Reading into Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists”

Earlier this week, the literary magazine Granta announced the 20 writers for their once-a-decade influential list of the “Best Young British Novelists.” Granta began the list in 1983 to shed international light on emerging writers, including the likes of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and many others who have gone on to great literary success. This year’s crop includes a highly diverse group of writers hailing from far-off countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, and Jamaica, and for the first-time ever, women comprise the majority of the list. On Tuesday, April 23 at ALOUD, John Freeman, the editor of Granta, will introduce American audiences to two of the newest-appointed bests: Nadifa Mohamed and Ross Raisin. Just in time for the ALOUD program, we caught up with Freeman to take us behind-the-list-making and what it means for the literary community, and to give us a peek at the rising stars we should keep an eye out for.
Newest group of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” outside the British Council. Photo by Mark Hakansson.

How did Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” first come to be and how has its impact grown over the years?

Freeman: It’s basically the most accurate literary crystal ball ever created. It began in 1983 as a marketing ploy, drummed up by a clever guy named Desmond Clarke. He and a few other judges drew up a list of 20 novelists under 40 who they thought were the best in Britain. They wanted to sell books, and they had a great generation: Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain… At the time, Granta was a small literary magazine in Cambridge that had been recently relaunched by an American, Bill Buford. He was a great editor, but perhaps an even better publisher. At the time Clarke’s list was announced, Buford had submissions from around a dozen of the 20 writers. So he decided why not publish an issue celebrating them and showcasing new work. Thus the series was born.

Since ‘83, Granta has repeated the list every ten years, added an American one in 1996 – which picked out Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugendies, and Edwidge Danticat at the beginning of their careers – and recently started lists in Spanish (The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists) and Portuguese (The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists). The lists have been startlingly accurate predictors of who will go on to publish great works, and it remakes the literary landscape, especially here in Britain, which is a small country and the writers who are picked wind up with a huge amount of publicity, a nudge in the back (perhaps when they need it), and yes, a little pressure. Over the years the writers we have picked out include Jeanette Winterson, Alan Hollinghurst, Will Self, A.L. Kennedy, Ben Okri, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, David Mitchell, David Peace, and Alan Warner, often at the beginning of their

Now in its fourth iteration, what you are seeing as some of the differences between the young authors today vs. those on the first list? How are their styles, voices, or concerns different?

Freeman: It’s hard to pin down stylistic differences, because style often goes
anti-chronologically, as in some of the writers on our list harken back more to the enthralling feel of 19th century fiction than the writers on say, the 1993 list. What’s different, I suppose, is the context in which they live. The novel is an art form, but it’s also a social document, and the best of them, I believe, can raise its social component to a moral one, without hectoring. What is the society we’re in look like? Who does it serve? Who falls through the cracks? What are the stories we tell ourselves? This is not to say novels have to crusade, but they do have to engage, to some degree. It’s partly why we read them. To escape into deeper questions. This generation might be post-Thatcher, living in a world of late capital, and dwindling political engagement, but their books combine, I think, the moral questions of their day with the power of the novel as an art form in a way that’s thrilling.

John Freeman at recent Granta announcement party. Photo by Mark Hakansson.

As you set out to edit this issue, what were you looking for? What makes
a young author remarkable enough to make the list?

Freeman: We wanted good writing. Which is to say, writing that felt new, in form
or style of expression, that expanded the realm of experience that felt like ours as readers. We wanted to be moved, entertained, impressed, and feel, in the end, that the writers we picked were writers we couldn’t live without. The judging was a long process, but it was a clean one. We had no agendas aside from this above, which is a long-winded form of saying quality.

Are there any similarities within this new crop of voices, or any traits that might be a defining quality to their generation of writers?

Freeman: I see two writers on this list – Sunjeev Sahota and Kamila Shamsie –
for whom Midnight’s Children was clearly an important book. Both have spoken about it. But other than that it’s hard to trace lineage between lists, and each other. We’ve had a week of events here in London and it’s been fun to watch writers – Ross Raisin and Ned Beauman, Naomi Alderman and Helen Oyeyemi – meet for the first time and hit it off. I think the fun thing about a generation is that it’s really just an age bracket, and within that age bracket you can see all the muchness and difference and vitality of a culture. The best of them, cultures, are varied, and have a lot of different sounds and concerns. I think that describes the best of Britain today.

Can you introduce us to who will be joining you for the ALOUD program?

Freeman: We’ve got two writers coming, Ross Raisin and Nadifa Mohamed. Ross is a northerner, and in his novels and stories, you feel the sprung meter bounce of Yorkshire language. And this enormous empathic mind. He’ll read from a story that closes our issue, a kind of apocalyptic tale, which is haunting and absolutely beautifully written. Nadifa is a big old-fashioned story-teller who is channeling the currents of Somalia into fiction which has the linguistic intensity and polish of the best English writing. She’s fierce but kind, and has a storyteller’s mysterious mind, in that she knows our lives (and inner lives) have shadows and secrets and shades. She’s about to publish her next novel, and she’ll be reading the excerpt of it which is quite sexy and intense and very well described.

Learn more about the upcoming ALOUD program at the Los Angeles Public Library with Nadifa Mohamed and Ross Raisin (pictured above) joining John Freeman.

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