Granta’s best young novelists

Philip Hensher's Kitchen Venom
Philip Hensher’s Kitchen Venom

Philip Hensher writes in the Independent of Granta’s list of best young novelists . I was aware of this forthcoming list – Granta had already flagged it – but this is a good opportunity to look at the proposed list and past lists. Hensher himself made the 2003 list, something he (modestly but deservedly) mentions in his article. Indeed, I bought his Kitchen Venom (see cover at left) at that time but, to my shame, have yet to read it. As Hensher and others have pointed out, the past lists have stood up quite well.

Ursula Bentley - on the 1983 list
Ursula Bentley – on the 1983 list

Here is the first (1983) list: William Boyd, Adam Mars-Jones, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Clive Sinclair, Buchi Emecheta, A N Wilson, Ursula Bentley, Christopher Priest, Maggie Gee, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Shiva Naipaul (died 1985), Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Norman, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain, Lisa St Aubin de Teran, Alan Judd, Salman Rushdie. Of those, Barnes, Barker, Emecheta, Priest, McEwan, Amis, Naipaul, Ishiguro, Swift, Tremain and Rushdie have all gone onto fame and, perhaps, fortune. Adam Mars-Jones appeared not only on this list but on the next one. By the time of the second one, he still had not written a novel. He has gone on to write three more novels. I have read one and I thought it was dire. But he is a good critic. Clive Sinclair looked interesting – I thought Bedbugs wasn’t bad – but it never seemed to happen for him and he faded away. A N Wilson is very well known as a critic and historian and less so as a novelist. I have to admit that I have never read Ursula Bentley, who wrote black comedies. All of her books are out of print and she sadly died in 2004. I did read a couple of Maggie Gee’s early books. Though she has continued to write and publish, she seems to have slipped out of the public eye somewhat. I am not sure why. I was surprised to find Philip Norman on this list. For me, he will be remembered as the biographer of various pop stars but he apparently wrote seven novels, all long since out of print. I do have a copy of Lisa St Aubin de Terán’s Keepers of the House but I have not read it and probably will not. She is known but not to the degree of others on the list. Alan Judd is also still writing. Short of Glory is great fun but not great literature. He now seems to write more popular fiction.

A L Kennedy&'s Paradise - one of the best of the Granta writers
A L Kennedy’s Paradise – one of the best of the Granta writers

Here is the second (1993) list: Helen Simpson, Alan Hollinghurst, Tibor Fischer, Lawrence Norfolk, Adam Lively, Philip Kerr, Will Self, Adam Mars-Jones, Candia McWilliam, Ben Okri, Louis de Bernieres, Esther Freud, Iain Banks, A L Kennedy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Caryl Phillips, Anne Billson, Nicholas Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson. I have actually read books by all of these writers and there are some very good one: Hollinghurst, Norfolk, Okri, de Bernieres, Banks, Kennedy, Phillips, Shakespeare and Winterson. Helen Simpson has not written much and mainly stories, which is probably why she is not particularly well-known. Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog was an excellent work but, like other authors before him never really followed up with a comparable work. Adam Lively was the same. His Sing the Body Electric was a fascinating piece of work but he never wrote another novel. Candia McWilliam had serious health problems, which meant that her novel writing career ended some time ago, though she started off well enough. As the daughter of Lucian and great-granddaughter of Sigmund, Esther Freud had the right genes. She also started off well but seems to have faded away. Anne Billson is more of a horror writer so perhaps should not have been on this list.

One of the best novels of the 2003 Granta best young writers
One of the best novels of the 2003 Granta best young writers

I think the jury is still out on much of the third list: Sarah Waters, Monica Ali, Andrew O’Hagan, Dan Rhodes, Rachel Seiffert, Toby Litt, Rachel Cusk, Alan Warner, Nicola Barker, David Mitchell, Susan Elderkin, Stephen Gill, Peter Ho Davies, A. L. Kennedy, Ben Rice, David Peace, Hari Kunzru, Philip Hensher, Robert McLiam Wilson, Zadie Smith, Adam Thirlwell. I must confess that I have not read or even heard of any of the novels of Andrew O’Hagan, Dan Rhodes, Rachel Seiffert, Susan Elderkin, Stephen Gill (who is primarily a photographer), Peter Ho Davies or Ben Rice. This undoubtedly reflects my ignorance but, I suspect, I am not alone in this. Waters, Ali, Litt, Cusk, Warner, Barker, Mitchell, Kennedy (again), Peace, Kunzru, Hensher, Wilson, Smith and Thirwell have all gone on to some success.

Trezza Azzopardi - the TLS liked her
Trezza Azzopardi – the TLS liked her

There were a few interesting comments on this list. The TLS tried to guess in advance who would be on it. They got some right but, of the ones they did not get right, I think only Trezza Azzopardi, Niall Griffiths and Andrew Miller have had any real fame. The British Council also had a go at responding to the 2003 list. They also had Niall Griffiths and also had quite an interesting list. The Observer anticipated the list. They guessed quite well but, like everyone else, also liked Niall Griffiths, whom the actual list did not include. Kate Kellaway in the Guardian discusses the forthcoming 2003 list with others and, like a couple of the ones mentioned above, they like Gwendoline Riley who did not make the list and Dan Rhodes and Alan Warner, who did.

Another Welsh author worth considering
Another Welsh author worth considering

So onto this year’s list. Hensher has some interesting ideas. I must say that I have heard of all of his top ten, though only read Zadie Smith, Sarah Hall and Paul Murray. However, I have only heard of a couple of the second ten, though it is interesting to see that Gwendoline Riley is there, though I don’t think she really lived up to the promise of Cold Water. His list seems excellent to me, though I think he might have considered Yvette Edwards, Adam Roberts and Caryl Lewis. I shall look forward to seeing this year’s list, which will doubtless have a few surprises and a few writers who will go onto fame and fortune.

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