It’s a marvellous and terrifying thing, being listed among the Best of Young British Novelists. It sounds so authoritative when one considers nineteen of the twenty names on the list. Then again, one’s own name is the twentieth. That seems unlikely, if not a peculiar joke. But here you are, anyway. There are marathon book signing sessions; there are interviews, excited publicists and even more excited editors. There are events in aggressively well-curated settings. During a photoshoot, one novelist asked the air just beyond my shoulder, ‘Does this mean we’re famous?’ with a dreamy kind of delight. I wore a hat for that photo. People expected me in a hat for years thereafter. This is almost exactly the opposite of writing – no solitude, no time to consider, no character to send into the world, only oneself and all this unfamiliar enthusiasm.
I found my 1993 listing surreal. Others around me were already more experienced, assured and even willing to be parental. Celebrations involved a Saatchi Gallery launch with Patrick Stewart – who was mainly avoided because Star Trek is too popular – and a vast art installation involving a pool of sump oil was ruining a succession of linen suits. I seem to recall 2003 involved a venue with little glass tables suspended at throat height. Surely that can’t be right? Fellow listees showed the whites of their eyes like spooked horses. Newer writers in 2013 told me they had thought their listing was a bizarre prank – perhaps, by then, I looked parental.
However authors respond to a listing, their books will behave predictably. Sales will rise, the path to the next book and the next contract will be simpler, marketing departments will be less dubious about new departures. There is an affirmation inherent in a list that considers an author’s whole body of work. It eases the worries of a self-employed worker who is doing a job that seems increasingly surplus to cultural requirements. The Granta judges take novelists seriously, consequently setting the tone for journalists who may grumble and carp, but who are forced to say something about literature, the novel, writing.
I wouldn’t be here, writing this, without Granta’s support for my first novel, without Salman Rushdie, a judge at the time, championing whatever spark he found in the ash and clinker of my prose. So judging for the list in 2013, doing what Rushdie did for me, was simply a huge joy. As I drifted between temporary addresses across London I was pursued by huge boxes of books, easing my unsettled condition with words, words, words. The discussions around the judges’ table were my happiest ever experience of literary triage. We were all looking for quality, novels that really were novels, which took prose and the reader and the form somewhere remarkable. No gossip, no traded favours, no myths about marketplaces or whether this or that beauty might be considered difficult by gatekeepers apparently eager to make our literature as beige as possible – just the pursuit of excellence.
That reading and judging process partly overlapped with the 2012 Olympics. London was alive with unfamiliar voices, unheard words. Slowly the city became a warm, funny, eccentric, creative, mature and helpful space. The world was welcomed. A divisive games which had displaced a working-class community to create its main site became a symbol of the confident, imaginative, intelligent and inclusive country Britain could be. The crowds and volunteers became a benevolent power. There was even disabled access at quite a few Tube stations.
It seemed the British novel was changing, too, moving beyond stale formats and tired metropolitan plotlines. The choking caution and insecurity of publishing was still able to support unfamiliar voices, unheard words. There were indications that copyediting and editing were at breaking point, but life and wonder survived. Our list didn’t set out to welcome the world, or the marginalised corners of our sometimes cruel little island. That was the consequence of our search for quality. The authors we chose have carried themselves and their work through the last, hard decade with grace and ingenuity.
It’s hard to single out only one piece in the anthology, one author. But I must write about Jenni Fagan, the startling voice that held and delighted me from her first sentence onwards.
Fagan’s short piece ‘Zephyrs’shows the skills of an author whose talent has only expanded in the intervening decade. There has been no compromise, no lapse into complacency, only an onward drive, a surrender to that power which makes us tell important stories, both on and off the page.
‘Zephyrs’ introduced new readers to Fagan’s precision, humour and useful strangeness. The prescient story begins in a flight from a chaotic, flooding London where the price of light is unaffordable. Our protagonist Cael is caught in the squalid intimacy of a long distance coach.
As Cael descends into new darknesses, Fagan takes care that every word, every densely evocative detail, every verb both informs and wrongfoots the reader. Sensory information is deftly conjured: the scent of a potato crisp, the twining flavours of whisky, the pulse of a frog held like a heart in the hand.
We use the term hypnotic to describe prose rather too often, but Fagan truly does hypnotise, drawing us into a strange new space where ugliness is ugly, pain is pain and yet everything shines, imbued with human consequence, the blessing of careful expression and a sense of the battles for dignity that roil among the dispossessed. Fagan has never forgotten where she came from – more than that, she has made that harsh territory sing. And so a road unravels horribly behind a walking man, one step back and he falls, the blue eye of a peering child is terribly innocent, innocently terrible, and the devil sometimes wants more than your soul.
And the last line – my lord, that last line is just so right.