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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anthony Cummins

Granta 163: Best of Young British Novelists 5 review – more solipsism than state of the nation

The next chapter: (clockwise from top left) Yara Rodrigues Fowler; Derek Owusu; Thomas Morris; Saba Sams.
The next chapter: (clockwise from top left) Yara Rodrigues Fowler; Derek Owusu; Thomas Morris; Saba Sams. Composite: Alice Zoo; Suki Dhanda

Every decade since 1983, an editor of the literary quarterly Granta has tasked a panel of writers and critics with naming the 20 best British novelists aged under 40. The first list, which included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Pat Barker, William Boyd and Graham Swift, defined the nation’s literary fiction not just for a generation but a lifetime, at least for anyone young enough to be eligible for this year’s selection. Subsequent lists had star quality, too. In 1993, Hanif Kureishi and Alan Hollinghurst. In 2003 came Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, listed when Brick Lane was still a manuscript. The 2013 list spotlit Ross Raisin, Evie Wyld and David Szalay, who each went on to publish exceptional novels, while Naomi Alderman won the Women’s prize for The Power, now a hit TV series. If nobody talks them up as a golden generation, it probably says less about their calibre as writers and more about the diminishing clout of a marketing wheeze dreamed up when four-channel TV was still a novelty.

The class of 2023 are a rangy bunch with some fantastic writing already under their belts. Eley Williams brings emotional punch to tickled wordplay. The slow-burn thrill of Eleanor Catton’s many-tentacled plotting. The tragicomic charm of Welsh short story writer Thomas Morris. Derek Owusu’s wrenching excavations of filial strife, close-to-the-bone disclosures in multilingual shards. Yet for some reason Granta’s heart doesn’t seem entirely in it. “I never have much faith in lists in any case,” warns the magazine’s owner and current editor, Sigrid Rausing, explaining that another set of judges might have chosen another 20 writers. Well, sure! All the more reason to put a bit of welly behind the ones you did pick. (Ian Jack, doing this job in 2003, was also ambivalent, true, with good cause: when three of the authors chosen under his watch turned out at the last moment to be ineligible, three others sidelined as “quite good” became “best” – a demonstration, he wrote, of the “arbitrariness of literary lists”, given as “comfort to those who fail to get on them, and a caution to those who do”.)

Eliza Clark.
‘Her legions of fans on TikTok know what’s what’: Eliza Clark. Photograph: Alice Zoo

Might Rausing shout louder had she and her fellow judges done all the hard yards themselves? Together with the critic Brian Dillon and the novelists Rachel Cusk, Helen Oyeyemi and Tash Aw – two of whom live in Paris, the other in Prague – she chose the final 20 from a shortlist pre-selected, she says, by six Granta staff who sifted “several hundred” submissions. (They didn’t always do it that way… did they? Next you’ll tell me Jools Holland’s Hootenanny isn’t live.) The “several hundred” figure is an eye-opener in itself, given that past chairs spoke of choosing from about 150 authors. Maybe the spike was down to the relaxed entry rules, already bent in 2013 for Kamila Shamsie, who was then awaiting a British passport – no longer needed by this year’s writers, required now only to “think of this country as home”. The inclusion of Booker-winning New Zealander Eleanor Catton, resident here since 2019, may raise eyebrows – her publisher is one S Rausing – but who cares: not every writer here is even a novelist, never mind British.

Still, the result of this inclusivity (authors from Canada, Ireland, Australia and the US, at least if you count Isabella Hammad, formed by its creative writing system) is peculiar. Amid the anticipatory razzmatazz of recent weeks, publisher John Mitchinson noted how the list he helped choose back in 1993 had only “four writers of colour… it’s such a different environment that we’re working in now”; yet none of Michael Donkor, Guy Gunaratne, Jo Hamya, Ashley Hickson-Lovence, Gurnaik Johal, Moses McKenzie, Caleb Azumah Nelson, Vanessa Onwuemezi, Shola von Reinhold or Candice Carty-Williams (who might have brought rare comedy to the list) make the 2023 cut.

K Patrick.
‘Another great choice’: K Patrick. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

So what were the judges looking for? Cusk sought writers who transcend their material. Oyeyemi wanted books that make you want “to know what happens next”. Dillon (replacing Andrew O’Hagan, called to another commitment) distinguished “hard” novels from “watery” ones. Aw “questioned how far we should privilege a text’s internal logic”. Whatever the rationale, I’m thrilled it led them to Newcastle upon Tyne writer Eliza Clark, whose firecracker debut Boy Parts (2020), unreliably narrated by a coked-up photographer preying on her male models, is a Tyneside American Psycho, savvy on sex and class, and an art world send-up that portrays a young woman’s spiralling breakdown against a backdrop of Brexit-era decline. Funny, dark, gripping, read it now if you haven’t – its legions of fans on TikTok know what’s what.

