It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us – we were Granta magazine’s Best of Young British Novelists.
No single literary event in 1990s Great Britain caused as much sniping, backbiting, hissy-fitting, navel analysis and self-castigation as Granta‘s publication, in 1993, of those writers whom Bill Buford, Salman Rushdie, A S Byatt and John Mitchison judged to be worthy of inclusion on a list of the 20 best of British, aged under 40. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be judged young was very heaven! For a couple of days, anyway. Because it wasn’t very long before people started to piss on our parade.
Compared with 1983’s publishing Pantheon, the class of ’93 (see right) was deemed to be so lacklustre and anonymous that critics were soon announcing, if not the death of the English novel, then its arrival, suffering from an acute insult to the brain, in the Bloomsbury A&E.
Ridiculously, William Boyd blamed “the lure of the byline” for what he termed – almost as if he had been describing, in Siegfried Sassoon’s phrase, “the unheroic dead who fed the guns” – “a lost generation”. Kingsley Amis, hardly the most reliable authority on anything to do with young people, suggested that “bright young people now are doing something different” – a sentiment echoed by, of all people, Nick Hornby. (Obviously, this was before Nick wrote two excellent novels of his own.) David Sexton, writing in the sunny uplands of the TLS, declared that “the desperation of this roster . . . is self-evident”. James Wood, scraping our names off the sole of his boot with a long stick and a copy of the Guardian, opined that the list was “the kind the English novel at present deserves”. Julie Burchill excepted only Helen Simpson from her fastidious, Leavisite observation that we were “crap”.
Others were even less generous than Julie. A guest leaving the BOYBN launch party told one of our hapless number: “You are ALL crap.” After some considerable debate as to who this person might be, it was finally discovered that his name was Paul Morley.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Being in the BOYBN Class of ’93 was like walking around a Spanish market place wearing a sulphur-impregnated shirt, with a five-pound taper in your hand, a pointy hat by Philip Treacy on your head and a sign around your neck saying “Have you got a light, mac?” Never before did writing a novel feel like such an act of heretical presumption and vainglory. Just who the hell did we think we were? For many of us, the experience of being lionised (ie, torn to bloody pieces) by literary London, was a useful insight into what it must be like to be a player in an under-achieving England football or cricket team, or an obnoxious, toe-sucking royal, or a defendant at the Nuremberg trials.
Incredibly, there were still a few authors of my own acquaintance who felt aggrieved at having been left off the list; and, in retrospect, those who at the time, looked too grand to bother having much to do with the promotion – in the end, the whole point of the exercise was to sell a few books – now look more media-savvy than the rest of us. Oscar Wilde’s famous remark about how there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about, no longer persuades, if (in view of what happened to poor Oscar) it ever did; and, for the succeeding generation of young British novelists – expected from Granta sometime in 2003 – one feels tempted to commend to them the words of the American novelist Tama Janowitz, who once wrote that “with publicity comes humiliation”.
You have all been warned.
I can only hope that the new lot will be treated more generously than we were. And it will hardly be their fault if some of their names are less familiar in our mouths than others. Already there have been dark mutterings to the effect that Granta is finding it hard to list more than the five most obvious contenders – Lawrence Norfolk (class of ’93, but still only 38), Matt Thorne, Alex Garland, David Mitchell and Zadie Smith. If that should be the case, then the fault lies not at the door of young writers but at the door of publishers, who seem even less interested in young novelists than ever they were. Celebrity, not youth, is what matters most these days. Publishing used to be about books. These days, it’s about bestsellers.
By sheer coincidence I was asked to write this piece at about the same time that the Daily Telegraph had assembled a quorum of the BOYBN ’93 for a group portrait in the same north London photographic studio where we all first met almost a decade ago. (It seems like only yesterday.) Like the contestants in University Challenge Reunited, or Michael Apted’s documentary series Seven Up, we studied the original group shot of ourselves with forensic fascination. Will Self’s saturnine sideburns. Candia McWilliam’s gorgeous mane of blonde hair. Louis de Bernieres’s sensible pullover. My awful shirt and tie. Our miserable faces.
Nine years ago we were edgy, wary of each other, too conscious of ourselves to take very much pleasure in the occasion of the portrait. But now things seemed mellow and more relaxed, somehow. Will Self, wearing shorts, cracked jokes. Hanif Kureishi looked as cool as if he had just stepped from the set of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels II. Esther Freud was the radiant beauty in our otherwise masculine midst. Being an older British novelist felt altogether less contentious, as if it no longer mattered what anyone thought of us. The worst anyone could say of us now was that we were no longer young and that, with a couple of notable exceptions, we were outgunned by the class of ’83. And they will say it, again. Just you wait.
Fair enough. But in retrospect, it now seems like a considerable overstatement – not to say hysterical over-reaction – to have attributed some great malaise in the English novel to the ’93 not being as good as the ’83; in the cooler dawn of a new century, perhaps it would be fairer to say that the very excellence of the ’83 quite spoiled people for anything else that came after it, and, like a great vintage from Bordeaux, the ’83 was so good that the ’93 could not fail to disappoint. The likes of Barnes, Amis, Rushdie, Ackroyd, McEwan and Swift trashed not just the generation before them but the one that came after as well. Arguably, it was the sheerest good luck, a historical accident, an anomaly that the ’83 list should have included so many outstanding writers – several of whom remain my own literary heroes.
At least they do, the ones who aren’t dead, or seeing out their twilight years in old people’s homes.