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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why can't we stop for death?

The Black Mirror and The Worm at the Core reveal the human obsession with, and denial of, our mortality.

When he was entering what he knew would be the final stage of his terminal illness, Bob Monkhouse used to joke that the terrible thing about dying was how stiff it left you feeling the next day. There is something pleasantly cavalier in the comedian’s quip. Why make a tragedy of something that will happen to us all? Perhaps we’d be wiser if we didn’t think of death at all, but instead – as the philosopher Spinoza recommended – only of life. But that kind of wisdom seems to be beyond our capacity. The human preoccupation with death is pervasive and universal, and every society offers remedies for the anxiety that the fact of mortality evokes.

Religions have their afterlives, while secular faiths offer continuity with some larger entity – nations, political projects, the human species, a process of cosmic evolution – to stave off the painful certainty of oblivion. In their own lives, human beings struggle to create an image of themselves that they can project into the world. Careers and families prolong the sense of self beyond the grave. Acts of exceptional heroism and death-defying extreme sports serve a similar impulse. By leaving a mark, we can feel we are not just fleeting individuals who will soon be dead and then forgotten.

Against this background, it might seem that the whole of human culture is an exercise in death denial. This is the message of Stephen Cave’s thoughtful and beautifully clear Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation (2012). A more vividly personal but no less compelling study of our denial of death is presented in Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium (2015), in which the author uses her experience of working at a Californian funeral parlour to show how contemporary mortuary practice – removing the corpse as quickly as possible, then prettifying it so that it almost seems alive – serves to expel the fact of death from our lives.

Both books cite the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death (1973) Becker, whose work is now undergoing something of a revival, suggested that flight from death is the driving force of civilisation. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements, as well as its worst crimes, can be understood as attempts to ward off mortality.

Becker’s work is the avowed inspiration of the latest book in this growing canon, The Worm at the Core, co-authored by three American social psychologists. They begin with a story:

On a rainy, grey day in December 1973, philosopher Sam Keen, writing for Psychology Today, trundled down the halls of a hospital in Burnaby, British

Columbia, to interview a terminally ill cancer patient who doctors said had just days to live. When Keen entered the room, the dying man told him, with a touch of mortal irony: “You are catching me in extremis. This is a test of everything I’ve written about death. And I’ve got a chance to show how one dies . . .”

The dying man was Ernest Becker. Talking to Keen, he summarised the theory that others are now taking up and developing: “We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death.”

Becker’s career had not been easy. Born in 1924, he joined the army at the age of 18 and served in an infantry battalion that liberated a Nazi death camp. After a period working at the American embassy in Paris he decided to become an anthropologist and entered academic life. Drifting from one university to another, he was popular with students (who at one point offered to pay his salary when his contract was terminated) but failed to make much of an impression on his colleagues. In another irony, his book The Denial of Death was awarded the Pulitzer Prize two months after he died in 1974.

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski chanced upon Becker’s writings in the early 1980s. “Like the Rosetta Stone, they were to us a revelation . . . Becker explained how the fear of death guided human behaviour.” Filled with enthusiasm, the three young psychologists tried to share his ideas at the 1984 meeting of the Society for Experimental Psychology. But the audience started drifting away when they mentioned that their work was influenced by psychoanalysis and existential philosophy; when they went on to cite the ideas of Marx, Kierkegaard and Freud, “renowned psychologists were storming the conference room exits”. The authors then submitted a paper to a flagship academic journal. Some months later, they received a one-line review: “I have no doubt that this paper would be of no interest to any psychologist, living or dead.” ­Somehow, one suspects that Becker would not have been surprised by this response.

Undaunted, the authors then did 25 years of research to test their ideas. Melding existential thinking with the findings of empirical social science, they argue that terror of death infuses a wide range of human behaviours – from obsessive-compulsive disorders and the anxious pursuit of sex through to the search for self-esteem and the use of violence to harm those who challenge our beliefs. The Worm at the Core is the most comprehensive and well-evidenced account to date of the idea that fending off the awareness of death is the prime mover of the human condition. It’s a considerable achievement, showing up the bigotry and timidity of the initial academic reaction to the authors’ ideas.

At the same time, like other such accounts – including Becker’s – The Worm at the Core suffers from neglecting the conflicting impulses that have shaped the human response to death. They are right to suggest that it is awareness of death, more than anything else, which differentiates human beings from other animals. They are also right to argue that denial of death is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Where they go astray is in passing over how, on the contrary, many human beings have welcomed their mortality.

To start with, religions aren’t always immortality cults. A preoccupation with death may be universally human, and attempts to escape from it are found in many cultures and traditions – including, as the authors show, Chinese alchemy. But a longing for everlasting life has been at its strongest in societies and individuals whose values are shaped by monotheism, more particularly by Christianity. (Belief in an afterlife hasn’t been central in most currents of Judaism.) In ancient Greek polytheism, it was believed that the gods envied people their mortality; everlasting life might be a curse – an eternity of boredom. In many of their forms, Hinduism and Buddhism express a search for mortality, the project of releasing human beings from the unending life that comes with the cycle of transmigration and rebirth.