K Patrick is another great choice. Mrs S, out in June, takes place in a boarding school whose latest staff member falls for the headmaster’s wife – a lust story that makes a movingly low-key intervention in vexed arguments about gender. Also excellent value are Saba Sams, like Thomas Morris an accomplished short story writer of heart and wit, and Brazilian-British novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler, sunnier than Eliza Clark but likewise plugged into the present. Her gentle tale of female friendship is a highlight of the showcase Granta issue, along with a neat offering from Tom Crewe, author of historical novel The New Life, who suggests he’s found his groove with a story imagining the model for Chaim Soutine’s 1927 painting The Room-Service Waiter.

Was it weird for Rachel Cusk to run the rule over writers working under her spell? Olivia Sudjic, listed, wrote in her essay Exposure of how Cusk’s Outline trilogy was a talisman, while Sara Baume, also on the list, has credited her with the breakthrough that led to her first novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither. What makes Outline so seductive to younger writers, I suspect, is the virtue it makes of evasion, but that alienated aesthetic, visible in the novels of Sophie Mackintosh and Sarah Bernstein (both listed), risks becoming a handy gauze to throw over a rickety design, as in Chrysalis, a debut novel by Anna Metcalfe (also on the list), about an unnamed woman watched by three other characters.

Rausing refreshingly lets us know how the judges pitted authors of similar-seeming books against one another. Mackintosh was better at “speculative fiction” than Julia Armfield, Sarvat Hasin, Missouri Williams and Alison Rumfitt; Graeme Armstrong was last man standing among a gang of “vernacular novelists” that included Moses McKenzie, Guy Gunaratne and Gabriel Krauze. Apparently “authenticity of voice” swung it, but while The Young Team, Armstrong’s debut, has many admirers, I’ve never been persuaded, and his piece in Granta 163 doesn’t change that. “The lure ae gangs n territorial violence is unstoppable fur many young men in Scotland’s former industrial heartland, North Lanarkshire. The hallmarks ae modern poverty ir aw aroon yi.” Doesn’t the middle part of the quote more or less scupper what he’s trying to do?

You could quibble endlessly with any list – why isn’t Rebecca Watson (Little Scratch) here? – but let’s instead ask, with Rausing, what this one tells us “about the next generation or the state of the nation”. She hesitates to speculate but ventures that the class of 2023 are the children of “terror and the war on terror”, of credit crunch and austerity, too young to have known “the brief period of hope” after the cold war – a funny way of saying they’re not always very funny.

One thing it shows is that the centre of British publishing has shifted since Granta last did this list. Several names here owe their start to small presses that in 2013 weren’t around or had only just got going: firms such as Influx (who launched Eliza Clark and Eley Williams), Peninsula (Jennifer Atkins and Olivia Sudjic) and Fitzcarraldo (Camilla Grudova). Jonathan Cape, synonymous with the Granta generation of McEwan, Amis, Barnes and Rushdie, now has only one writer (Hammad). And has Granta itself lost its 80s mojo? The issue before this one was titled – wait for it – Definitive Narratives of Escape; long gone are the days of Murder (issue 25), More Dirt (19) or With Your Tongue Down My Throat (22). For a self-styled “magazine of new writing”, it rarely gives first-timers a look-in; many of 2023’s best young British notably made their bow in The White Review, a younger, fresher quarterly founded in 2011.

But I think Rausing is asking bigger questions. So if, as she says, this is a cohort buffeted by crisis, why aren’t more of them going at it head-on with the old tools of wide-angled social realism? An answer of sorts lies in the excerpt from new work by Natasha Brown, listed on the strength of her experimental short novel Assembly, about the racism encountered by a black woman in banking. What she’s writing now looks more conventionally plotty, narrated by a reporter out to expose the links between “an amoral banker, an iconoclastic columnist and a radical anarchist movement”. Every line shows the pitfalls of Brown’s panoramic enterprise. When she writes that “since the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe in 2020, many people have suffered badly, losing their lives and loved ones”, I can’t help think: who needs to read that? Who wants our best novelists to spend their days imagining a world in which “#NoMoWoke [is] a popular hashtag on social media”? We can just go online; we’re all there anyway.

Where 2013’s writers looked outward – think of worldly novels by Sunjeev Sahota, Tahmima Anam and Kamila Shamsie – the class of 2023 prefer the intimate and the cloistered (Grudova and Patrick write about boarding schools; Lauren Aimee Curtis’s novel Dolores is set in a convent; Mackintosh’s piece involves a therapy session). With startling exceptions, Rausing’s children of terror look away or aslant, or focus narrowly on a corner of the vista. Like her, I hesitate to speculate, but I wonder if this inward turn – so marked since the last Granta list – responds to the hubris of Anglo-American fiction post-9/11, laden with expectations that it would somehow diagnose the era. Maybe the next generation weighed the odds and found the embarrassment of solipsism preferable to the embarrassment of trying to capture a world their readers already know only too well.

  • Granta 163: Best of Young British Novelists 5 will be published on 27 April. To explore a selection of books by authors on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list visit Delivery charges may apply

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