The 2023 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list was announced on 13 April, and the issue of the magazine is now published. It has garnered the usual mixed reviews focusing mainly on the identity of the writers (consensus: too many white women), and what the list can tell us about the state of the nation. I and my fellow jurors – Tash Aw, Rachel Cusk, Brian Dillon and Helen Oyeyemi – didn’t actually consider identity in our discussions, nor did we imagine that the writers would be perceived as a mirror to the nation, but perhaps a few things, some hopeful, could be said.
In compiling the list we read several autobiographical novels describing gang culture. The books, all written in the vernacular, contain scenes of drugs and violence, boys and men in constant movement, their culture defined by hyper-masculine norms. The hope lies not in the honour codes those semi-fictional boys and men live by, but rather in the fact that the books were written and published at all; a tribute not only to innate talent, but also to schools and to the diversity of groups and writing workshops that help people find the voice and confidence necessary to be a writer. Publishing is more permeable, and more transformative, than we imagine.
No place like home
For the 2023 list we expanded eligibility to include not only those who have or are in the process of gaining British citizenship but all writers who have settled status in this country. No one will be surprised to read that we made that change in the aftermath of Brexit, when it seemed, at least for a while, that the state was no longer a reliable arbiter of belonging (but was it ever?).
Some journalists have since suggested that Irish writers, too, should be eligible for the list, and I think that’s a good idea. The ties between Britain and Ireland are wide and deep, and the literary cultures overlap. We published an issue of New Irish Writing in 2016, which included a brilliant early short story by Sally Rooney, “Mr Salary”, as well as writing by Kevin Barry, Colm Tóibín, Emma Donoghue and others. We launched it at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway, and I still remember John Connell’s poignant reading, which included a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Travellers’ Shelta, also known as the Cant, Gammon or Tarri:
Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch,
We turry kerrath about your moniker…
But solk us away from the taddy.
[See also: The decline of the Literary Bloke]
Listen and learn
After ten years as Granta’s editor I am now stepping down. Thomas Meaney, an American editor and critic based in Berlin, will take over, and his first issue will be on Germany and German writing. I very much look forward to it. My last issue (out this summer) will be on sound: music, generators, rockets, sirens and dogs, sounds from the street and sounds in nature.
For me, there is a certain irony in the theme. Deafness comes early and progresses quickly in my family, and I am not particularly musical: the experience some describe of listening to a movement and feeling their minds flood with epiphany or joy is not something I have ever felt. I know a different version of it – awe, and a gladness, a kind of merriment of associations – in nature, but I can’t predict what evokes it.
After the party
I will miss editing Granta. Some of the titles of the issues we created still ring in my mind: American Wild, The Map is Not the Territory, Legacies of Love and many others. I remember, too, the readings: Andrea Stuart in the Horse Hospital in London, reading from her lyrical and erotically charged piece about her evolving lesbian identity. The audience was silent as she read, the applause thunderous. Adam Nicolson on American wolves at Foyles in London – we put wolf howls on the sound system, reverberating through the bookshop. The 2017 Best of Young American Novelists party at the New York Public Library. Both Bill Buford and the late Ian Jack, a Granta editor and his successor, happened to be in town and came to the party; Bill spoke, Ian did not, but he stood with us on the stage, quietly surveying the room full of young writers.
Ten years earlier we had judged the previous Best of Young American Novelists issue, with AM Homes, Edmund White, Meghan O’Rourke and Paul Yamazaki. “No list of this kind can offer anything approaching a final judgement,” Ian wrote then, and he was right. But – all caveats aside – they are not nothing either.
[See also: Ali Smith on the groundbreaking art of Lucie Rie]
Cambridge Literary Festival hosts a Best of Young British Novelists showcase, with Natasha Brown, Eleanor Catton and Derek Owusu, on 22 April
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats