On Literary Celebrity | Caryl Phillips | Granta

On Literary Celebrity

Caryl Phillips

At some point in 1993, I knew that Granta would be announcing their second list of Best of Young British Novelists. Before the announcement was made public, I was having a drink with one of the judges and he told me that ‘they’ had decided that half a dozen or so of the candidates had already been set aside as being ‘beyond discussion’. Apparently, I was one of them. I was obviously pleased, but also a little surprised that I had been so decisively ‘included’.

I remember the photo shoot, and chatting there to some authors who were already friends of mine. Of course, there were others I’d never met before but whose work I admired. And then at a later date, at some venue in north London, there was a drinks party. Thereafter, as far as I was concerned, the whole thing was over.

I’m not sure my inclusion on the ‘list’ had any effect on my writing life, beyond the massaging of my ego. It didn’t spur me on in any way, or result in any new commissions. Did I sell any more books? I don’t know. Did I feel as though I was now a member of a ‘special club’? No, not at all. Writers are generally pretty ‘unclubbable’. In fact, did I really feel I was one of the twenty best young British novelists? Not really. Writers develop at different rates and I could think of at least two or three writers who should definitely have been included on a list of best young novelists working and publishing in 1993 who, for some reason, were left off.

What I thought then – and feel even more strongly now – is that such lists run the risk of promoting something that is usually toxic to a writer’s health: celebrity. Or ‘imagined’ celebrity. During the 1980s and 1990s, we witnessed the emergence of reality television, and much more attention began to be paid to issues of ‘visibility’; marketing departments become increasingly important, and promotional gimmicks were suddenly all the rage. Publishing changed; ‘super’ agents emerged, large advances began to be paid and writers were encouraged to collude with this razzamatazz. In 1993, I felt slightly uneasy with this nascent culture of lists and prizes. Nevertheless, I took part. The truth is, looking back, I am sure that I would have been dismayed not to have been included in the 1993 list.



Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips was born in St Kitts, brought up in Leeds, and he now lives in New York City. He is the editor of two anthologies, has written for television, radio, theatre and cinema and is the author of three works of non-fiction and eight novels. Crossing The River was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of The Queens College, Oxford University, and among his literary prizes and awards he was won the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Fellowship, and Britain’s oldest literary award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His novel A Distant Shore won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Dancing in the Dark won the 2006 Pen/Beyond the Margins Prize.

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