Magazine's list of top 20 young novelists infuriates US literati

Louise Jury on a literary contest that has sparked a transatlantic row.
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What is a literary competition without a row? And when the Brits have the presumption to choose the Best of American, could anything else have been expected?

This weekend, Granta, Britain's agenda-setting literary quarterly, announces its choice of the finest 20 young American novelists. Unpublished work from each will be featured in June's publication.

Sherman Alexie, Madison Smartt Bell and the other winners across the Atlantic may now hope for the international acclaim which came to Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis, and others who won the first British Best Young Novelists contest in 1983.

But as Granta dares to cast its eye across the American literary scene (even with American judges), the carping has already begun. The choice of nominees was "laughably wanting," Richard B Woodward suggested in New York's Village Voice magazine. The omission of Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and David Foster Wallace - among others - was "stunning".

"A case might be made for excluding any one of them. Thumbs up or down on individuals will always be a matter of temperament and fashion. . . A contest that turns its back on all (these) writers, however, risks losing credibility," Mr Woodward said.

Under the headline, "Literary Friction," American Vogue followed suit. It reported suspicions that the proceedings were "biased, inept and irrelevant".

Not so, said Ian Jack, Granta's editor of a year who inherited the idea of the contest from his predecessor Bill Buford. The finalists were chosen by a distinguished panel of writers, Robert Stone, Anne Tyler and Tobias Wolff. Nominations were invited from publishers, librarians and booksellers and several hundred were received. The winners were chosen from 52 finalists across five geographical regions and represented a cross-section of writers. There are eight women, one black writer, one Native American, one Chinese- American and one Asian-American.

"Like all these things, there's no way of producing the right list," said Jack (former editor of the Independent on Sunday, now a columnist with the paper). Each of the judges had different regrets about certain novelists and they even contem- plated making late additions. (They decided against.) But he said: "It's in the nature of these things that you're bound to turn your back on some writers."

However, with one or two exceptions, the winners' names will not trip off the tongue of any but the most avid reader. Malcolm Bradbury, the novelist and American literature expert, said he recognised barely half. Echoing critics in the States, he asked after Nicholson Baker (omitted) but expressed delight that Allen Kurzweil was in.

"My guess is that the bulk of these books have not been picked up by British publishers and that they are not the names towards the front of the New York Times," he said. "That's refreshing."

But he queried the selection method by region, giving everybody "a piece of the cake" but not necessarily ensuring the works were of the "highest literary merit".

Martin Amis, the novelist, agreed it seemed somewhat arbitrary. "There is nothing to stop all the best living in New York or Chicago," he said.

However, Amis described Stone, Tyler and Wolff as a good selection committee and said the quality of the judges counted. "There are always going to be absentees. But it is probably the debate that is important. It makes names current and excites interest."

If it was any consolation to those excluded, he remained unconvinced of the benefit of making it onto the Best Young Brits list in 1983 "though everyone told me it made a difference".

He said that despite widespread acclaim in recent years, he had won a prize for his first novel and nothing since - "though the Finnish translator of The Information got ten bob and a sash recently. My father [Kingsley] always had doubts about the Booker Prize although they evaporated on the announcement that he had won it."

Ruth Killick of Dillons bookstores, said contests did make a difference to sales. In some shops they sold 15 times more copies of Pat Barker's The Ghost Road last year after she won the Booker. Interest in Seamus Heaney, the poet, tripled after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Other contests had less dramatic results and it did depend on the area. But she said: "It gets people looking at these books. They really are influenced by all the debate and they don't necessarily buy the winner. The Booker award definitely increases sales, but something like the best young American novelists would be noticed in student towns like Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton."

Dr Richard Francis, senior lecturer in American literature at Manchester University, said the appropriateness of the winners really depended on what the judges were looking for. "My own guess, judging by the panel, is of slightly conventional and old-fashioned selection criteria," he said.

America was a pluralistic society with a wide range of experimental writing. "It's difficult to get a consensus because I suspect there is no one thing going on."

But of course Granta should have recognised that hazard from the start. Bill Buford, the former editor, came across it three years ago when he attempted to repeat the Best of Brits exercise. The new list did include Jeanette Winterson, Will Self and Caryl Phillips but the exercise ended in disarray. "Sourness surrounded the whole enterprise," as Malcolm Bradbury put it.

Ian Jack is unperturbed. "It's a bit curmudgeonly to complain about who's excluded," he said. "The literary novelist is hardly celebrated. At the very least, such a campaign does cast a little limelight on writers who don't otherwise get it."

The final 20 are: Sherman Alexie, Madison Smartt Bell, Ethan Canin, Edwidge Danticat, Tom Drury, Tony Earley, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, David Guterson, David Haynes, Allen Kurzweil, Elizabeth McCracken, Lorrie Moore, Fae Myenne Ng, Robert O'Connor, Chris Offutt, Stewart O'Nan, Mona Simpson, Melanie Rae Thon, Kate Wheeler.