Meet Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists

Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4, edited by John Freeman, Granta, RRP£12.99/$16.99, 400 pages

This week, after a year of whittling down more than 150 candidates, the literary quarterly Granta announced its latest list of Britain’s 20 best novelists under 40. The accompanying issue offers readers a version of literary speed dating, exhilarating and awkward by turns; everyone tries to present their best face but it is not always possible to get a sense of the whole before the bell rings and we are ushered to the next table.

One difficulty is that most of the writers submitted extracts from novels in progress rather than self-contained works. Nor is what we read here necessarily what swayed Granta’s judges, who considered each author’s oeuvre as a whole.

Afterwards, questions nag. Why 20? Why 40? Why limit the search to novelists? There are valid objections on all these counts, and editor John Freeman anticipates some of them in an introduction that takes care to lament absences as well as celebrate those who made the cut. Among the honourable mentions are Jon McGregor, Tom McCarthy and Mohsin Hamid; we could add Robert Macfarlane, well short of the dread milestone at 36 and surely among his generation’s 20 leading literary prose writers, though working in another narrative form.

But whatever our quibbles with the criteria, the once-in-a-decade choice has been made and a literary generation defined. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie were among those picked in 1983; Will Self, Alan Hollinghurst and AL Kennedy 10 years later; Zadie Smith and David Mitchell in 2003. It seems reasonable to surmise that, give or take a few names, Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4 does offer an accurate guide to the writers who will be filling up our shelves in the decade to come.

Women outnumber men by 12 to eight – and this in spite of an age limit that has often been cited as a disadvantage. The list is also strikingly international. Six on it were born overseas, though perhaps more significant is the evidence in this collection that inspiration is being drawn from outside as never before.

Some of the work on display dazzles. David Szalay’s taut, wry “Europa”, about a small-time Hungarian gangster on a mysterious trip to London with his girlfriend and a bodyguard, left me impatient for the larger work of which it is part. Sarah Hall writes luminously in “The Reservation”, another novel excerpt, which follows an Idaho-based conservationist on a trip back to Cumbria to visit her dying mother.

Smith, one of two returnees from the class of ’03, offers us a Greenwich Village period piece about a boy crushed by the vanity of his counter-cultural mother, a self-absorbed puppeteer. The writing is characteristically deft but the satire feels strained, its target just a little too easy.

Freeman instructs us at the outset not to think of this group in generational terms but rather to treat each writer as unique. Yet gradually a theme emerges: most of the contributions are concerned with some kind of displacement. Moving from Ned Beauman’s Burmese drug factories to Evie Wyld’s Australian sheering station, Sunjeev Sahota’s visaless immigrants in Sheffield and Tahmima Anam’s Dubai construction workers, the impression forms that what interests this generation most is how we respond to being elsewhere.

That this sensibility should loom so large might be expected of Granta, which has always been an outward-looking outfit; indeed, its most recent high-profile exercise of this kind, the Young American Writers issue of 2007, prompted similar observations that suburban social realism was giving way to something more expansive. But there is surely more to it than that. “England is unreal, an old imagining, with only a few pieces of evidence to validate it,” reflects Sarah Hall’s protagonist on her return – and she somehow captures the mood.

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