In spring 1979 the first issue of Granta, a Cambridge student magazine dating back to 1889, was published in its new incarnation: a literary quarterly, in paperback format. Bill Buford and Pete de Bolla were joint editors. The title was New American Writing, and it featured work by Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Bryson, Tillie Olsen, Leonard Michaels and Susan Sontag, alongside pieces about writers – some in the vein of literary criticism, some mere notices or magazine articles – including Cheever, Updike, Bukowski and others.
The introduction began with a complaint about contemporary British fiction, which, the editors wrote, was ‘neither remarkable nor remarkably interesting’.
‘Current literature,’ they merrily concluded, ‘is unsatisfying simply for the sense it suggests of a steady, uninspired sameness, a predictable, even if articulate prattling of predictable predicaments.’
They were young and they were enthusiastic, and they had a point to make: that American fiction – ‘challenging, diversified, and adventurous’ – was not as well known as it should be in Britain, whose publishers were slow to pick up American gems. This neglect, they argued, was a sign of the dearth of debate, the lack of literary criticism and the absence of ‘a place for the imagination to practise’. The new incarnation of Granta was launched to fill that cultural gap, and the editors would do it by bringing American fiction to Britain.
Granta took off, and within a few years the editors conceived the idea of a Best of Young British Novelists issue: Granta 7, published in partnership with Penguin in 1983, was the first issue of the Best of Young Novelists series. It was a much-fêted list, probably more so than any of the subsequent ones, including now-famous authors like Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. The concept was launched, and the second Best of Young British Novelists issue was published in 1993; the third in 2003; and the fourth in 2013.
Ian Jack was the editor of the first Best of Young American Novelists issue, published in 1996. A somewhat onerous system had been devised whereby five regional judging panels sent their own shortlists to a central jury. The panels famously missed some of the most interesting up-and-coming names – Nicholson Baker was absent, a decision Ian Jack described as ‘insane and perverse’ in his introduction to the issue. David Foster Wallace, Donna Tartt and William T. Vollman didn’t pass the regional panels either, though many outstanding writers did: Sherman Alexie, Edwidge Danticat, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Elizabeth McCracken and Lorrie Moore, amongst others.
‘Who are the best young novelists in the United States of America?’ asked the cover copy, immediately renouncing its own query with this caveat: ‘A bad question. Writing can’t be measured like millionaires, athletes and buildings – the richest, the fastest, the tallest.’ One senses Ian Jack, sceptical and intelligent, in the copy. He gives in, of course – the rest of the blurb is a defence of the concept, which was said, at least, to pose ‘a useful question’.
In 2007 we did it again. This time the judging process was simpler, with one panel consisting of Edmund White, A.M. Homes, Meghan O’Rourke, Paul Yamazaki, Ian Jack and me. We emailed back and forth (people were less worried about leaks and hacking then), and finally met in New York to discuss the shortlist. ‘No list of this kind can offer anything approaching a final judgement,’ Ian wrote in the introduction. ‘That is up to posterity, if there is one.’
But still: it was a good list. Ian also mentioned the preoccupation with death in contemporary American fiction, noting that ‘the dead’, ‘the memory of the dead’ and ‘the post-dead’ made frequent appearances in the works we had read. He quoted Zadie Smith on American writing – ‘why so sad, people?’, she had written in her own preface to an earlier anthology of American writing. But what about Ian Jack’s phrase above about the judgement of posterity: ‘if there is one’? Why so sad, Ian?
The truth is that fantasies of the apocalypse have snuck into us like a virus, embedding themselves into the core of American writing. American dystopia was a strong theme in fiction ten years ago, and it seems strongly present still: pandemics, war and dysfunction predominate (though we noted a good bit of humour too). From the outside one feels the origins of that sadness are all too obvious – 9/11; war; coffins draped in American flags; PTSD; torture scandals; Guantánamo Bay; school shootings and gun crime; the war on drugs; the crash of 2008 . . . Where is the good news? From bee death to the loss of manufacturing; from climate change to populism, it’s all looking bleak.
But then it always did look bleak: here is a big troubled country with a free press – of course it’s going to look bleak. Have you ever read a newspaper in a country with censorship? Try it – that’s where you find the good news, the bland news, the happy stories.
