Granta’s Best Young British Novelists – an update

Ian McEwan's first book. Did it show promise?
Ian McEwan’s first book. Did it show promise?

I have now read at least one book by all twenty of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists so I feel I should now make a few comments. A couple of caveats. Firstly, with four exceptions, I have only read one work by each of them. Many of them have only written one novel but some have written more. Is it fair to judge them on such a limited output? Probably not but I am going to do so anyway. The second caveat is very obvious. Many novelists do not shine with their first or earlier books. Indeed, some novelists make a determined effort to reject their earlier work. Some novelists, of course, produce brilliant early work and then fade away. However, while some of these may turn out to be brilliant later in their careers, I can only judge them on what I have read.

Kamila Shamsie - not British
Kamila Shamsie – not British

First let’s start with the problems. Granta has always tried to be inclusive and that is as it should be. If you have British nationality, even if you might have been born and bred elsewhere, have another nationality and essentially write about elsewhere, you can qualify. The first list included an Indian (Salman Rushdie), a Nigerian (Buchi Emecheta) and a Trinidadian (Shiva Naipaul). Given that the list says British novelists, I do have something of a problem with that. Yes, Rushdie and Emecheta lived a long time in the UK and Naipaul some time but they were were writing about their culture which was not British. This current list has an American (Benjamin Markovits), a Bangladeshi who studied in the US (Tahmima Anam), a Chinese woman whose forthcoming novel is called I am China (Xiaolu Guo), a Pakistani (Kamila Shamsie) and an Afropolitan (Taiye Selasi) – it’s her term; she has a Ghanaian father, Nigerian mother and was educated and lives in the US, though she was born in London which is presumably why she qualifies. I do not consider these people British and they should not be on the list. I have no problem at all with Nadifa Mohamed, born in Somalia but has lived in the UK since she was five, David Szalay, born in Montreal but moved to the UK when he was one and Evie Wyld, who grew up in New South Wales. And, of course, British literature has been very much enriched by writers with immigrant backgrounds such as Zadie Smith (also on this list) and Hanif Kureishi.

An autobiographical novel
An autobiographical novel

The character Benjamin Markovits in the real Benjamin MarkovitsChildish Loves says The kind of book I like to read, the kind of book I have been trying to write, is a straightforward but textured account of a mildly interesting experience. I think that he is saying that he likes (semi-)autobiographical works of fiction rather than fully imagined ones. The (semi-)autobiographical novel has long been a staple of fiction and there are many fine examples. We are seeing it currently in autofiction, a technique used by many contemporary French writers but there are many other examples. I have to admit that I prefer fully imagined fiction. However, the point to make here is that once you have written your (semi-)autobiographical fiction, where do you go afterwards? You could do like Karl Ove Knausgård and keep on producing more. I must admit that I was not terribly excited by his first one (though many people were) and I have yet to read his second one (though I will) and his third one will appear later this year. But Karl Ove Knausgård was in his forties when he started. These twenty writers are, by definition, all under forty. Do they have enough to sustain more autobiography? Of course, many writers of imagined fiction incorporate autobiographical elements in their work but that is not the same thing.

Showed potential
Showed potential

I enjoyed eighteen of these writers. I did not really enjoy Mr. Fox and The Raw Shark Texts. Both were too contrived and tried to be too clever for my taste. However, by the same token, with the possible exception of Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith, I did not think that I was really going to look forward too much to the future writing of these novelists. Of course, some of them will prove me wrong and produce future works of high quality that I and others will really enjoy. Of the twenty writers, I have only high regard for four of them. As well as Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith, I did like Naomi Alderman‘s The Lessons and thought it showed considerable potential. I felt the same about Taiye Selasi‘s Ghana Must Go, though given its very autobiographical nature, I wonder where she will go with her next work. Zadie Smith needs no introduction. She is one of the finest contemporary British novelists. Yes, I am aware that all four are women and,no, this was not a conscious decision to select women writers, though given that twelve of the twenty were women, maybe this is showing that women are going to take over, particularly when we think of the Man Booker and German Book Prize and Nobel Prize winners. I shall keep a close eye on Alderman and Selasi and will continue to read Hall and Smith.

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