In 1983, Granta magazine’s list of the 20 most promising young British novelists under 40 ushered the likes of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Pat Barker and Rose Tremain on to the national stage. It was a prescient corralling of the names that would go on to dominate British fiction over the years to come.
A decade later the exercise was repeated and it was the turn of Jeanette Winterson and Alan Hollinghurst. In 2003, the list included Sarah Waters, Monica Ali and Zadie Smith.
Now the literary magazine has released its 2013 list and for the first time there is a majority of women. It is also an extremely international list: the writers’ backgrounds – and storytelling interests – include China, Nigeria, Ghana, the United States, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Names that may be fresh to many include David Szalay, author of three novels and hailed by the Guardian as a rising star; Taiye Selasi, whose first novel was published to great acclaim only last month; and Sunjeev Sahota, who, according to John Freeman, the editor of Granta, “had never read a novel until he was 18 – until he bought Midnight’s Children at Heathrow. He studied maths, he works in marketing and finance, and he lives in Leeds, completely outside of the literary world.”
Sahota’s first novel, Ours Are the Streets, was about the journey to radicalisation of a young British Muslim. His forthcoming work, said Freeman, “is like his ninth novel, it’s such a huge leap forward”.
Better-known names include Smith and Adam Thirwell, both of whom also appeared on the 2003 list. (Adam Mars-Jones, Kazuo Ishiguro and AL Kennedy, who was a judge this year, have previously managed the feat of being listed twice.) Other established authors include Sarah Hall, who has already been short-listed for the Man Booker; Kamila Shamsie, who is technically Pakistani but is likely to receive British citizenship soon; and Ross Raisin, whose first novel, God’s Own Country, made him the Sunday Times young writer of the year in 2009.
Ned Beauman’s inclusion will not surprise fans of the precociously playful, genre-bending author of The Teleportation Accident; and Adam Foulds has impressed readers with novels including A Quickening Maze, about the poet John Clare.
'Fresh and bold' writers
According to Freeman, the judges were looking for writers who were “fresh and bold – people with a sense of how to tell a story, a sense of the form and how to challenge it”.
Although the writers did not represent a single literary tendency, said Freeman, “they are less wedded to nationality than writers have ever been before”. Freeman said the decision-making – after panellists had read works by 150 authors – lasted about five hours, with half the list decided in the first hour, followed by “endless debate” about the remaining slots.
The list is already proving controversial. Reviewing the Granta anthology in which writing by all 20 authors appears, the Guardian critic Theo Tait said it offered “some exceptional writing” but was “mostly solid, old-fashioned storytelling or hit-and-miss, boil-in-the-bag postmodernism”.
There are some notable absences. Jon McGregor, acclaimed author of Even the Dogs, had been heavily tipped by, among others, Freeman’s predecessor as Granta editor, Alex Clark. Freeman said there had been fierce debate about McGregor.
“He was very close to the list. But in the end there were more people on the committee than not who weren’t in love with his work. Another panel would have put him on. I admire him – we have published him in the magazine.” – © Guardian News & Media 2013