In 1983, Granta’s inaugural ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ issue presented twenty writers under forty whose work, the judges believed, would go on to define British literature.
Those authors did indeed influence British fiction for decades to come: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.
‘The issue was the first of its kind. Trust me, it said. I know what I am talking about. These young writers are the future of literature. Watch. History will prove me right.’
Bill Buford, Granta editor (1979-95)
Ian Jack (Granta editor, 1995-2007) later summarised the approach: ‘The idea then, quite radical in its day, was to say, “Look, Britain has all these jolly good writers, and for the getting of your pleasure and wisdom you should be buying more of their books.”’
In 1993, Granta decided to come together again to assess the British fiction landscape. Once more, the judges read hundreds of books from eligible authors.
This time, the judges included A.S. Byatt, John Mitchinson and Salman Rushdie.
AS Byatt remembers the final meeting. ‘The night before I was watching the snooker on television very late . . . someone tapped at the front door.’ It was an undercover policeman assessing whether it was safe for Rushdie to attend the discussion in person. After the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, Rushdie had to rely on armed guards for protection. Unfortunately, as exhibited by the attack in 2022, Rushdie’s life remains under threat today.
Appearing in the new cohort were Iain Banks, Alan Hollinghurst, A.L. Kennedy, Hanif Kureishi, Ben Okri and Jeanette Winterson.
‘The magic of fiction writers just starting out is in how they use all the same words and express something that would not otherwise get expressed, saying it in a new way that we have never read before. It’s like discovering mountain water when you are thirsty.’
Best of Young American Novelists
In 1996, Granta took the idea to America, identifying the Best Young American Novelists then working in the US. That selection featured Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie and Lorrie Moore, among many more. Ten years later the judges picked out Anthony Doerr, Yiyun Li, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss. In 2017 the list included Ben Lerner, Karan Mahajan, Ottessa Moshfegh and Esmé Weijun Wang.
In 2003, the magazine selected another group of judges to find the next generation of British fiction writers – which included the then-editor Ian Jack, Alex Clark and Hilary Mantel.
At the time, the judges noted the growing importance of publicity – literary festivals, bookshop readings, TV shows, marketing campaigns – that focused as much on a writer’s persona as their books. Hilary Mantel expressed her suspicion of ‘eagerly awaited’ books. ‘Awaited by whom and on what grounds? I am hoping we discover some person who has been toiling in silence and obscurity, unawaited by anyone except his mum.’
Mantel and her fellow judges picked out the work of Monica Ali, Rachel Cusk, Andrew O’Hagan, David Mitchell, Zadie Smith and Sarah Waters.
‘I like to think we were a rather beady-eyed panel, all of us practitioners in the crafts of writing, editing and publishing, and wise to the ways of marketing buzz and overpromoted young novelists.’
In 2013, while compiling a new generation of voices, the editor John Freeman reflected on the growing influence of the internet: ‘Could my job have been done by a computer? I suspect someone at Google or Amazon would say yes – why don’t all creative writing students upload their files to a server and let a program look at their language and score its uniqueness?’
His fellow judges laid out what they cared about – Romesh Gunesekera asked for ‘an engagement with language’, ‘a feeling for the form’, ‘writing that absorbs the reader’ and ‘something distinctive’, to which Ellah Allfrey added ‘control and energy’ as well as ‘the sense that this is a writer whose overall “project” has a future’.
Again, some excellent novelists were identified at the very beginnings of their careers: Naomi Alderman, Helen Oyeyemi, Ross Raisin, Kamila Shamsie, Sunjeev Sahota and Evie Wyld.
In April 2023, Granta will unveil a new issue assembled by judges Tash Aw, Rachel Cusk, Brian Dillon, Helen Oyeyemi and the magazine’s editor Sigrid Rausing.
What will this new generation of twenty writers tell us about British fiction now?
Subscribe now to be the first to discover the future. Granta 163: Best of Young British Novelists 5 publishes 27 April 2023.