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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Entertainment
Sarah Hall

Why so much hype? Being on Granta’s best young novelists list has its drawbacks

Sarah Hall, who was ushered into photographer Nadav Kander’s studio ‘with Foreign Office-grade stealth’.
Sarah Hall, who was ushered into photographer Nadav Kander’s studio ‘with Foreign Office-grade stealth’. Photograph: Nadav Kander

In 2013, the fourth Granta Best of Young British Novelists (BYBN) list was published, and I was among the 20 writers selected. I was 39 and had published four novels and received several award. To what extent I was chosen or was a “ready-made” for the judges, I don’t know. When the 2003 list came out, my debut, Haweswater, had been published and The Electric Michelangelo was in manuscript form. Living in North Carolina, agentless and clueless about the industry or submission process, I doubt I was under consideration.

In compiling these once-in-a-decade lists, Granta’s judges and influencers claim to foresee “big names” in the future British literary scene. A writer must be under 40, resident or citizen and have published a literary novel or be about to. I wasn’t registering the 2013 list. Some writers live in a dim cave, some anticipate calendars, some network. When the news came, I was pleased. It’s nice to be spotlit, validating to have work endorsed by critical experts, especially other novelists. Then things became uncomfortable.

Each BYBN comes with debate about the candidates’ worth, if not the current landscape of novel-writing and – certainly in 2013 – theatrics. Our identities were kept as secret as possible for a grand announcement. But in the literary world, inevitably news leaks. Omissions are the main source of scandal and – let’s not soft-soap it – genuine anguish for writers, both starting their careers and established, who are disregarded for failing a set of metrics or tastes.

When I heard Jon McGregor – a dynamic, proven artist – hadn’t made the cut, it seemed incomprehensible. I told my agent I didn’t want to be included on a list that was clearly absurd. Calmly, quite sensibly, I was talked off my perch. I’d judged enough prizes to know brilliance often goes unrewarded amid democratic process, trading and agendas. McGregor was this debate’s common flashpoint; there was no way he’d underperformed or lacked promise.

The 2013 list proved very diverse, multiracial, internationally focused and weighted towards women – in some ways spearheading campaigns within the industry and society. This was, and should be, applauded. But a deeper dive into how truly expansive our cultural curating is must follow, encompassing economics, privilege, education, opportunity and power bases in the UK.

There was big funding attached to the 2013 list, with author tours abroad, publicity including photographs by the extraordinary Nadav Kander – writers were ushered into his studio with Foreign Office-grade stealth so covers weren’t blown. We were asked to bring personality props with us. I didn’t. I wondered: if it was all about integrity of art, why so much hype and gimmickry?

This nation loves exclusivity, monarchs, celebs. An A-list is a way for its maker, selectors and money sources to seem culturally relevant. Granta is an outstanding outfit, with a strong publishing ethic. A Times or Big Issue list would no doubt create a different proposition. But what do lists really give us? Opinion. Competition. They’re very different from awards for single works of art.

Many arenas exist where writers feel they’re fighting it out – from getting published to advances to prizes – and that gratitude is necessary. Twenty writers in a cordoned-off room may seem crowded. It isn’t. Within all genres, and from all corners of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, 20 is a tiny, elitist gathering. Two of the writers in 2013 had already been on the 2003 list, meaning others found no place. The point to this repetition was never clear. Forty may seem like a good age bracket – surely enough creative prowess has been demonstrated, career trajectories set? But is this true for women with families? Xiaolu Guo brought her baby to the Kander shoot – a very real subversion of the personal prop. The numbers are arbitrary.

And the cultural impact and significance of the BYBN list remains unquantifiable. If it is prospective, it’s right sometimes, but very limited, missing those ineligible by timing glitches alone, and the matchless colossus of Hilary Mantel.

I don’t think inclusion has made a difference to my career, well under way as it was, so perhaps I’m afforded this churlish dissonance. Having it on a CV likely helps newer writers. Since 2013, I’ve published three collections of short stories, confounding the pigeon-holers. Listed and unlisted writers have published superb, innovative, landmark books. The future of British fiction is made not by collation, taste or trend, but by unpredictable authors of all ages working every day. If gratitude is owed, it’s to them.

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