Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists - who are they?

Penguin-style biographies for the twenty listed writers with essays, reviews and free fiction.

Last night Granta launched their "Best of Young British Novelists": volume 4. Having convinced anyone who reads the Sunday papers of the soon-to-be canonicity of their selection, I raced home from work to listen in on the announcement. I had heard of about four of them.

This is no bad thing. I set about discovering who they were, where they’d published, what they wrote. Below are my findings. In the interest of fairness, I decided to write them up in the style of a Penguin first-page biography - those oh so romantic and satisfying glosses that make writers’ lives sound so simple, and thrilling, and better than our own.

Where applicable, you can click the novelists’ names to read essays, review, fiction and columns published in the New Statesman.

Sunjeev Sahota

Sunjeev Sahota was born in Derby in 1981 and raised in Chesterfield. He studied mathematics at Imperial College London and was prompted to begin writing his debut novel, Ours are the Streets (2011), after the 7/7 London bombings. He lives with his wife and daughter in Leeds, where he is working on his second novel The Years of the Runaways.

Steven Hall

Steven Hall was born in Derbyshire, England, in 1975. He studied fine arts at Sheffield Hallam University and currently lives in Hull. His debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, was published in 2007 and won the Somerset Maugham Award in 2008. Joyce Carol Oats referred to the Texts as “Heartfelt, lyrical ... Rendered with the precise attentiveness to psychological states of mind worthy of a hyperventilating James Joyce.” He is currently at work on his second novel, “an infinite text about the death of print and linear narrative”, titled The End of Endings.

Taiye Selasi

Taiye Selasi was born in London in 1979 and raised in Boston. She studied at Yale and Oxford Universities, and has since lived in Delhi and Rome. In 2005, LiP Magazine published her seminal essay, “Bye-Bye, Barbar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?), which was widely circulated and popularised the concept of Afropolitanism. Her debut novel, Ghana Must Go, was published in March 2013.

Ross Raisin

Ross Raisin was born in West Yorkshire in 1979. After graduating with a degree in English from King’s College London, he worked for a time as the manager of a wine bar, before studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmith’s University. His debut novel, God’s Own Country (2008), won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His second, Waterline, was published in 2011.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi was born in London in 1984. He parents are Nigerian. She wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl (2005), while studying for her A Levels. Her second novel, The Opposite House, was published by Bloomsbury in 2007, while her third, White is for Witching, was awarded a Somerset Maugham Award in 2010. Her fourth and most recent novel, Mr Fox, was published by Picador in 2011. She has lived in London, Paris, New York and most recently Berlin. She also writes plays.

Click here to read a free short story by Oyeyemi: "i live with him, i see his face, i go no more away".

Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo was born in south-east China in 1973. She studied film at the Beijing Film Academy and published regularly before moving to London in 2002. Her first books were published in China. Her first novel translated into English, Village of Stone (2003), was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, while her first to be written in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), was shortlisted for the Orange (now Women’s) Prize for Fiction. Known equally as a director and producer, her most recent film is UFO in Her Eyes (2011).

Click here to read a free short story by Guo: "No Romance".

Nadifa Mohamed

Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa, Somalia, in 1981, and moved to London in 1986. She studied history and politics at Oxford University and is the author of al account of her father Black Mamba Boy (2009), a semi-autobiographic’s life in Yemen in the 1930s and 40s. The book was shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Award, Dylan Thomas Prize and John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. She is working on her second novel.

Benjamin Markovits

Benjamin Markovits was born in California in 1973. He was raised in Texas, London and Berlin, and published his first novel The Syme Papers (2004) after a brief period as a professional basketball player in Germany. He has since published five further novels, the most recent of which, Childish Loves (2011), was the third in a trilogy about the life of Lord Byron. He has worked as a high school English teacher in New York and as an editor at the New Left Review in London. He currently teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Click here to read Markovits's NS sports column.

Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna was born in 1973 and raised in Suffolk and the Midlands. She has lived in the USA, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic States, an experience which inspired her first non-fiction work, The Ice Museum (2005). She has published three novels, Inglorious (2007), The Birth of Love (2010) and Come to the Edge (2012), and has written for The New Yorker, London Review of Books and New York Times, among others. She was recently Writer-in-Residence at St Peter’s College, Oxford.

Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall was born in Carlisle in 1974. She studied English and art history at Aberystwyth University and creative writing at the University of St Andrews. She is the author of four novels: Haweswater (2002), The Electric Michelangelo (2004), The Carhullan Army (2007) and How to Paint a Dead Man (2009), and one short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference (2011), which was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize. She lives in Norwich.

Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan was born in 1977 in Livingstone, Scotland. She studied creative writing at Greenwich University and won a scholarship to Royal Holloway, University of London. After two collections of poetry – Urchin Belle (2009) and The Dead Queen of Bohemia (2010) – she published her debut novel, The Panopticon, in 2012. The book was selected for the Waterstones 11 most promising fiction debuts of the year. She lives in Portobello, Edinburgh, where she is working on a collection of short stories and a new book of poems.

Ned Beauman

Ned Beauman was born in London in 1985. He studied philosophy at Cambridge University. He is the author of Boxer, Beetle (2010) and The Teleportation Accident (2012) and has been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and Man Booker Prize. He writes regular criticism for The Guardian, FT, Dazed & Confused and others. He lives in New York.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is a novelist, essayist and critic born in London in 1975. She studied English at Cambridge University and is the author of the novels White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005) and NW (2012), as well as the essay collection Changing My Mind (2009). She lives in New York where she teaches as part of the creative writing programme at New York University. She was selected as a Granta Best Young British Novelist in 2003.

Click here to listen to Zadie Smith in conversation with NS culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire.

Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie was born in 1973 in Karachi, Pakistan. She graduated with a BA in creative writing from Hamilton College, New York, and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of five novels, the most recent of which, Burnt City (2009), was shortlisted for the Orange (now Women’s) Prize for Fiction and has been translated into more than 20 languages. She is a trustee of English PEN and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in London.

David Szalay

David Szalay was born in Montreal in 1974 and raised in London. He studied at Oxford University and is the author of three novels: London and the South-East (2008), The Innocent (2009) and Spring (2011). He has won a Betty Trask Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. He was also named as one of the Telegraph’s “Top 20 British Writers Under 40”.

Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman was born in London in 1974. She studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University and creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of Disobedience (2006), The Lessons (2010) and The Liars’ Gospel (2012). She writes regularly on technology for the Guardian and was Lead Writer on the video games Perplex City (2007) and Zombies, Run! (2012). She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.

Tahmima Anam

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975. She was raised in Paris, Bangkok and New York, due to her father’s work with the United Nations. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1997 and earned a PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University in 2004. Her first novel, A Golden Age (2007), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was translated into 22 languages, while her second, The Good Muslim (2011) was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

Adam Thirlwell

Adam Thirlwell was born in London in 1978. He was educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School and Oxford University, where he studied English. He is the author of Politics (2003), The Escape (2009) and Kapow! (2012), an experimental text with unfolding pages published by Visual Editions. He has twice been selected for Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists and has also been the recipient of a Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask Award. He lives in London.

Click here to read Adam Thirlwell on central European literature.

Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld was born in 1980 and raised in London and New South Wales. She studied creative writing at Bath Spa University and Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009) and All the Birds, Singing (2013), and works at an independent book shop in Peckham, south-east London and lives locally.

Adam Foulds

Adam Foulds was born in London in 1974. He graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia in 2001. He is the author of two novels, The Truth About These Strange Times (2007) and The Quickening Maze (2009), as well as the book-length narrative poem The Broken Word (2008). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in London.

Click here to read a free short story: "A Kindness".

Elsewhere in prize news, Adam Johnson has won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son (2012). The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction has also been announced.

The new Granta young persons outside the British Council. Photo: Granta.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage