of Authors. As Bill Buford, then editor, acknowledged in the 1993 edition, the BMC list ‘inspired a special issue of Granta‘. The benefit was mutual. Granta lent intellectual prestige to a commercial marketing scheme; in return, it was able to publish exclusive short stories by a host of already hotly-tipped young authors, creating a buzz around an independent publishing house. In recent years, Granta has attempted to reposition itself as an international brand, in part as an attempt to address a declining UK market, and this wider outlook is reflected in the broad range of backgrounds represented in this decade’s selection – including Taiye Selasi, who was also included in The Granta Book of the American Short Story last year. In A Short History of the English Novel, Self argued that of all the characteristics an author might possess, nationality is the least important to defining their work; this double inclusion rather supports his point.
So, is there any point in judging the writing of this decade whilst we are still in it? I’d argue that there is still a role for Granta, and the Best of Young British Authors. If you look back through the years, the judges have an impressive strike-rate, which does rather call into question this year’s choice of Gaby Wood as a judge, after she was partly responsible for a Booker shortlist so disastrous that it necessitated the creation of a whole new prize. There are some fine writers among the selections here, among them Steven Hall, Jenni Fagan, Xiaolu Guo, Ned Beauman, Naomi Alderman and Adam Foulds, who will doubtless enjoy memorable careers. These writers aside, the collection lacks spark, humour and originality. Writers with these qualities are out there – look at Byers, Mills, Glass, Jenn Ashworth, Nathan Filer – so any complaints about the state of modern literature are unfounded. Don’t blame the writers, blame the judges. Overall? Granta 123 lacks style, and goes down as an opportunity missed.
You can read Thom’s reviews and author interviews at the workshy fop blog. His own alternative Best of Young British Writers selection, complied in March with the help of bloggers, independent publishers and authors, led to him being labelled ‘persona non-Granta’ by 3am Magazine. He tweets at @TheWorkshyFop.