Friday, April 26, 2013

BOYB in Manchester

10 days after its announcement, 3 of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists came to the Anthony Burgess centre in Manchester to read to a reasonable crowd. The book itself is a handsome, massive thing, worth comparing its heft with the slimmer 1983 original. With either novel extracts or occasional stories from the 20 authors, plus some spiritedly conceptual author photographs, and with an introduction from Granta editor John Freeman it feels more like a "taster" menu than a coherent feast. One of the prevailing puzzles of the publishing industry is how slow it takes for books to make it from author to list - so half a dozen profiles talk about an extract that is from a "novel published in 2014." That said, it would probably take till then to read the published novels by the 20 on the list.

Manchester's "three" were Adam Foulds, Stephen Hall, and Xiaolu Guo, who all gave short readings then were interviewed by Granta's online editor Ted Hodgkinson. In some ways, you begin to see the futility of the exercise. All three writers have much to recommend them, but are so different in backgrounds, style and aspirations as to make any connections hard to fathom. They responded gamely to the questions; but finally fell down when asked about their fellow contemporary novelists. Guo said she didn't read contemporary fiction, as there was so much older stuff that she needed to catch up on. Foulds said it was probably not a good thing for writers to read too many of their contemporaries, before realising the absurdity of this, and mentioning that he "read all the time," and Hall was just pleased to be here.

Foulds new novel is another historical affair. I much enjoyed his Clare/Tennyson novel "The Quickening Maze" and the extract from his new book, full of his precise, evocative descriptions, is set in the Second World War, as a soldier leaves home to finally end up in Sicily. Lines like "we were listening to the wireless" seemed a bit phoned in, but he's a tricky writer, adept at atmosphere and unspoken connection, and extracting something from a new novel may have been not that easy to do. His interest in a very English history (he has also written about the Mau Mau rising) rather than contemporary Britain, intrigues me; it felt that he was looking for stories that resonate. Such a displacement is particularly true of Xiaolu Guo, who has been prolifically published in both Chinese and English, and is also a film-maker. She read a piece from her first novel - written nearly two decades ago - to highlight her interest in being between two languages. It came out of her being unhappy with the English translation of her first novel, and she decided to do it herself.
She felt that this displacement was a key part of her writing, but at the same time, disavowed the idea of the "immigrant" writer. There is no need to think that way, she felt, in a world where people frequently a nationality different from where they now live. Stephen Hall is in some ways the most interesting writer on the Granta list because of his interest in the trickiness of the novel form. The new book he previewed has two parallel stories and he gave us a choice - the one that is set the day after tomorrow, or the one in the 1850s. Both are extracted in the Granta book; you have to turn it upside down and change direction to read the second story.

In his introduction John Freeman shows some chutzpah in, pace Bellow,  beginning "I am an American, Cleveland born" and there does seem an air of the transatlantic NY-LON line about this Granta selection. I think our Granta crew were all catching the train back to London after the reading for instance. Its strange, for as an advocate of American fiction for so long, I'm feeling for the first time a bit of a disjuncture between the two countries and traditions now in a way that I haven't in the past. This might be a good time for British fiction, though as the Granta list shows, "British" is more a flag of convenience when it comes to these selections of late. Like the English Premier League there's now more imports from further afield than from, say, Northern Ireland and Scotland.The merits of the list will be debated here and elsewhere over time. As one of the judges is quoted as saying in the introduction, that its an unreal way of reading, reading 150 novelists "under 40". Writers missing the cut off included "young Turks" like Mieville and McCarthy (and there's a notable cluster of writers in their late 30s in the list) inevitable in a decade-apart survey. More strange, I felt, was the focus, still, on the "novel" and the "novelist" - if anything is breaking down over the next few years, its that description I think. Guo is a film-maker; Hall (like Naomi Alderman, also on the list) contributes to video games.

Freeman has just announced he is returning to New York (somewhat oddly for an editor, to teach creative writing.) The size of this Granta collection means that he may well have to pay excess baggage. I'm looking forward to reading the selections, but also some of the novels. Any taster menu should lead you onto things you haven't tried but hope to enjoy.

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