Young writers list sparks literary debate

Helen Oyeyemi, Ross Raisin, Nadifa Mohamed: all names to watch out for, after featuring among Granta’s famous Best of Young British Novelists. But are these lists really worth the hype?

For nine years in every decade, the magazine Granta is little discussed outside literary circles. But then every tenth year, it produces a list that unfailingly provokes weeks of hype and debate, and inspires a lifetime’s gratitude in its chosen authors and their publishers.

The ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ is a special compilation of works by 20 of the UK’s finest and most promising writers under the age of 40. Why is it so famous? Because in each of its three editions so far, it has selected writers who have gone on to become some of the most renowned voices of their generation.

The first list, published in 1983, was perhaps the most prophetic of all, with no fewer than five winners of the Man Booker Prize among its now-famous names – Salman Rushdie, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Kazuo Ishiguro.

The second included Jeanette Winterson, whose novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is today considered a landmark feminist work, and Will Self, now a famous cultural critic and TV personality as well as a prestigious novelist. The third introduced the world to writers like Zadie Smith.

This week, the list’s fourth edition is published. So what does it tell us about our next generation of literary superstars? For one thing, women are on the rise: for the first time over half of the novelists are female. Even more striking is the list’s multiculturalism, with Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Somalia and Nigeria all represented in the heritage of the young writers.

For some people, this international perspective is an encouraging sign of Britain’s openness and diversity. Others think that the judges have overlooked exciting talent for the sake of ‘topicality and trendiness’, picking writers for their unusual backgrounds rather than their work.

There is nothing particularly unusual about this controversy: the Granta list is intended provoke debate. But some go further, and question whether lists like this are really valuable at all.

Listomania

In the modern media, lists are a practically an epidemic: top songs of the month, top people of the century, top places to buy pizza in Ipswich. What’s the point? Lists like these don’t tell us anything interesting, say critics; they are just hoards of subjective preferences and prejudices, crudely ordering things into arbitrary groups and reducing whole worlds of thought or culture to meaningless trivia.

Of course no list is ever definitive, admit others: a list is the beginning of a debate, not the end. But the modern world is far too complex and full of knowledge for us to digest it all fully ourselves. Lists are a valuable way of processing information, making it comprehensible and accessible. And besides, they’re fun!

You Decide

  1. Are lists a useful way of talking about literature and the arts?
  2. Do critics serve any important purpose? If so, what?

Activities

  1. Pick an a subject or theme you care about and make a ‘top five’ list for it. Explain your criteria and write a brief explanation of your choices.
  2. Pick one of the famous authors who has previously appeared onGranta’s list and write a short biography of them.

Some People Say...

“Anything that can be simplified into a list is not worth paying attention to.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about who’s on some list compiled by an obscure magazine?
If you care about literature at all, it’s worth paying attention: these people could soon join the ranks of the world’s most celebrated writers (one of them, Zadie Smith, could already reasonably claim to be among them). Why not read a read a little about the writers who made the list, then try reading the work of whichever one interests you most?
But why doesGranta get to decide who’s the best?
Good question: one of the objections that some people have to awards like this is that they give too much power to a small group of critics. But a place onGranta’s list doesn’t guarantee fame or fortune, just gives young writers a valuable publicity boost.

Word Watch

Man Booker Prize
One of the most prestigious literary prizes, awarded each year to a book judged by a panel to be the best full length work of fiction. The appropriateness of the name is not deliberate: the ‘Booker’ part of the title is named after the original sponsors, the food company Booker-McConnell.
Salman Rushdie
An British Indian writer of magic realist novels who won the 1981 Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children.
Pat Barker
Most famous for her a trilogy of novels, centred around a group of mentally troubled characters in World War One. The final book was awarded the Booker Prize.
Ian McEwan
McEwan’s clever and painstakingly constructed novels, such as Atonement and Enduring Love, have made him one of Britain’s most acclaimed novelists.
Julian Barnes
Winner of the 2011 Booker Prize for a short work about death called The Sense of an Ending.
Kazuo Ishiguro
One of very few novelists to make the Granta list twice, in 1983 and 1993. His most famous novels are Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.
Zadie Smith
Also a two-timer on the Best of Young British list. Zadie Smith’s novels, especially her debut White Teeth, are some of the most talked-about books in recent years.

Subjects

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