LIT­ER­ARY PRO­DUC­TION IS NOW A TRANSNA­TIONAL PHE­NOM­E­NON

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley’s

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

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