Granta's once-a-decade list of rising novelists is more important than ever

In an increasingly crowded book market, this list of Who will be Who matters to readers because, on the whole, it has got things right.

Share

The year 2013 is partly going to be one of anniversary
celebrations – Verdi, Wagner, Britten. But more interestingly, it’s
going to be a year when we’ve found a way of looking into the
future of creativity, too. The literary magazine Granta is going to
produce its once-a-decade list of British novelists under 40. It
will be the fourth one since 1983, and just now a generation of
hopefuls is quaking in its boots. It matters; it genuinely matters;
and it matters because, on the whole, this list has got things
generally right.

Before 1983, the promotion of novelists was a haphazard, gentlemanly sort of affair. A publisher might recommend a young novelist to a literary editor, they might acquire a readership, an interview or two might take place, and a small lecture tour of foreign parts, sponsored by the kindly British Council. Literary festivals and creative writing courses were foreign curiosities; the Booker Prize, until very recently, used to be that thing that Olivia Manning always got so cross over not winning.

The wonderfully named British Book Marketing Council, at the turn of the 1980s, had the bright idea of packaging up the best living British writers for promotion, regardless of age. The result was very distinguished, but perhaps not terribly sexy – John Betjeman, Laurie Lee, V.S. Pritchett turned out. It had some effect – I remember reading a very superior article in The Sunday Times, laughing at readers who routinely confused Gerald Durrell (not listed) with his brother Lawrence (listed). At 15, that would have been me.

In 1983, the Council teamed up with the tyro magazine Granta, and produced what undoubtedly was a sexy list. It made the radical decision to limit the list to novelists under the age of 40 – not new novelists, but ones who were born after 1943. That has always seemed arbitrary to me. Many great novelists don’t get started until middle life. One of the greatest of modern British novelists, Penelope Fitzgerald, didn’t start publishing until she was 60. Women, in particular, have often found children delaying their writing career.

Still, it took the imagination of a reading public. It did so not through hype, but because the judges of the 1983, 1993 and 2003 lists have been proved to be excellent judges of talent. (OK, declaration of interest – I was on the 2003 list, though whether I’v e since fallen into the ‘fulfilled’ or ‘sad let-down’ categories is for someone else to say.) Many of the names on the lists were not, at the time, in command of the huge readerships and critical acclaim that subsequently came their way. Rose Tremain, Kazuo Ishiguro – the author of only one novel at the time – Will Self, Monica Ali, Hari Kunzru and others were identified when they were not easy or popular choices. Notoriously, one journalist remarked of the 1993 lists, “But who is Louis de Bernières?”

Of course, there are some names on all three lists who didn’t fulfil their talent, or who haven’t so far. But it’s difficult to find one who was identified for no good reason. Ursula Bentley, from the first list, didn’t become a famous novelist before she died in 2004, but the novel that put her on that list, The Natural Order, is a perfect joy. More problematically, the lists have undeniably failed to identify some major talents; the power of the Granta imprimatur has meant some very good writers have had a harder path in life. It has, undeniably, its biases away from genre and popular novels. Douglas Adams could and should have been on the first list, Sebastian Faulks and Robert Harris on the second, China Miéville on the third, and maybe even J.K. Rowling, too.

I was among 2003’s  chosen ones – but am  I in the ‘fulfilled’ or ‘sad let-down’ category?

It has, though, avoided the overvaluing of “significance” which has made the Booker, in recent years, such a poor identifier of literary value, let alone literary promise. The judges have seemed to enjoy brio, schwung and pizazz, and, mirabile dictu, comedy in whatever shape it comes, whether Martin Amis, Helen Simpson, or Nicola Barker. Brio, unlike the decision to write a long dull novel about a historical genocide, is a quality that tends to last. What is great about these lists is they successfully identify writers who, at the right age, are exulting in sentences, literary form, and even individual words, not ones who think, like any boring blog writer, that they have something to say.

Last time round, I thought there were probably 10 names that would have gone without much debate, and another 10 that might have been them, or someone else entirely. After 10 years, I think the panel got much more right than wrong – well, I would say that, and I’m very grateful for the boost, but I couldn’t name 10 authors who should have been there and were snubbed.

This year, it’s much the same. There are 10 names who I’m sure are already there, and 10  who are going to be fought over. My 10 dead certs are Jon McGregor, Zadie Smith, Ned Beauman, Ross Raisin, Joe Dunthorne, Sarah Hall, Adam Foulds, Samantha Harvey, Nick Laird, and Paul Murray. The next 10, I guess, will be Stuart Neville, Naomi Alderman, Evie Wyld, Neel Mukherjee, Courttia Newland, Tahmima Anam, Owen Sheers, Helen Walsh, Alex Preston, and Gwendoline Riley. I think the judges will pass over A.D. Miller and Stephen Kelman, relics of the worst Booker shortlist ever in 2011, and generously reward a novelist whose first novel still sits in typescript, unknown to you or me.

The accurate gaze forward is what the judges have to embody; it’s been done before, but it’s going to be quite a challenge.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jeremy Corbyn could be about to pull off a shock victory over the mainstream candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall   

Every club should be like Labour – you can’t join as a new member unless you’re already a member

Mark Steel
The biggest task facing Labour is to re-think the party's economic argument, and then engage in battle with George Osborne and his policies  

There's a mainstream alternative to George Osborne's economics

John Healey
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works