BOOKS / 20-20 Vision: The Best of Young British Novelists campaign has met with sneering condemnation. Fiction isn't what it was, say critics. Or has our culture become one of cheap denigration?

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The Independent Culture
ON THE Friday before last, Bill Buford, the editor of Granta, rang the Sunday Times to announce the names of the 20 writers selected for the 1993 Best of Young British Novelists promotion. Like the other judges - the novelist and critic A S Byatt, John Mitchinson of Waterstone's and myself - he was in a state of some excitement. We were all proud of the list, and felt sure that readers would be as delighted as we had been to discover so many vivid, confident and ambitious new writers. The smart book-world chatter about this 'generation' says that it's no good. How pleasant, we thought, to be able to disprove that proposition.

Last weekend the Sunday Times - which had assured us of its support for the promotion, and had therefore been given the exclusive right to publish the list - ran a piece by its acting literary editor Harry Ritchie which was about as supportive as a fatwa. It compared the list unfavourably to the first Best of Young British list in 1983. It suggested that the publicity 'may backfire by revealing the absence of literary talent'. It quoted such reliable sneerers as Julie Burchill and Kingsley Amis saying that the list was 'crap', and it tried to twist Martin Amis's neutral remarks into another attack. It was a poisonously ungenerous article from someone whose job ought to depend on his love of writing and his willingness to champion the best of the new. Ritchie, when confronted, admitted to me that he had no knowledge of the work of half the writers on the list.

The comparison with 1983 isn't fair unless one is reminded of the point those writers had reached at that time. In 1983, Martin Amis hadn't published Money, London Fields or Time's Arrow. Ian McEwan hadn't published The Child in Time, The Innocent or Black Dogs. Julian Barnes hadn't published Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters or The Porcupine, William Boyd hadn't published his 'breakthrough novel' The New Confessions, Rose Tremain hadn't published Restoration; Adam Mars-Jones had written just one collection of short stories; Kazuo Ishiguro had not yet published either An Artist of the Floating World or the Booker-winning The Remains of the Day. Pat Barker's best work was still to come, as were the novels of Clive Sinclair.

These were, in short, highly promising writers with some achievements and a great future ahead of them - exactly like the 1993 group. The 1983 group contained one Booker winner; the 1993 group contains two, as well as winners of Somerset Maugham, John Llewellyn Rhys, Trask and Whitbread prizes. Virtually none of the 1983 group had yet built up a large, loyal readership, though they were beginning to do so; in the 1993 group, Iain Banks, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ben Okri, Jeanette Winterson, Philip Kerr - a brilliantly innovative thriller-writer I'd never previously read - and Hanif Kureishi all have legions of fans.

It is true that some of the names will be unknown to many readers. These include, though, several of the most exiting writers on the list. It seems to me astonishing that a writer with the narrative drive and comic brio of Louis de Bernieres is so little known, especially as he has won a Commonwealth Literature prize. Another surprise package is Tibor Fischer, whose Trask-winnng first novel Under the Frog is a delicate seriocomic treasure, a novel about Hungary in 1956 - Fischer is of Hungarian parentage - seen through the eyes of a basketball team travelling the country in the nude. Esther Freud's much-praised first novel Hideous Kinky also earned her a deserved place.

There were two writers previously unknown to me who amazed me with their ambition, erudition and skill. Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary is a dazzling linguistic and formal achievement that also takes on a genuinely rich and under-explored subject, the East India Company. (There are countless Raj fictions, but few imaginings of the earlier period of Company rule.) Norfolk's novel reminded me at times of the Dutch masterpiece of colonial trade, Multatuli's Max Havelaar. And Adam Lively's as yet unpublished monster-novel of a dystopic future, Sing the Body Electric, is as rich and complex a novel of ideas as one could wish for.

And so on. To see so diverse a list dumped on by people who simply haven't read the books is to make one feel a kind of despair about the culture of denigration in which we live. Can't we be fair-minded enough to give these books, these writers a chance? Can't we even let them have their 15 minutes in the spotlight before we start trashing them?

