The top 20, or just a capital countdown?: GRANTA 43: Best of Young British Novelists Granta, pounds 7.99

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The Independent Online
WHEN the list of Britain's 20 best 'young' novelists was announced a couple of months ago, it was received with near-unanimous derision. Here was the long- awaited proof that English literature was dead; and the queue that sought not to praise but to bury was lengthy and excited. Julie Burchill said that one of the writers was OK, but the rest were crap. Newspaper diaries split their sides. Nearly everyone found something to be infuriated by.

It was natural to assume that the organisers were rubbing their hands and slapping each other on the back. Mission accomplished] It was like the David Gower affair: this squad they've picked, people said, it looks awfully twitchy against spin bowling. I mean, the experienced guys - Ben Okri, Kazuo Ishiguro - can obviously bat a bit; this man Self is nippy between the wickets, and Candia McWilliam looks bloody useful now she's shortened her run-up. But why so few left-handers in the party? This was careless talk, but literature isn't a team sport: the 20 best are not about to face the Aussie menace, and national pride is not an issue.

The judges were Bill Buford, editor of Granta, Salman Rushdie, A S Byatt and John Mitchinson, marketing director of Waterstone's. A high- class panel - but there were only four of them, so their choice was bound to be open to debate. Even the Booker Prize has five judges, while the ultra-scrupulous Independent Award for Foreign Fiction, it goes without saying, has a dozen infallible selectors.

But in all these literary arbitrations an odd thing happens: anyone who criticises the judges is accused of being petty and unkind about the authors. It is tactless to ask whether it really is true that 16 of Britain's best 20 writers live in London, or if it's a coincidence that seven of our top 'young' writers are 39.

There was, by any standards, something mysterious about the scorn that the list provoked. Nobody seems to mind Ford spending zillions of pounds on a mass-market campaign for a standard family saloon; nobody complains about the squirts of cash that are spent hoodwinking us into buying Jeffrey Archer (his new one is backed by pounds 150,000). So why does everyone wail their heads off when a few little- known authors are given a leg up? In the history of man's inhumanity to man, writing a not-so-hot novel ranks low on the list of the top 20 crimes.

But well-intentioned charts such as this are almost calculated to make people feel vexed. Isn't it enough that the shelves are groaning with geniuses we've never read? Now these guys are telling us there's another twenty we're supposed to admire. Jesus. It is long odds, historically, that there should be that many great writers in one generation, in one small country.

The 20 writers are: Iain Banks, Louis de Bernieres, Anne Billson, Tibor Fischer, Esther Freud, Alan Hollinghurst, Kazuo Ishiguro, A L Kennedy, Philip Kerr, Hanif Kureishi, Adam Lively, Adam Mars-Jones, Candia McWilliam, Lawrence Norfolk, Ben Okri, Caryl Phillips, Will

Self, Nicholas Shakespeare, Helen Simpson and Jeanette Winterson.

This is a varied and interesting group, and only a flinty heart could begrudge it a turn in the limelight. You've got Nigerian Brits, Japanese Brits, West Indian Brits, Pakistani Brits, Hungarian Brits, English, Scottish and French- sounding Brits. Young, old (whoops) gay Brits, you name it.

But the examples of their work collected in the new Granta brochure reveal an odd consistency (which some might attribute to the presence of 10 Oxbridge types, such as Fischer, Phillips, Self and Winterson). There are plenty of wild and impressive flights: a composer attends a dire performance of The Magic Flute, a boxer denounces his family for failing to pick up his winnings, a poet reflects on motorway madness, a slave arrives in Colorado, a diarist tries to organise his thoughts on Bosnia. And individually all of them are, as the introduction insists, strong stuff.

But squashed in together, and dolled up with posed, artsy-fartsy photographs, there is a bizarre conformity. Too many grand subjects - life, death, fate, luck, love, God and so on - hardly get a look in. Mostly, the extracts are first- person narrations of troubled moments, and the prevailing key is plaintive: it is as if novelists want to be lyric poets, railing against the slings and arrows of their own outrageous fortune.

Except for Ben Okri, there is hardly anything that resmbles an epic, mythic or metaphysical note. The government is questioned a few times, and bourgeois values take a conventional knocking, but there are not many attempts to look over the edge of these modest horizons.

It all seems, by the time you get to the end, like literature with the lid on. One of the unfortunate by-products of the Booker era has been the creation of the image of writers as people who wear black tie (or, less often, a ball gown) and sip glasses of champagne. This notion of the writer as a privileged party-goer needs to be taken down a peg. But one of the authors in Granta says: 'In the late Seventies I was desperately attempting to avoid having a career by doing what I supposed were 'real' jobs. My idea of hell was, and still is, to have to put on a tie and go to an office.'

The world suggested by literature along these lines - a world where hell is an office job - seems cramped, to say the least. Not everyone can sympathise with sufferings, however genuine, that have been voluntarily entered into. If these writers, the feeling goes, are so willing to sneer at the nine-to-five crowd, how can they complain if the nine- to-five crowd sneers back?

This sort of tension gives the booklet an unlooked-for sense of being a club or a 'scene', which none of the writers deserves. Trendiness in literature makes you wince: when Hanif Kureishi berates a schoolmaster for not appreciating the Beatles, you can hardly help snorting that the reason he is able to write so zappily about John Lennon is not that he was alert to the genius of 'She's Leaving Home' when he was in the fifth form, but because he had a teacher who, however crummy and behind the times, knew what to do with a full stop.

If English literature does face a besetting problem, it is probably something to do with class-conciousness. When an American writer satirises the money-grubbing of a financier, the subject is greed. In English hands, the subject is the old school tie, or the hell of office life. English writers have a tough job considering the sufferings of a labourer, a teacher or a nurse without flipping it into an implicit attack on Tory cuts; corrupt cops become stereotypes of police brutality; yobs are type-cast as either spineless degenerates or hapless victims of the, er, Thatcher regime.

Life in Britain is so crowded with class signals that the most stirring dramas are easily diluted into routine social cliches. Even the names are a dead giveaway: certain things are possible if your heroes are called Sammy and Rosie, but how about this: Fortescue and Henrietta get laid. I'm sorry, but it just doesn't cut the mustard, does it?