Friday, April 12, 2013

Literary Idol, Book Factor....BOYB

Its a big week in the literary calendar. Before X-Factor, before Pop Idol, there was the Best of Young British Novelists, celebrated every ten years since 1983 with a special edition of Granta - in itself a reason for this particular prize to continue, as it makes a lovely book. The 2013 list will be announced on Monday with the launch of a special edition of Granta. There's a Manchester launch next Thursday at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation next Thursday. Obviously we don't know who will be reading, but I'm looking forward to it. 

Nice article on the BBC about this week's list. Granta has used the idea beyond these shores in recent years, best of young American novelists, best of young Brazilians... but its the British one that matters. This is a test the pulse of British literature. Amongst those writers who might have a few books behind them (e.g. Gwendoline Riley) and are still under 40, there will be others who may be yet to burst forth, lying in manuscript somewhere in a London agent/publishers desk. That "London" I use advisedly, as I hope that in the first list to have come of age in the era of blogs that there will be a widening of the net, though if anything the literary scene (or at least the officially sanctioned one) is more London-based and flavoured than ever.

Its rather odd that Granta has been the place for this as over its history Granta has often been a little bit sniffy about fiction, preferring reportage for much of the 80s and 90s than making things up. On the "reality hunger" argument Granta always used to be very much on the David Shields side of the argument. I would say that's changed a little over the last two or three years. Recent Grantas have been big, dynamic affairs and have been actively recruiting new and younger authors such as Jon McGregor and Evie Wyld into their pages; though I imagine there will be a few on the list who have never graced its pages before.

So Granta hasn't given up on fiction - and BOYB novelists represents that. commitment. Though its not without problems. Ironically the BBC article mentions Alison Moore, a debut novelist for Salt last year who made the Booker shortlist. Alison was born in 1971, so just outside of the cut-off point for the list. Young is relative. Since 2003 there has been a massive increase in the number of creative writing courses in the UK, and that must surely feed through into the list. Then there's that blog culture. Will any 3AM Magazine alumni make the list, for instance? I'm sure the Granta list will have a few surprises, a few new names, a few predictables, and is generally for the good - though I think they may have harder job than their predecessors in taking the temperature of literature. Part of it is Granta itself, which has quite a prescriptive view of fiction at the best of times; a hangover from a culture where literature was more important than it is now. Yet from blogs to the "The White Review" there's a vibrancy about that culture at the moment that seems stronger than it was in 2003. That list was filled with thirty-somethings, (though 25 year old Adam Thirlwell could make it two lists in a row...) and in Peace, Barker, Mitchell, Kennedy and Litt had five of the most important novelists of the last decade.

Literary fiction, whether we call that a genre (as Paul Magrs did) or simply a list of what's good, is important to the culture; and like with music or poetry, there's a professionalism and competency about so many writers these days that is probably as good as at any time in history. Whether we have writers who are able to dominate the culture is another thing entirely, and to be honest, I don't know any writers who even think that way. The desire is to write good books and hope someone likes them. If the Barnes-Amis-Rushdie generation had a swagger and an ego to go with it, the writers I know are remarkably sanguine about their reputation. John Freeman, Granta's editor says, somewhat ominously that "my own preference is for novelists who can tell big stories, which sounds easy, but in my experience is as rare as the long-whiskered owlet." It would be interesting to ask him, once the list is announced how many of the twenty are telling "big stories" - as in the encomium's on the list there will be a sense that this is a generation with stories to tell and ways of telling it that are the equal of the last three lists. Writers aren't pack animals however; there's only one David Peace, one Nicola Barker, after all. My own preference is for writers who might conceivably be doing something with the language, and have something to say about our contemporary world. I imagine that there will be a bit of both on the list when its announced. 


Dan Holloway said...

Interesting point about blog culture. Of the 3am alumni, I would certainly list Ben Myers and Lee Rourke, but I was thinking about just this subject the other day, and so much of teh most exciting and vibrant literature being produced at the moment and showcased online is poetry or short and flash fiction rather than novels. The result is that a list like this, when we inevitably reflect on its lack of real depth of strength, will give a somewhat false impression of the vibrancy and diversity of today's literary Britain. A best young writers list is the obvious way to redress this. I was recently asked to contribute my best five young writers for a list and of them only one - Kirsty Logan, whose best published work is in short story form - is an emerging novelist. One was a flash fiction writer and three were poets.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Yes, Granta has occasionally chosen a short story writer - notably Helen Simpson - but usually in the hope they have a novel in them somewhere, and Dan Rhodes, godfather of the flash, was on the last list. Its a point I should have made. Would Luke Kennard make it now he's written a novella? Will there (there won't) be a graphic novelist on the list?

Dan Holloway said...

mm, Luke Kennard would be an interesting addition. I think the tendency to include a short story writer "in the hope they have a novel in them" is understandable but doesn't really do justice to the diversity of the literary scene or the location of its various strengths and weaknesses - for all comparisons are impossible, as a snapshot of the landsape it is fascinating to compare poetry and novels and shorts and non-fiction, especially when you get further down the list - my feeling is that the 11th to 20th best novelist under 40 list would look decidedly mediocre against the 11th to 20th best poet - and that would give a fascinating insight into the lie of teh literary land

Adrian Slatcher said...

Well Simpson has stubbornly not written a novel. The irony is that the extracts in Granta will be either short stories or less satisfyingly bits of novels. You're probably right about longer lists of poets and novelists though traditionally people have written their best fiction when a little older, their best poetry a little younger.

Unknown said...

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