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Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4
Edited by John Freeman Granta Publications, 399pp, $27.99
IN a recent piece for The Guardian, former Granta editor Bill Buford was disarmingly upfront about the origins of the magazine’s Best Young British Novelists issues, which debuted in 1983. The idea wasn’t his but that of the head of the now defunct British Book Marketing Council, Desmond Clarke, who came up with the list as a means of promoting British writing.
Nor was it conceived of as Granta’s list: that only happened after Buford approached Clarke, suggesting the magazine might be interested in running an issue showcasing the writers chosen.
That debut list is usually credited with having helped turn the general creative excitement surrounding the novel in the early 1980s into something more coherent: a generational transformation, perhaps.
That’s debatable, but there’s no doubt that 1983 list was prescient. Despite a few misfires (Alan Judd or Clive Sinclair, anybody?), choices such as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Pat Barker and Kazuo Ishiguro have stood the test of time.
Three decades later, Best of Young British Novelists is something of an institution. The latest list, the fourth, is showcased in the new issue of Granta. It was compiled by the magazine’s editor John Freeman, publisher Sigrid Rausing and deputy publisher Ellah Allfrey, along with The Telegraph’s literary editor Gaby Wood, novelists Romesh Gunesekera and AL Kennedy (an alumnus of the 1993 and 2003 lists) and The Scotsman’s literary critic Stuart Kelly.
Freeman, who has since announced he is leaving the magazine amid a restructure, writes in his introduction that the list arrives with ‘‘ the newspapery whiff of zeitgeist prediction and socio-literary importance’’.
All such lists exhibit a tension between achievement and a rather more nebulous assessment of the likelihood of future success. Sometimes, as with Zadie Smith, one of the most intelligent writers of her generation, that’s a no-brainer. Even so, the piece included in this collection seems an oddly backward-looking choice, more suggestive of the thick realism of her debut novel, White Teeth, than the pellucid observation of her most recent one, NW.
Adam Foulds must also have been an easy choice: his incredibly poised Bookershortlisted novel about John Clare and the Tennysons, The Quickening Maze, is distinguished by a deep awareness of the incantatory power of language and a vivid sense of the lived presence of the landscape.
The same can be said for Sarah Hall, a writer whose linguistic certainty and troubled vision was on vivid display in her 2002 debut, Haweswater, and has deepened in follow-ups The Carhullian Army and How to Paint a Dead Man, and Ross Raisin, whose striking debut, God’s Own Country, revealed an eerie capacity to inhabit its narrator’s troubled mind.