Boyd Tonkin: Achievement, promise and plutocratic whim in Granta's Best of Young British list

Something seems to have gone awry with the selectors' compass from time to time

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In a preview piece, Granta magazine’s editor John Freeman hinted that the 2013 list of the Best of Young British Novelists would enshrine not only the literary preferences of the other judges but the Granta publisher Sigrid Rausing’s “search for something wild”.

Excuse me? Should a roster that has acquired a sort of semi-official status, and which the British Council promotes, depend in any part on the whims of a plutocratic patron, however well-intentioned? In any event, the 2013 vintage contains both a selection of writers of great promise and high achievement – and a few wild cards. But something – maybe something wild – seems to have gone awry with the selectors’ compass.

A prime example: scarcely any emergent British author has won warmer and more considered praise from thoughtful judges than the Nottingham novelist and short-story writer Jon McGregor. If you wish to feel the lurching pulse of Thatcher’s Britain and its long aftermath, in prose of undimmed originality and with a fictional vision that marries rigour to compassion, go to McGregor. I cannot imagine a credible judging process that would seriously consider fiction by all British authors under 40 and conclude that Jon McGregor did not deserve a place on it.

Yet he fails to appear. Instead, from nearby Derby, Sunjeev Sahota earns a Granta place for his single book so far, Ours Are the Streets – a tumultuous, inventive but structurally flawed debut about the making of a suicide bomber. This apparent fallibility in the face of topicality and trendiness accounts for another couple of questionable Granta choices.

True, this roll-call aims to foster hope as well as to reward achievement. And it does manage to channel a spectrum of genuinely gifted and thoroughly dissimilar voices – from Xiaolu Guo to Sarah Hall; Evie Wyld to Tahmima Anam. But then I ponder McGregor’s absence and wonder just what these assessors could have been thinking of. The Granta 2013 package should open a “wild” debate, not finish it.