For the poets and philosophers of pre-Christian Europe, death was by no means always an evil. The Roman Stoic Seneca had no compunction in writing to a young disciple that he should not be afraid to consider suicide if he had already tasted most of life’s pleasures. Even more boldly, the Greek poet Theognis, writing some time in the 6th century BC, declared: “Best for all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all” – a line that Nietzsche used in his analysis of ancient Greek culture. In his poem “Tess’s Lament”, Thomas Hardy has the heroine of Tess of the D’Urbervilles give voice to a similar sentiment: “I cannot bear my life as writ,/I’d have my life unbe;/Would turn my memory to a blot/. . . And gone all trace of me!” What Tess wants is not just to cease to exist, but to “unbe” – never to have been born. Hardy’s character illustrates the power of Freud’s insight that human beings can be moved as much by a longing for complete extinction as by the urge to live.

In The Black Mirror Raymond Tallis, trained as a doctor and for much of his life an expert in geriatric medicine, writes as a philosopher. He writes in his overture to this strange, bold, and courageous book, “If to be a philosopher is to be an onlooker, the vantage point of death is the ultra ne plus of the philosophical viewpoint: you look upon your life from the virtual position of one who has outlived it.” As he observes, his book is an implicit rejoinder to Spinoza’s injunction that a free human being should think only of life: “The free man (and woman) who is preparing for life may think more deeply and, indeed, more freely by thinking about death. In order to live like a philosopher, it is necessary to die like one – that is, to die in thought and in imagination before you die in body.”

It’s an observation that encapsulates the central paradox of the book. It may be necessary, if you want to live as a philosopher, to think of yourself as already dead, but it is also impossible given that, as Tallis admits, what comes when life ends is inconceivable to us. How can we envision non-existence? If we are tormented by the thought of death, one reason is that we can’t imagine what it means to be dead. It is hard to see how philosophy can help us here.

In The Black Mirror, Tallis explores the life that will be lost when he is gone. Although he discusses bereavement – for many people, a loss worse than the prospect of their own death – it is not a large part of the book. It is his own loss that chiefly concerns him. He refers to himself throughout in the third person:

 

Visitors paying their last respects will direct them to the capital of RT’s body, to the head with which they had been tête-à-tête for so long. It was here, more than any other part of his frame, that revealed his changing take on a changing world. Little of its meaning-packed anterior surface had been excused the duty to communicate: mouth, eyes, nose, forehead, cheeks, all had their say.

 

This third-person perspective is more than a stylistic device. It’s an attempt to achieve a point of view on one’s life that is outside oneself and yet not that of another living being. But unless you believe in some kind of divine mind, there is no such point of view. Tallis is a convinced atheist – not the all-too-familiar kind, typified by Dawkins, which rants on incessantly about the evils of religion, but the rarer, more intelligent variety that finds the very idea of God empty and incoherent. If the idea of God is devoid of meaning, however, so, too, is the idea that the world can be seen from the standpoint of someone who has died. After all, who – or what – is looking?

Tallis tries to adopt this standpoint because he wants to “live philosophically”. Having been imaginatively dead, he hopes to come back with his love of life re-energised. The Black Mirror, he tells us, “is, ultimately, a work of praise and gratitude”. It is true that the book contains many invocations of beauty and joy: “ploughlands bordered with bare hawthorn hedges scribbled on low dark and grey skies rifted with brilliance”; the simple pleasure in existing on a dull Wednesday afternoon. Overall, though, the mood is melancholy, heavy with regret for how much of the life that is gone was left unlived. Pursuing “some dream of changing the world (and of course his prospects in it) for the better”, the author “allowed himself to be indifferent to an April evening, glistening with dew and birdsong, that could have become itself in his consciousness”. Now it is getting late: “With age he had lost some of his singularity and become ‘Old Man’ or ‘Elderly Gentleman’ in the eyes of strangers – a sign of the de-differentiations to come.” Seeing life from the standpoint of death – “the philosophical viewpoint” – does not seem to have produced the hoped-for reinvigoration. By playing the corpse, dying “in thought and in imagination”, you may end up a fretful ghost.

If this remarkable book fails to deliver the uplift it aims to provide, the fault lies with the hopes the author has invested in philosophy. Like rationalists the world over, Tallis wants to believe that discordant impulses can be reconciled through a process of reflection. But the human response to mortality is intrinsically contradictory. We fear the  prospect of death and build up elaborate defences against it, yet at the same time yearn for the inconceivable transformation that death will bring.

It is unreasonable to look to philosophy for remedies for this quintessentially human self-division. Better take up a religion, or else accept and enjoy the short, uncertain life we are given. In the end, feeling stiff the next day is no big deal.

The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski is published by Allen Lane
The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life by Raymond Tallis is published by Atlantic Books

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism