Boyd Tonkin: The 'best young British novelists' of 2013 will come of age in a tougher world
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 05 April 2013
Writers, above all, know that struggle and failure - or disappearance and obscurity - often tell a more interesting story than praise and fame. In this perspective, the three Granta magazine lists of "Best of Young British Novelists" present a thoroughly unliterary spectacle of acclaim, achievement and even celebrity.
From 1983 (Barnes, Amis, Rushdie, McEwan, Tremain, Barker [P], Swift) to 1993 (Hollinghurst, Kureishi, Self, Winterson, Norfolk, Banks, de Bernières) and 2003 (Mitchell, Waters, Hensher, Smith [Z]), Peace, Kennedy [AL], Barker [N]), the Granta tips have almost all romped home to prominence. Kazuo Ishiguro and Adam Mars-Jones, icons of eternal youth, even managed to win double nominations in successive decades. By my calculation, at least 55 of the 58 selected authors alive (from 1983, Shiva Naipaul and Ursula Bentley have left us) remain active, although a few have shifted their operational base into other kinds of writing - Philip Norman, another 1983 choice, became a master of the epic pop biography, most recently of Mick Jagger.
The strike-rate has proved astonishingly high: so much so that I imagine the couple of vanishing acts - say, of Ben Rice from 2003 - as romantic refuseniks who preferred to take the road less travelled. True, the process favours youthful prodigies over slow-blooming late starters. The accidents of birth and career history have meant that many monarchs of fiction - Hilary Mantel, obviously, but authors as variously gifted as Timothy Mo, Jonathan Coe, Helen Dunmore, Ali Smith, Andrew Miller, Jim Crace, Sebastian Faulks, Rupert Thomson and Irvine Welsh too - never made the cut. Still, the overall performance has set the bar at a level that the 2013 judges - who reveal their Top 20 on 15 April - will find hard to match.
But if, in a decade or two's time, we discover that the class of 2013 has underperformed in comparison with their august forerunners, don't blame the selectors or a diminishing pool of British talent. For the three cohorts so far (above all, that of 1983) have had several slices of historical luck on their side. The initial Granta venture - spun off originally from a Book Marketing Council project - coincided with a unique alignment of the literary stars.
Around the turn of the 1980s, a morose "death of the novel" phase gave way to the stirrings of renewal. New publishing conglomerates and aggressive agents competed to secure fresh blood. Advances rose - often unsustainably - and for ambitious authors a long-haul career in fiction felt more feasible than ever before.
Waterstones opened a new chapter in intelligent high-street bookselling. Broadcast and print media sought upscale celebrities. A rapidly expanding population of humanities graduates widened the circle of serious readers - or at least of trend-followers. And the roster of novelists themselves - with their far-flung family roots and global affinities - both reflected, and helped reinforce, a pluralist ideal of British culture.
Few of those auspicious conditions survive in 2013. In publishing and retailing, one economic model has run into crisis while another - digital, virtual, user-led, multi-platform: you know the jargon - strives to convert clicks into cash. Only a fool predicts the future. But it does feel safe to suggest that the long-distance career in literary fiction will become rarer. Young writers still flourish. So do their readers - even if unwilling to pay for the pleasure. Between them, however, yawns a void of uncertainty. Whatever their gifts, Granta's fourth score will need even better fortune than their predecessors. I wish them not only avid readers, but clever publishers - whatever that term comes to designate - who can keep them afloat for another 30 years.
Culture club: Banks's big idea of the good life
Utopias have got a bad name. All the more reason, then, to celebrate Iain Banks's creation of a robust, rounded version of the post-scarcity society. For the Scottish novelist - who to the dismay of readers worldwide said this week that he has late-stage cancer, with months to live - the middle "M" of his SF novels never signified a holiday from craft or depth. His "Culture" series adds up to a cohesive vision of the good life with very few rivals. What better moment to republish the lot, and open a debate about their values?
Goodreads and bad judgments
It may not look like the biggest story that Amazon - which has vacuumed up many consumer websites from The Book Depository and AbeBooks to IMDB - should buy the book review and recommendation platform Goodreads for a reported $150m. We know that the many-tentacled monster wants to scoop up every available source of customer info. And Goodreads has 14m. members, many of them active proselytisers for their favourite authors. But, as the digerati have been lamenting, the real news lies in the failure of traditional bookbiz to invest in such treasure-troves of data. As novelist and tech blogger Nick Harkaway puts it, "The point is why Goodreads wasn't snapped up by a publisher years ago." Print publishing giants could in the past have bought into the network, and used its insights into reading choices. Instead, as usual, they left it to Jeff (Bezos).
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