This year’s list has been a momentous undertaking. Ten years ago we read over 200 novels for the longlist. This time, submissions doubled. Rosalind Porter, Granta’s deputy editor, was on maternity leave, but carried on reading. Luke Brown, Luke Neima, Francisco Vilhena, Eleanor Chandler and Josie Mitchell read voraciously. Our Granta Books editors read too – Laura Barber, Bella Lacey, Max Porter, Anne Meadows and Ka Bradley all contributed. Alex Bowler, our publishing director, was hired when the longlist was more or less done, but took an interest in the process. I chaired weekly meetings, where we discussed and logged the merits of each book.
We decided to have an all writers’ jury, reasoning that most fiction writers are now deeply engaged in other people’s writing too; teaching, editing or publishing. We asked five writers we admire to be on it: Paul Beatty, Patrick deWitt, A.M. Homes, Kelly Link and Ben Marcus.
All lists are a reflection of the tastes of their judges. We are very aware of the authors who might have been on the list had the conversation gone slightly differently. Paul Beatty unfortunately had to drop out when he won the Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout – the calls on his time became too great to carry on. We can’t know what influence he might have had on the final discussions. Some of us regretted Laura van den Berg, Tao Lin, Brit Bennett, Téa Obreht and Steven Dunn. Katy Simpson Smith and Maggie Shipstead could have made the list, too. NoViolet Bulawayo, a marvellous writer, unfortunately turned out not to be eligible, but she was part of our original selection.
For the first time ever, there are more women than men on the list: twelve to nine. Last time around we had nine women and twelve men; the first list had seven women and thirteen men. Progress, I guess – or chance. We didn’t count until we were done. In 2007, immigrant writers were more prominent: seven had been born or raised in other countries. This time, only four of the writers were born abroad.
Every list is a compromise – of course it is. But then it takes on a life on its own. Tobias Wolff, a judge in 1996, the year of the famous misses, wrote this:
It seems to me that we could make up another issue of Granta entirely of writers who aren’t in this one, and lose nothing in quality. The idea of choosing twenty writers to represent a generation makes some sense in your country, but in ours, immense as it is, and teeming with young writers, such a process mainly exposes the biases of the judges, my own included.
Which isn’t to say that our list is not a fine one. It is. And on it you will find many writers of eccentric and even visionary gifts . . . We read a great number of good books, and drew attention to some of them, and gave occasion for aficionados to celebrate their own neglected favorites by ridiculing our list. I’m proud of the unsatisfactory, incomplete job we did, and hope that its incompleteness, by stimulating outrage and disbelief, will awaken others to the wonderful range and vitality of the writers now coming into the fullness of their powers.
That was true then, and it’s true now.
I want to thank everyone who made this issue possible – the judges, Patrick deWitt, A.M. Homes, Kelly Link and Ben Marcus, first of all. They were conscientious and deeply insightful, and very good company too. Josie Mitchell, one of our editorial assistants, was in charge of all logistics, and did it brilliantly. Daniela Silva, Granta’s designer, conceived the concept for the cover and commissioned and photographed the light installation. Anthony D. Romero of the ACLU kindly allowed us to meet in their boardroom – thank you for that. Mimi Clara helped with logistics, as did our publicists Suzanne Williams and Elizabeth Shreve. Agents and publishers have been uniformly helpful – thank you for all the generous support.
Most of all, however, I want to thank the writers on the list – because this, of course, is not just a list, it’s also an anthology. Here is Ben Lerner, with the poignant story of Dale. Here is Greg Jackson, on the old politics of the left and the new politics of the right; here are Sana Krasikov, Karan Mahajan and Dinaw Mengestu touching, one way or another, on terrorism. Here is fantasy by Jesse Ball, Mark Doten, Jen George and Ottessa Moshfegh; and exciting new stories by Halle Butler, Emma Cline, Rachel B. Glaser, Lauren Groff,Yaa Gyasi, Catherine Lacey and Chinelo Okparanta. Here is Garth Risk Hallberg with another New York character; Anthony Marra on escaping fate on an Italian island; Esmé Weijun Wang on mental illness, racism and murder; Joshua Cohen on a soldier in the Israeli army; and Claire Vaye Watkins on a past relationship . . .
I want to write more, but I don’t want to give the stories away. Read them, and judge for yourself.