I am an American, Cleveland born – Cleveland, that river-saddened city – and became a reader when my family moved to California. Bit by bit I began discovering British writers, climbing onto our low, sloped rooftop in Sacramento with its view of a single ivy-bearded palm tree, with novels by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and George Orwell in my backpack. I didn’t then, and do not now, think of these writers as exclusively British. Of course I knew their lives bracketed the heyday of the Empire. But the fact of their Britishness was less important to me than how reliably they took me somewhere else – an elsewhere defined less by a place than by a consciousness alive on the page. This is what makes novels last. To borrow a phrase from an essay by Jonathan Franzen, reading taught me how to be alone. If I could register the spooky flexion of Virginia Woolf’s or Charles Dickens’s mind at work, thinking of love or betrayal, madness or suffering, a half or full century after their books were published, then my inner world could become as important – in some cases far richer – as the outer one, which in California was swimming pools and heatwaves and pickup trucks. I still believe that the moment you recognize the inner life is when you become a reader.
Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, now in its fourth incarnation, arrives once a decade with the newspapery whiff of zeitgeist prediction and socio-literary importance. Not just: Who will we be reading in the future? But also: What do these writers say about the state of or the future of Britain? On the first score, the list has, to date, been startlingly accurate. From the inaugural group of 1983, including Ian McEwan, Pat Barker, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain and Martin Amis to Alan Hollinghurst, Will Self, Helen Simpson and Jeanette Winterson in 1993. The most recent list, in 2003, picked out David Mitchell, David Peace, Hari Kunzru and Monica Ali before their books were widely read. Historically, the judges of this series have got it right. If they were stock pickers they would have their own global funds. But what did these writers’ books say of Thatcherite Britain? Or of London’s rise as a centre of global capital? England in its nervous post-riot ruptures? Even if you could read these writers’ work in such a manner, why in the world would you want to?
What is exciting about a novel is not what it tells us about reality, but how it uses the tools of literature – language and structure, time and voice – to create an alternative world that feels as real and as urgent as reality, a world against which even realistic novels scratch. The way a book does this is a form of political alchemy. Literature exists, after all, not just for escape, but to speak truth to power, and it does so by asserting that the world as it is imagined is every bit as important as the world as it exists. In this way literature creates a new reality, drip by drip, in the lives of its readers. It changes the way people imagine, which alters how they think, and expands what they believe is possible. It tells stories of grief and longing, of ordinary lives, but also of power and oppression. It is not an accident that writers are persecuted where there is no freedom. If they are good enough, novelists are dangerous individuals.
It was with all this in mind that I assembled the judges to select Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists for 2013. Britain is obviously a free state, but it is hardly an ideal one, and surely novelists exist to fill in the gaps where stone-cold reality fails. So I wanted readers with strong, idiosyncratic tastes, people who read literature imaginatively, rather than as a social document. They had to be people without an axe to grind or a set of friends to promote, people with an ability to articulate why a book or a writer was good without reaching for the props of reputation or acclaim, or gender and ethnic balance, to support their assessments. In short, I wanted a band of outsider minds that worked inside the system of publishing. In April of last year, they began to come together.
I knew from the beginning that Sigrid Rausing, the publisher of this magazine, and Ellah Allfrey, its deputy, needed to be on board. The library they have read between them is vast, and their record of spotting something good in a large pile is extraordinary. Gaby Wood, the literary editor of the Telegraph, joined us last spring, bringing to the committee a decade and a half at the coalface of literature and reporting desks on both sides of the Atlantic. A.L. Kennedy, who has twice been selected as a Granta Best Young British Novelist, in 1993 and 2003, signed on early, and brought a hilarious seriousness to the proceedings. The novelist Romesh Gunesekera joined us early too, with his elegant and thoughtful mind, and finally we had Stuart Kelly, literary critic for the Scotsman, who seems to have read every book that was ever published, as well as some that weren’t.
And then the books started coming.
Over one hundred and fifty authors applied for this distinction. To be considered they had to be forty or under at the time of our publication, hold a British passport and have published, or have a contract to publish, at least one work of fiction. Our sifting system was simple. Between the two of us, Ellah and I would read everything: I would read all – or around in – the backlist titles of the authors, and Ellah would focus on reading all the pieces that the writers submitted with their entries. This latter task was important, and a new addition to the process. We wanted this issue to be not just a list of names but a representative selection of their best fiction, and previous experience taught that writers needed lead time to produce something strong. So all the writers were told they had to submit a new story or part of a new novel by the middle of October 2012. Granta staff – Patrick Ryan, Ted Hodgkinson, Yuka Igarashi, Michael Salu, Saskia Vogel, David Robinson, Kate Rochester and Daniela Silva – also read and filed insightful and informative reports on the writers as they came in.
