The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Do our ‘best young novelists’ still believe in Britishness?
As Granta publishes its new list, Jake Kerridge asks some of those on it how they define their own cultural identity
‘We like to deprecate ourselves – which is probably quite healthy, most of the time’
Few literary talent-spotting exercises have had such an impact as Granta magazine’s “Best of Young British Novelists” lists. Since the inaugural class of 1983, when Rushdie, McEwan, Ishiguro and Amis were the new kids on the block, Granta’s decennial choice of “the 20 most significant British novelists under 40” has garnered serious attention around the world, turning the chosen authors into cultural ambassadors.
But as the British Council begins planning the usual international tours for the novelists on the fifth list, announced last Thursday, one wonders if there really is such a thing as “the British novel” – and, by extension, an identifiable British cultural and literary identity. Does the “British” in “Young British Novelists”, in other words, mean anything more than a landmass these chosen authors happen to share?
Derek Owusu, whose debut novel, That Reminds Me, was published by Merky Books – the imprint founded by the rapper Stormzy – tells me that he’s aware of his British identity all the more keenly, being the son of firstgeneration Ghanaian immigrants. “When my parents came over [in the 1980s], they were trying hard to assimilate, so they were watching a lot of quintessential British TV. I became obsessed with shows like Only Fools and Horses, Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, Porridge – the way [the characters] behave and their mannerisms. So much of it accumulates inside you.”
Owusu embraces a more complex idea of Britishness than previous generations. “I talk to older writers like Courttia Newland [born 1973], and he says that when he was coming up, a lot of writers were resistant to the term ‘black British’ – they just wanted to be ‘British’. I think that’s changing. Now, people are OK with being called ‘black British’ – it just means that there’s an extra layer to your identity.”
He sees his work as part of “the black British tradition, following Courttia, Alex Wheatle, Buchi Emecheta, who was on a Granta list [in 1983], Sam Selvon – those people who were archivists of a particular type of working-class life”. As for his own generation of novelists, “where other generations have been obsessed with country, maybe, we are obsessed with identity – and identity politics, which has its good side and its bad side, to be honest.
“I don’t know how long the British book-buying public is going to tolerate this navelgazing,” he adds, laughing. “But when people look inwards, they’re trying to find things that relate to everybody else. It’s not completely selfish.”
For Owusu, Britishness is “evolving, especially in workingclass areas where there’s an amalgamation of different cultures. And it’s creating something new, something beautiful. Whereas in more middle-class areas, where there is less of a mix, their idea of Britishness – ‘Englishness’, I think, is how they would frame it themselves – it stays the same.”
The Welsh writer Sophie Mackintosh, whose novel The Water Cure was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, makes a similar point. “I think we’re moving beyond this stereotypical idea of what is ‘British’, which is
‘Our idea of Britishness revolves around the south-east of England and the Home Counties’
really an English thing – this repressive tea-and-crumpets state – and we want to look more outwards. But at the same time, we’re living in the time of Brexit, so obviously our society is divided.
“My own Britishness,” she says, “is tied up with my Welshness. I was educated in Welsh until I was 18, and that’s the lens through which I see it. The landscape means a lot to me. My first book was set in a climate-changed Wales, and to have that as a setting was important to me.” She emphasises, though, that she draws on a wider British literary tradition, one she sees as characterised by “rigour and attention to form”.
Newcastle-born Eliza Clark, writer of the belly-laugh-inducing 2020 novel Boy Parts, says that she is “proud to be part of a tradition of British gothic, authors like Angela Carter”, but otherwise doesn’t naturally think of herself as
British. “Being a Geordie is more important to me than that broader idea. I think what our idea of Britishness is, in terms of temperament and mannerisms and interests, revolves around the south-east of England and the Home Counties... I think British people hang a lot of value on needless suffering – things like queuing – this idea that you have to go through something quite c--p to earn a reward.”
One oddity of British literary culture is that Clark’s workingclass background – she was working in a shop when she received a grant from New Writing North to enable her to work on her first book – makes her somewhat exotic in the world of publishing. “It’s interesting to be so normal in the broader socioeconomic context of the country, and then to be something of a diversity tick-box. I’m just a normal person – my dad’s just some guy! I do think our idea of what Britishness is is diversifying and expanding, as we get more important popcultural figures who aren’t from the standard middle-class Oxbridge background. Things are slowly changing in terms of who holds sway in British culture.”
For William Boyd, one of the authors chosen for the first Granta list 40 years ago, the strength of the lineup, even back then – and the reason it unexpectedly grabbed the world’s attention – was that it wasn’t possible to lump the authors together to present an easily definable notion of Britishness.
“I remember,” he tells me, “that at the time there was a phrase being bandied about – ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ – and I think the presence of writers like Salman Rushdie, Shiva Naipaul and Buchi Emecheta hinted at a new diversity in the contemporary British novel. Well, that impetus has now become a huge wave. ‘British fiction’ today is massively polyvalent and multicultural, and its beginnings could be discerned in that 1983 grouping.”
Rose Tremain, another veteran of the 1983 list, agrees. “It seems to me that our combined strength, if that’s what we had, lay in the fact that we were actually travelling along many different and diverse literary paths, both of form and of content... If any of these new voices were inspired by the class of 1983, then we should be very pleased about this.”
Tom Crewe, whose recently published debut The New Life is set in late-Victorian Britain, argues that “the strength of British literature has always been that it contains great diversity of tone and subject. I take great pleasure and sustenance from the great 19th-century novelists, and I feel much more a writer working in that British tradition – which has always been embedded in the larger European tradition, of course – than someone drawing strongly on, say, American literary heritage.”
Crewe, who grew up in Middlesbrough and Darlington, does feel a palpable sense of Britishness. “More so than some of my friends, I think. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to be British or English, which I don’t feel is a very helpful emotion. Artistically, I think it’s still a very interesting and vital place, despite rumours of decline. But we like to deprecate ourselves – which is probably quite healthy, most of the time.”
Is he aware of the notion of Britishness changing over the decades? “Obviously, to some extent, it has been under strain with Scotland and Northern Ireland and Brexit... But the arts sector is one of Britain’s great remaining strengths, a great source of soft power – and it’s always good to have something like this list, which allows us to look at that identity in a different way.”
‘Best of Young British Novelists 5’ will be published by Granta on April 27