In a radio interview which coincided with the Granta announcement, twice-listed judge A. L. Kennedy mentioned that the business climate means publishers pick safe books, which makes for blandness. I was worried, and following Alex Clark’s desperately slender prediction for the Guardian, people were right to worry. There is a danger that lists like this perpetuate a cycle of deserving, whereby, based on previous recognitions, awards and competitions, a certain writer becomes the right person to recognise and award. Luckily, the list didn’t fall into that trap.
Chances are, you won’t know who half of these authors are. If you do, you wouldn’t have a couple of weeks ago before you swotted up, and even then, everyone was way off. If you haven’t heard them, here they are very quickly: Naomi Alderman, Tahmima Anam, Ned Beauman, Jenni Fagan, Adam Foulds, Xiaolu Guo, Sarah Hall, Steven Hall, Joanna Kavenna, Benjamin Markovits, Nadifa Mohamed, Helen Oyeyemi, Ross Raisin, Sunjeev Sahota, Taiye Selasi, Kamila Shamsie, Zadie Smith, David Szalay, Adam Thirlwell, Evie Wyld.
The story so far: Adam Foulds, Sarah Hall and Ned Beauman were certs; and lists were bound to scramble for Selasi, a protege of Toni Morrison whose debut Ghana Must Go was a bit of a sensation. Smith and Thirlwell deserved to be on the list again purely for being two of the only British novelists who write importantly about the novel and its future. Thirlwell’s fiction since his first novel, Politics, hasn’t been great, but that’s the risk of innovation, and he appears to be on the cusp of writing something brilliant; his big work of non-fiction, Miss Herbert, a history of formal innovators, the art of the novel, and a manifesto for his own writing, is his most significant work. Smith’s NW finally delivered on White Teeth’s promise of a Great London Novel, and on the promise her New York Review of Books essay ‘Two Paths For The Novel’ made for an essential one.
There is the usual handful of changeables and forgettables, and everyone will have their own tips they’ll be indignant not to see on the list. Richard Milward, a compassionate, formally ingenious, stylish writer in his twenties who has nonetheless been publishing for almost a decade, is mine. But he is young enough to still make it onto the next one. Even then, the list is surprisingly strong.
I have been keeping up with Granta events this week. On Tuesday I went to see seventeen of the authors read a few sentences each in the Piccadilly Waterstones. I was Persona non Granta, getting in the way when the authors reached for a smoked salmon blini. In the Q and A at the end I asked John Freeman, Granta’s editor, whether he felt pressured by the literary climate – the record badness of the Booker in 2011, for instance – into choosing a reactionary, overtly rigorous list. A celebration of the writers chosen probably wasn’t the right place for a question about the politics of list making. Freeman quite predictably said that he hadn’t been ‘pressured’ into anything, and had picked the best of what he was given, though this contradicted the remarkable and unexpected way he and the authors later demonstrated their engagement with the list: they turned it into an intellectual investigation of lists. These authors seem to be in constant writerly transit: they’ve lived in many places each. Kamila Shamsie, in a beautiful response to a trite question about the concept of home, noted that ‘people expect there to be a kind of monogamy – why shouldn’t you be allowed to have more than one?’ Helen Oyeymi said that she has recently been writing in a second language, because it forces you to ‘become comfortable with never saying what you mean to say,’ which is comparable to the natural state of writing.
The list is almost half made up of expats, some of whom read the best extracts and gave the best answers: Markovitz, Anam, Shamsie and Guo, by a stroke of luck for us, chose to move here after a portion of their sensibilities would have developed elsewhere; Smith, Szalay, Oyeyemi and Selasi no longer live here. But the double fact of not being responsible for the gifts of half of these, and not being able to hold on to the other, must say bad things about our literary culture. If anything, it is the list’s surprising, almost undeserving strength which throws the British literary reputation into question. Had some of these authors not chosen to live here, or had there been a rule excluding those who left the country at the time of submission, would we have had to make do with Stephen Kelman and Francesca Segal? If Britain’s list turns out to be world class, that will only be because it has borrowed from the world.
The following day I went to a panel at the London Book Fair where Freeman, Thirlwell and A. L. Kennedy spoke more about writing and Granta in general than this year’s list. I asked a lighthearted question this time, which got a couple of laughs. I think I managed to perturb Thirlwell the night before when I cornered him, accidently told him I loved Miss Thirlwell rather than Miss Herbert, and asked him to sign Nabokov’s book on Gogol instead of one of his own.
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