We met for the first time at a bistro in Soho in May, after the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, to discuss books together well before the debates kicked off. We began sending writers to the judges in July when the submission trickle turned into a slow-moving creek. As it quickened and deepened, we forwarded the judges three or four, sometimes five writers a week. The eerie silence into which they disappeared was hard to interpret at first. It was either the sound of people reading, or the politeness of a group unimpressed. As it turns out, it was a bit of both. A.L. Kennedy sent along her enthusiasm for Jenni Fagan, Ross Raisin and Joanna Kavenna, but bemoaned the feel of ‘lots of wine-bar show-offs’ and ‘shake-and-bake first novels’. Gaby Wood was more upbeat, but wondered if novelists at age forty-one or forty-two had been cut off on the wrong side of an arbitrary line. Stuart Kelly echoed this point over the telephone, as we professed our mutual frustration that Rana Dasgupta and China Miéville and Tom McCarthy would be too old this time round. I also lamented Mohsin Hamid’s 1971 birthdate.
We met two more times in 2012, first in mid-October at Granta’s company flat in Holland Park, stoked by Lebanese takeaway and a feeling that we had to do better. Out of this meeting developed a discussion about what we were looking for in young novelists. Romesh asked for ‘an engagement with language’, ‘a feeling for the form’, ‘writing that absorbs the reader’ and ‘something distinctive’, to which Ellah added ‘control and energy’ as well as ‘the sense that this is a writer whose overall “project” has a future’. For Stuart, the highest consideration was: ‘Does this expand what it is possible for the novel to do?’ He also admitted, ‘I think we should remember that we are reading in somewhat unideal conditions, since no reader outside the critical community would ever undertake such a task – and that memory is perhaps the best guide. I’m sure my opinions about some books will change since they may have managed to create that snag in the brain that even a superabundance of other novels layered over will not dim.’
Stuart’s prediction came true. By late November, when we met at the Hospital Club over tea in a room that looked like it belonged in an Amsterdam canal-front window, enthusiasms had developed, and corresponding antipathies, too. We spent the first half of the meeting talking about the writers each of us wanted on the list, and the second half annotating the culled list that the judges had been sent – sixty-five or so writers in all. After five or six hours, there was a list of thirty-five we would focus on reading (and rereading) for the final meeting in January, which took place at Sigrid’s home in Holland Park. That discussion stretched from lunchtime until early evening, some six hours, over which time unexpected realignments occurred. One author who had seemed to have strong, almost universal support, Edward Hogan, didn’t make it to the final list; neither did Jon McGregor and Peter Hobbs and Cynan Jones, all of whom had been contenders. A groundswell was felt for Tom Rachman, who is easily one of the funniest novelists in Britain – in the end, though, he did not make the list either. There was a near-consensus about the first seven writers to include, but it took us another five hours to fill out the list.
So who are the twenty? For those who are counting, there are twelve women and eight men, the first time one of these lists has had more female than male writers. There are three writers with African backgrounds; one who was born in China and began only recently to write in English; another brought up on her parents’ sugar-cane farm in New South Wales; one from Pakistan, another from Bangladesh, a third a second-generation Indian from Derbyshire. Four Jewish writers, one born in Canada of Hungarian descent, and another who was partially raised in Texas. This background snapshot caught us off guard when the list was completed because not once during our proceedings did we talk about the need for diversity, or gender balance, or a multiplicity of background. What we kept coming back to was the necessary snap of a bold style, the confident sweep of storytelling ability and the sense that the writers were in dialogue with the novel as a form.
On this last point, Stuart’s criteria were easily met. Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell, both of whom were on our 2003 list, are having a debate in their work about the nature of the novel. In her recent NW, Smith collapses the social-realist style she perfected in On Beauty with a more fragmentary narrative voice that recalls the short stories of David Foster Wallace. Thirlwell’s books, notably The Escape, erect elaborate scaffolding to support their mysterious inner workings and then magic out their central concerns. This intricate engineering makes him a keen humorist, which his piece in this issue reveals. Helen Oyeyemi began publishing at a very young age, but even in her first book, The Icarus Girl, she turned the coming-of-age story inside out by giving it an unreliable narrator reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s best work.
