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.

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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue