LITERARY PRODUCTION IS NOW A TRANSNATIONAL PHENOMENON
No surprise either to see Ned Beauman, who is represented in the collection by an excerpt from his forthcoming third novel about the invention of a new drug (it’s as smart and effortlessly entertaining as his debut, Boxer, Beetle), or Ben Markovits, who is represented by a supremely assured excerpt from his new novel about a scheme to regenerate Detroit, or Helen Oyeyemi, whose curious brand of contemporary fantasy grows more complex with each new book.
Yet it’s an equation that’s harder to quantify in the case of writers such as Steven Hall, bestknown for his much-hyped but ultimately tiresome debut, The Raw Shark Tests. Freeman may be right that the book convinced the judges Hall has the capacity to ‘‘ do something even better’’, but the excerpt from his upcoming novel reproduced here doesn’t bear out that confidence for me.
Adam Thirlwell is another writer whose inclusion seems difficult to justify: despite being chosen for the 2003 list at the age of 24, in the decade since he seems to have struggled to make the transition from prodigy to something more substantial. So too Xiaolu Guo: while I admired her novels A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, they simply don’t bear comparison to the work of a number of others on the list.
And while, unlike the judges, I don’t have the advantage of having read their novels, something similar may be said of Nadifa Mohamed and Joanna Kavenna on the basis of the pieces included, both of which are competent but uninspiring.
Of the remaining writers on the list, several stand out. Pakistani-born Kamila Shamsie’s account of Indian soldiers on the Western Front is a powerful addition to the growing body of revisionist writing about World War I, and Tahmima Anam’s portrayal of the lives of Bengali labourers working on Dubai construction sites vividly illustrates the way globalisation is transforming the lives of many in poorer countries, as does David Szalay’s impressive story about Hungarian gangsters in London.
Australian readers may also recognise Evie Wyld, the London-based, Australian-born author of After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, which garnered considerable praise when it was released in 2009. I have to confess to having been somewhat unmoved by the charms of that novel, a work that seemed both too insistent and oddly inexact in its evocation of the Australian landscape, and while I’m not sure the excerpt from her new novel included here does much to break down my resistance, it is undoubtedly a striking and highly energetic piece of prose.
I was also impressed with Jenni Fagan’s disconcertingly surreal account of climate change; Taiye Selasi’s story about the tension between the old and the new in Ghana; and Naomi Alderman’s slightly obvious but still very funny story about the arrival of the prophet Elijah in contemporary London.
The most striking contribution, however, is not by one of the established writers but a relative unknown, Sunjeev Sahota, who is represented by an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, The Year of the Runaways, which focuses on illegal Indian labourers working on building sites in Leeds and its surrounds. Direct, simultaneously painful and generous, it is also — perhaps paradoxically for a collection meant to showcase the best young British writers — one of the few pieces that feels urgently engaged with contemporary Britain.
And it’s this last that’s the most interesting thing about this latest list. As Freeman notes in his introduction, it includes ‘‘ three writers with African backgrounds; one who was born in China and only recently began to write in English; another brought up on her parents’ sugarcane farm in NSW; one from Pakistan, another from Bangladesh, a third a secondgeneration Indian from Derbyshire’’.
This diversity is at least partly testament to the cosmopolitanism of contemporary Britain and the increasing mobility of the global middle class from which many writers are drawn. But it’s also part of a larger transformation of the literary landscape and many of our assumptions about national identity.
Literary production is now a transnational phenomenon, a space within which writers feel entitled to range freely through time, space and literary history in search of subject matter and technique.
There’s probably a conversation to be had about whether this new mobility is, to borrow William Gibson’s aphorism about the future, evenly distributed, or whether it just seems to be from the vantage point of New York and London. Similarly, one may well question the universalising assumption that, as Freeman puts it, literature is an ‘‘ elsewhere defined less by a place than by a consciousness alive on the page’’. Yet, either way, Granta’s 2013 list suggests that for good or ill literature is now a globalised commodity, little different from any other.
The most striking contribution is by Sunjeev Sahota, left; inset, Helen Oyeyemi, top, and Evie Wyld