The writers we were drawn to dazzled with narrative intelligence, but never at the expense of story. Steven Hall is probably the most fantastical narrative architect on this list. His Raw Shark Texts is part textual art piece, but also part romance, and although this is his only novel, its success in melding these unlikely elements made us willing to believe he would do something even better. Taiye Selasi, whose debut, Ghana Must Go, will just be published when this issue is out, is beginning her career, but the mindfulness with which she re-envisions how an ‘African novel’ can sound, and who it can talk about, impressed all of us. Naomi Alderman’s novels never try to tell us what she knows, but rather, gently, sometimes hilariously, rewrites the myths of faith. Her most recent novel, The Liars’ Gospel, takes her writing to a new level.
Several writers here have already demonstrated their ability to speak in many tongues. Ross Raisin’s first novel, God’s Own Country, invented a northern sociopath and gave him a language that felt like sprung rhyme, while his second, Waterline, found a whole other gravelled voice for a Glaswegian man who ends up homeless. In his three books, especially The Broken Word, a long narrative poem about the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya, Adam Foulds has shown an electrifying talent for building a story from the sound of its language. Sarah Hall’s five books leapfrog from a Cumbrian landscape to Coney Island to vacation spots in the Caribbean, sinister occurrences seething through her ferocious sentences. Joanna Kavenna has written travelogue, farce and one of the most perceptive novels on motherhood many of us had read in some time. Ned Beauman’s two novels are like Rube Goldberg machines that take history and scramble its lethal logic. In the short story we publish here, though, he takes us to the Burmese–Thai border and tells the tale of a drug worker who is having an affair with an American contractor.
We weren’t looking for novelists to retell history, but we admired those who captured its refractive power in the lives of their characters. Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy is a modern-day Odysseus yarn about a boy trying to make his way across the African continent in the post-war period. Tahmima Anam’s two novels straddle the liberation war of Bangladesh, a conflict that throws her characters into anguished moral dilemmas and challenges their loyalties. In his series of novels about Lord Byron, Benjamin Markovits takes a prismatic view of the poet’s inner life, his work and the bargains made by characters who dedicate their days to understanding him. David Szalay’s work, which stretches from the very funny London and the South-East to the more sombre Spring, a portrait of a marriage unravelled, investigates a culture in which more is never enough.
Our happiness as readers in this process increased greatly when we stopped looking for the next Will Self, the next David Mitchell, the next whoever, for these writers were original in their own way when they emerged. This generation of Best Young Novelists, more than any we’ve collected to date, appear to have ripped up the moorings and set off on their own. Or they point their compasses elsewhere. The film-maker and writer Xiaolu Guo modelled one of her books, A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers, on Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, and her next book will meld ancient Chinese myths with the life of an imagined pop star. Evie Wyld, who grew up in Australia, has clearly learned from the American short-story writer Raymond Carver but has made a voice all her own. In The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan gave her narrator, trapped in a care home, a voice that is unstable, knowing and yet vulnerable, and feels
Sunjeev Sahota’s outstanding novel Ours are the Streets was a discovery for all of us. Sahota, a mathematics graduate who didn’t begin writing until his mid-twenties, said Salman Rushdie turned him first into a reader and then a writer. His next novel, The Year of the Runaways, is a huge, thrilling epic set in a Sheffield home where twelve men live in fear of the immigration services catching them. Rushdie’s influence can also be felt in the novels of Kamila Shamsie, whose work beautifully infuses Pakistani history with human narratives, especially of love. Shamsie is not yet a British citizen, but on her way to becoming one. If Granta had not previously included Yiyun Li, a Chinese green-card holder who only last year became a fully fledged American, on our 2007 Best of Young American Novelists list, we might not have bent our rules. But exceptional writers call for exceptions.
We live in unreaderly times, but our belief is that these novelists will be exceptions to the general rule of irrelevance faced by writers today. I would like to thank the writers, agents and publishers who were involved in this selection. I would also like to thank the judges, whose humour and diligence and passion in this task was, for me, unmatched in any experience of reading collectively. They proved, each time we met, that reading is not just a way to be alone, but a way to connect, something each one of these novelists has done with language that is beautiful and urgent and all their own.