This is Granta’s fifth edition of the Best of Young British Novelists issue, our once in a decade list of twenty of the most promising writers under forty living in the UK. These issues have a long gestation. For over a year, editors on the Granta team read and discussed several hundred submissions to compile the shortlist for the judges: renowned novelists Tash Aw, Rachel Cusk and Helen Oyeyemi, and critic, essayist and lecturer Brian Dillon. The deadline for the judges’ deliberations was August 2022, to give the authors ample time to write the pieces for this issue.
It soon became clear that the submitted works separated into genres, or, more loosely, trends: the historical novels, most notably The Parisian by Isabella Hammad and The New Life by Tom Crewe; speculative fiction (Sophie Mackintosh, Julia Armfield, Sarvat Hasin, Missouri Williams and Alison Rumfitt); and, perhaps most distinctly, a number of autobiographical novels about gang culture, all written in the vernacular. Graeme Armstrong (The Young Team), Gabriel Krauze (Who They Was) and Moses McKenzie (An Olive Grove in Ends) all made the shortlist, as did the works of Guy Gunaratne (In Our Mad and Furious City and Mister, Mister), which are more explicitly concerned with the theatre of global violence drawn onto a particular London stage (a council estate, a bus). The former three are novels of masculinity and honour, where violence (beyond its role in the commerce of drugs and robbery) is a force simultaneously tainting and purifying. The characters – mostly boys and young men – seem to be always in motion, moving through decaying environments, inventing codes and gestures, buying, selling, planning, talking. Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts has some affinity with these worlds, with its protagonist’s voice of dirty disaffection and thinly veiled disdain, but her alienation is symbolic, static, singular to the point of loneliness. Camilla Grudova’s writing, too, deadpan, experimental, at times scatological, evokes some of the same atmosphere, as does Lauren Aimee Curtis’s faintly distorted women (nuns) in the short novel Dolores, which creates a similar juxtaposition (and interrogation) of the sullied and the pure.
It is a platitude to say that every list reflects the taste of the jurors, but this panel represented a wider range of taste than I had expected – our ideas of, and feel for, literary merit diverged quite radically. I hope the final list might be more interesting for it, containing, as it does, a wide range of voices, but still, the dividing line between the writers who made the final list and those who didn’t has never felt quite so permeable. I never have much faith in lists in any case, and I think we should acknowledge that a different panel might easily have chosen a different group of novelists. Apart from the shortlisted authors mentioned above, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Claire Powell, Naoise Dolan or Kirsty Logan might have been chosen for their works of deceptive simplicity and narrative verve; Daisy Johnson, Aidan Cottrell-Boyce, Lauren John Joseph or Shola von Reinhold for their innovation and exuberance; A.K. Blakemore, Fiona Mozley, Barney Norris, James Cahill, Samuel Fisher or James Clarke for their serious and polished writing; and Vanessa Onwuemezi, Dizz Tate, Omar Robert Hamilton or Daisy Lafarge for their originality. These writers could all have been on the list, and of course there are others, too.
The judges read, and thought about language, intention, originality, characters, structure, plot and complexity. In our meetings, Rachel Cusk talked about writers’ ability (or failure) to control and transcend their own material as an important criterion for inclusion on the list. We discussed authenticity of voice, particularly in relation to the works written in the vernacular. We were interested in experimental writing, but we also felt it was important to include authors who did not necessarily play with language, but whose craft and imagination made them outstanding storytellers. Tash Aw questioned how far we should privilege a text’s internal sense or logic in our choices, and Brian Dillon noted the slightly caressing, watery feel of many of the novels on the shortlist, and the hard singularity of others. Helen Oyeyemi (the judge among us perhaps most committed to fiction testing the boundaries of convention) was also interested in whether the writer succeeded in evoking curiosity in the reader – were we compelled to know what happens next?
What does the list tell us about the next generation or the state of the nation? I am hesitant to speculate, particularly since we changed the eligibility criteria for admission, dropping the requirement of a British passport in favour of those who live here and think of this country as home. Five authors on the list, including Eleanor Catton, were born abroad, and Sara Baume was born in Britain but lives in Ireland. But some common themes still emerge – these writers are millennials, the 9/11 generation. Most of them are too young to have experienced much of the brief period of hope following the end of the Cold War. They grew up affected by harsh threats and counterthreats – terror and the war on terror, the financial crash of 2008 followed by austerity and economic polarisation, radical moments followed by disillusion. There are dystopian themes in the novels we considered but affection for the local is here, too, most notably in the short stories of Thomas Morris (We Don’t Know What We’re Doing) and Saba Sams (Send Nudes). We noted the struggle to make meaning of hard lives (Yara Rodrigues Fowler and Natasha Brown) and the various attempts to understand the conditions of displacement or (more generally) alienation (Olivia Sudjic, Lauren Aimee Curtis, Jennifer Atkins, Anna Metcalfe). We were all excited by the more experimental texts trying to understand and explore the limits of what language and writing can do (Eley Williams, Derek Owusu, Sara Baume, Graeme Armstrong, Sarah Bernstein). Some of the writers on the list defy categorisation – Eleanor Catton’s work is conceptual and imaginative, yet pacy and well plotted, mixing the historical with the contemporary, and the genres broadly termed ‘literary’ and ‘thriller’. Finally, K Patrick’s short novel Mrs S was a revelation. Like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (a hybrid memoir essay on queer identity), it simply and tenderly returns to the question of love: what it is, and what it feels like.
To the judges: thank you. I am grateful for your company, your commitment, your diligence and your insight. To the publishers and agents who engaged with this process, thank you. To all the Granta editors – Luke Neima, Rachael Allen, Josie Mitchell, Eleanor Chandler, Lucy Diver and Brodie Crellin – who took on the extra burden of reading and logistics. Chairing those editorial meetings has been a privilege and a pleasure. Most of all, thank you to all the writers, whether they were on the final list or not. Writing is a mysterious thing: marks on the page evoking images in the minds of others, but it has given me and many others the backbone of our lives, our work, our culture and our own imaginary homelands.
Artwork © Donal Sturt