Stuart Kelly: Granta’s Best Young British Novelists

Jenni Fagan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Jenni Fagan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Granta judge Stuart Kelly on the challenge of picking the literary stars of the future

When John Freeman, the editor of Granta Magazine, asked me to be a judge for the 2013 Best of Young British Novelists, my excitement narrowly outweighed my anxiety. Given the three previous incarnations of the list, it was a daunting responsibility. The 1983, 1993 and 2003 lists were not just a snap shot of the literary world at the time, but a prescient acknowledgement of figures who would go on to define the cultural landscape; from Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis in the first iteration, to Will Self, A L Kennedy, Alan Hollinghurst, Iain Banks and Candia McWilliam in the second and Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Nicola Barker, Andrew O’Hagan and Hari Kunzru in the third. I think it is fair to say that as we deliberated on our selection – alongside John Freeman and myself, the list was compiled by former double winner A L Kennedy, the Daily Telegraph’s literary editor Gaby Wood (who is also the author of a very fine work of non-fiction, Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life), the Booker shortlisted novelist Romesh Gunesekera, Granta’s owner Sigrid Rausing and the deputy editor of the magazine Ellah Allfrey – 60 names hovered like a ghostly nimbus as we whittled down the entries to the final 20.

Before the entries actually arrived, I scanned my shelves to consider which novelists I considered to be the most engaging and innovative of my generation. Looking over my list, I rather recklessly and naively thought that it wouldn’t be too difficult to assemble our winners. Scribbled in my notebook were names like China Miéville, Nick Harkaway, Scarlett Thomas, Rana Dasgupta, Sophie Hannah, Tom McCarthy, Elaine di Rollo, Robert Shearman, Richard Beard, Ewan Morrison and Kevin McNeil. Looking back at that moment, it’s as if I can hear the studio audience laughing before the punchline is actually delivered. These certainly were the writers I rated most highly of my generation: and I’d just turned forty. As, unfortunately, had they. One of the rules of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists is that the authors are under forty – it had meant that Andrew Crumey, the former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, nobly withdrew from the 2003 list. My generation was no longer “Young”. Then there was the “British”. So writers like Keith Ridgway, Claire Kilroy, Steve Toltz, Eleanor Catton and Hannu Rajaniemi weren’t eligible either. And, “novelist” was a bit problematic as well: it ruled out Robert Macfarlane, Caitlin Moran, Alexander Masters, Rory Stewart, Edward Hollis and Lila Azam Zanganeh.

With all these considerations, judging the Granta Best of Young British Novelists entailed reading a vast amount of work; some familiar, some entirely new; some from writers about to be published, some from writers already established. It meant making decisions based on a number of different factors, some of them almost contradictory: promise versus accomplishment, how an oeuvre developed or changed, the virtues of technical skill against the abundance that rides roughshod over rules (great wits, as Alexander Pope said, may gloriously offend). As I read through the ever-increasing towers of novels (since I am judging the Man Booker as well this year, my study looks like a bomb has landed on a city of ziggurats), I kept a comment by Michael Cunningham from his tenure as a judge of the Pulitzer Prize above my desk, which encapsulated my hopes: he wrote “we would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature. We preferred visionary explorers to modest gardeners, and declared ourselves willing to forgive certain shortcomings or overreachings in a writer who was clearly attempting to accomplish more than can technically be done using only ink and paper”. It is my firm belief that the novel, in its highest form, is something that changes the nature of the novel, not for the sake of novelty, but because, as Louis McNeice said: “World is suddener than we fancy it. / World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural”.

So who did we eventually chose? As announced earlier in the week, the Granta Best of Young British Novelists for 2013 comprises Naomi Alderman; Tahmima Anam; Ned Beauman; Jenni Fagan; Adam Foulds; Xiaolu Guo; Sarah Hall; Steven Hall; Joanna Kavenna; Ben Markovits; Nadifa Mohammed; Helen Oyeyemi; Ross Raisin, Sunjeev Sahota; Taiye Selasi; Kamila Shamsie; Zadie Smith, David Szalay; Adam Thirlwell; and Evie Wyld.

There are a number of things I notice about our list in retrospect. Firstly, in terms of its diversity and gender balance, I should stress that there was only one quality we were looking for: quality. That the list is as it is reflects the more open state of publishing, not any capitulation to notions of the politically correct. Secondly, we have moved into the era of “British Hyphen”. I am proud that the list includes British-Chinese, British-Somali, British-Bangladeshi, British-Ghanian, British-Pakistani, British-Nigerian, British-Australian, British-American, and more. Literature is, and should be, a phenomenon that crosses rather than reinforces borders.

It is also a list which shows how the “English” novel is no longer just the “London” novel. Reading the entries as a whole, rather than just focusing on the 20 we finally selected, I was struck by how many novelists were exploring the particularities, linguistic differences and local specificities of the patchwork that makes up England. It may be that the way in which Scottish writers in the 1980s and 1990s were championing the complex nature of the indigenous has been taken up south of the Border.

The list is, as I hoped it would be, an antidote to the “middle class, middle age, middle brow” pseudo-realist novel that can sometimes seem predominant. The discussions we had were enlightening – there is nothing more intellectually bracing than having one’s mind changed.

All of the judges had favourites that we failed to get into the final 20 – the fact that it is 20 is every bit as arbitrary as the fact it is for “Young”, “British”, “Novelists”.

But there is something both reassuring and delightful in knowing that there are more than 20 writers shaping the future of the novel out there. Readers will not have exhausted the capacities of the contemporary novel once they, like the judges, have had the privilege of encountering these 20 distinctive, intelligent, affecting and daring novelists.