After much speculation and anticipation, on April 15 the literary community finally laid its eyes on Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists 4. The list comprises what Granta deems the best twenty British writers under forty, with the weighty subtext that these writers will become the defining authors of their generation.
Unlike other honours, there is no monetary prize and a list is only produced once every decade. Why, then, is the list held in such high regard? Fundamentally, because of the magazine that crafts it: Granta wields significant literary clout, particularly when it comes to publishing future household names. It is impossible to quite believe Granta‘s excellent track record so far, and every discussion of the list brings out the inevitable parade of previous ‘winners’, trotted out in order to cement the list’s value. Rushdie, Winterson, McEwan, Ishiguro, Amis, Kennedy, Kunzru – Granta does seem to have a knack for prophecy. The list is also undeniably historical; it marks a new generation of writers, and brings the ideals, concerns, and preoccupations of their generation into greater clarity.
As commentators have noted, this incarnation of the Best of Young British Novelists seems to be a departure from its predecessors. Not ‘British’ in the strictly traditional sense, their stories are remarkable for the variety of landscapes they inhabit: from Cumbria to Accra, from Dubai to outback Australia. Many of the authors have, as Granta‘s soon to be former editor John Freeman describes it, a ‘complicated sense of home’: their backgrounds are as diverse as the places they call home. Taiye Selasi, for instance was born in London, grew up in Boston, and now is currently living in Rome. Joanna Kavenna, a self-described sufferer of wanderlust, has lived in the US, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic States.
For the first time, too, the women on the list comprise a majority of 12:8 – something both critics and defenders of the list have been eager to point out. Looking at the list retrospectively the judges have made a point of insisting that discovering the best writers was their singular aim; no doubt they are hoping to lower any sceptical eyebrows. Regardless, I am inclined to believe them. The diversity amongst these British novelists is both a legacy of the Empire and, perhaps, a growing appetite in Western readers for ‘unfamilliar’ stories. (There is a rant hiding behind that sentence, but I’ll save it for another day).
There is no question that these writers are all incredibly talented storytellers. That said, one is bound to have favourites. Spurred on by John Freeman’s acknowledgement in his introduction of the judges’ ‘near-consensus on the first seven’ inclusions in the list, JG and I selected our own favourite seven. Well aware of our different reading styles we were worried that we would each conjure up a dramatically different list of seven. Surprisingly, and to the reassurance of our continued friendship, our lists were not too deviant: we were in agreement on five of the writers. It is these five that we will be posting reviews of in the near future.
Criteria: Writers must be under 40 at the time of the issue’s publication, hold, or plan to hold, a British passport, and have already published at least novel, or in the stages of publishing their first novel.
Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists 4:
Biographical details as quoted from Granta 123
The Granta website contains dozens of features on the authors: everything from reviews to interviews to writing playlists. The podcast interviews in particular offer some fascinating insights into the authors’ artistic visions and writing processes.
Granta‘s 2012 announcement of the award, including information on the judges.
The Guardian have, in the run up to the announcement, posted a series of enlightening articles including: past judges’ reflections of their decisions, ‘Then and Now‘; an article, from former Granta editor and 2003 judge Alex Clark, on how the list is created every decade, and an article on how the current novelists will fare in a changing literary market. Also is the Guardian‘s article introducing the Granta 2013 list written by Charlotte Higgins.