Critics of the list say that by the age of 40 writers should have some solid triumphs under their belt. Well, what about The Remains of the Day, The Wasp Factory, The Swimming-Pool Library, The Buddha of Suburbia, The Famished Road, The Passion? They say the young writers on the list don't demand attention. But Fischer, Freud and Nicholas Shakespeare have already been acclaimed and won prizes; Will Self is already a cult figure. On the other hand, some writers are only just arriving: Anne Billson, for example, a superb satirist whose vision of a Britain taken over by vampires in black dresses with gash red lips, based in a kind of occultist Canary Wharf, is the wittiest and sharpest of all the attempts to find metaphors for the Eighties that we read; and A L Kennedy, a writer rich in the humanity and warmth that seems at a premium in these bleak times, and who is also well able to handle a complex layered narrative and to build to a shocking climax that is fully earned and not a bit gratuitous.

It is a tribute to the strength of the list that so many highly-rated writers - Adam Thorpe, Robert McLiam Wilson, Rose Boyt, Lesley Glaister, Robert Harris, Alexander Stuart, D J Taylor, Richard Rayner, David Profumo, Sean French, Jonathan Coe, Mark Lawson, Glenn Patterson, Deborah Levy - didn't make it. I personally regret not having been able to find room for such talented first-time writers as Tim Pears, whose beautiful first novel, In the Place of Fallen Leaves, brings just a touch of Macondo to rural Devon in the heatwave of 1984, Nadeem Aslam, whose novel of modern Karachi, Season of the Rainbirds, is much better than its title, and Romesh Gunesekera, whose first story collection, Monkfish Moon, gives notice of a fine writer in the making.

Twenty young writers did make the list because in our opinion they were the best we have. We can argue about the names - who should have been in, who should have been out - but, for Pete's sake, let's give them a break.

If you read 200 or so novels you do begin to notice trends and themes. There was a point at which I said that if I read another novel about a young girl beginning to menstruate I'd scream. (A S Byatt pointed out that the best of these novels had in fact been written by a man, Tim Pears, whose point-of-view character is female.) There was a lot of violence about, a lot of writers who wanted to write about pornography, a lot of violence to women - novels which would begin, as it were, 'She sat down opposite me on the tube and I wondered what she'd look like with an axe in her face'; and there was Helen Zahavi's hideous, kinky little revenge-novel of violence done to men.

There were a number of wimp-novels: 'I had this really boring job as a clerk in a small provincial town,' they would begin, 'when I met this really wonderful gay cripple and entered a whole new world.' (I am lampooning, but only a little.) There was a whole group of son-of-Kelman Scottish novels in which people said fuck and cunt and recited the names of minor punk bands. There was, too, the Incredibly Badly Sub- Edited Novel - I remember one set in the Sixties in which a Communist character couldn't spell 'Baader' or 'Meinhof'. Many of the entries read as if no editor had ever looked at them.

More seriously - and this is probably why there has been a lot of garbage talked about a lost generation - it was easy to see, all over the landscape of contemporary fiction, the devastating effect of the Thatcher years. So many of these writers wrote without hope. They had lost all ambition, all desire to wrestle with the world. Their books dealt with tiny patches of the world, tiny pieces of human experience - a council estate, a mother, a father, a lost job. Very few writers had the courage or even the energy to bite off a big chunk of the universe and chew it over. Very few showed any linguistic innovation. Many were dulled, and therefore dull.

Even worse, there were the Hooray Henries and Sloanes who thought that the day of the yuppie-novel, of Bellini-drinking, okay-yah fiction, had dawned. Dukedoms and country-house bulimics abounded. I came to think of these dreadful books as 'snobbels'. The Eighties produced a glut of 'snobbelists'.

It was plain that too many books were being published; that too many writers had found their way into print without any justification for it at all; that too many publishers had adopted a kind of random, scatter-gun policy of publishing for turnover and just hoping that something would strike a chord. I suppose, though, that when the general picture is so disheartening it is easy to miss the good stuff.

I agreed to be a judge for BoYBN-2 because I wanted to find out for myself if the good stuff really was there. In my view, it is. The four of us have worked extremely hard, reading, re-reading, evaluating, debating. It was a marvellously un-bitchy experience, and I hope that we will be seen to have performed some service, not only to the chosen writers, but also to readers. I hope just a little of the excitement that surrounded fiction a dozen or so years ago might be regenerated by this list.

One of my old schoolmasters was fond of devising English versions of the epigrams of Martial. I remember only one, his version of Martial's message to a particularly backward-looking critic:

You only praise the good old days

We young 'uns get no mention.

I don't see why I have to die

To gain your kind attention.

The 1993 Best of Young British Novelists promotion, with nationwide bookshop readings and a special issue of 'Granta' magazine, will take place in May.

(Photographs omitted)

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