April 17, 2013

The “Best of Young British Novelists” are coming


Every ten years, Granta magazine names the chosen few who they consider to be the best of young British novelists. A highly publicized event, the successful writers often go on to get all of the money and all of the prizes.

Unlike the Pulitzer, which chooses only one work of fiction to praise each year, anointing twenty under-forty British writers as the best of their decade is a rather more personal and contentious myth-making exercise. It cannot help but get caught up with the personalities and backgrounds of the writers, not simply their work.

The list also has a great deal of cachet because of its apparent ability to predict sure-things — the 1983 list included Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Maggie Gee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Adam Mars-Jones, Ian McEwan, Shiva Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain and AN Wilson. But as the decades go by, the judges’ task has only become harder.

This year’s point of contention seems to be that many of the books are set outside the UK. Theo Tait in The Guardian worries that the authors overlook Britain in their subject matter.

“It’s well known that British literary fiction seeks out the exotic, avoiding middle England in favour of immigrant communities, the more exciting past and urban Scotland. But the collection, I think, takes the tendency too far: less than half the pieces are set in Britain, and two of those are in apocalyptic variations thereof. Otherwise, it’s building sites in Dubai, army camps in Somalia, a sheep station in the Australian outback, the streets of Ghana. No disrespect to any of these pieces, by Tahmima Anam, Nadifa Mohamed, Evie Wyld and Taiye Selasi respectively, which are well written and interesting…But only five of the stories in this anthology are set in modern-day Britain. This would be more understandable if we were experiencing a particularly boring period in our history; but it’s generally agreed that we live in interesting times.”

In 2013, the list is the most multicultural thus far, with many writers having been born outside the UK. A majority of the authors were either born outside Britain or are second generation immigrants, from Pakistan, Nigeria, Hungary, China, Australia and Jamaica. As Granta’s editor John Freeman said, “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.”

This generational shift is also reflected in the stories, which according to David Sexton in the London Evening Standard, are “no longer post-colonialism in its by now familiar forms but quite specifically the harsh experience of the migrant worker.” With London swiftly becoming, for the most part, one giant tennis court and stainless steel cocktail hour for ultra-rich Russian émigrés, we can perhaps look forward to hearing about that experience from the next Best of the British in 2023.

Ned Beauman, 28
Novels: three including The Teleportation Accident
Sunjeev Sahota, 31
Novel: Ours Are the Streets
Naomi Alderman, 39
Novels: Disobedience, The Lessons and The Liars’ Gospel
Benjamin Markovits, 39
Novels: four including Childish Loves
Adam Thirlwell, 34
Novels: three including Politics
Joanna Kavenna, 39
Novels: three including The Birth of Love
Xiaolu Guo, 39
Novels: seven, including 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth
David Szalay, 38
Novels: three including Spring
Sarah Hall, 38
Novels: four including Haweswater
Steven Hall, 37
Novel: The Raw Shark Texts
Adam Foulds, 38
Novels: three including The Quickening Maze
Tahmima Anam, 37
Novels: The Bengal Trilogy, A Golden Age, The Shipbreaker Trilogy
Nadifa Mohamed, 31
Novels: Black Mamba Boy, The Orchard of Lost Souls
Jenni Fagan, 35
Novels: The Panopticon, The Dead Queen of Bohemia
Kamila Shamsie, 39
Novels: five including Burnt Shadows
Ross Raisin, 34
Novels: God’s Own Country, Waterline
Evie Wyld, 32
Novels: After the Fire, A Still Small Voice
Helen Oyeyemi, 28
Novels: four including The Icarus Girl
Taiye Selasi, 33
Novel: Ghana Must Go
Zadie Smith, 37
Novels: White Teeth, On Beauty, NW

Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.