• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

O Ye Laurels

The Best of Young American Novelists’Granta 54,’ Summer 1996

edited by Ian Jack
320 pp., $11.95

First, a little cultural archaeology, for the story behind this publication is almost as interesting as its contents.

It begins in England in the late 1970s, when a young American expat called Bill Buford purchased the title of a languishing Cambridge University magazine, Granta, and relaunched it as a literary periodical of extramural ambition and scope.* Buford was a man with a mission. He thought British fiction was moribund—“critically and aesthetically negligible”—and he aimed to revivify it by introducing the Brits to the work of their American contemporaries, “some of the most challenging, diversified, and adventurous writing today,…a literary renaissance.” These quotations are taken from Buford’s feisty introduction to his first issue, Spring 1979. In it, and the next one, he published the work of, among others, John Hawkes, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, James Purdy, Ronald Sukenick, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, Leonard Michaels, William Gass, Walter Abish, and Robert Coover.

As it happened, British fiction, invigorated partly by new immigrant cultural influences, was on the threshold of a renaissance of its own, and Buford was quick to recognize and encourage the new wave. In his third issue he showcased a long extract from the forthcoming second novel of a writer whose first attempt had sunk without trace—Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Beside it he printed a piece by Angela Carter, who, though better known than Rushdie, was a long way from being what she is (posthumously, alas) now, the modern author most widely studied in British universities and colleges. Granta became the place to look for up-and-coming literary talent. It prospered, and deserved to. It grew thicker and glossier, resembling a paperback book rather than a magazine, with themed issues, and in due course was taken under Penguin’s prestigious wing for distribution purposes.

There were two other developments in publishing in the early 1980s with which the fortunes of Granta became entwined. The Booker Prize, which had been trundling along for a decade without making much impact on the reading public, suddenly became the focus of intense media interest, and a powerful engine for generating book sales. Before 1980 the shortlist was announced, and the winner secretly chosen, at the same time. Under new rules, the meeting to decide the winner was held some weeks after the shortlist meeting—on the very day of the banquet at which the result was announced. This meant that bookmakers would accept bets on the outcome, and turned the banquet into an occasion of high drama and genuine suspense, a kind of literary Oscar night, broadcast live on network television. In 1981 the prize went to Rushdie for Midnight’s Children, making him famous and confirming Buford’s skill as a talent-spotter.

At around the same time a body called the British Book Marketing Council was formed. It was, as Buford recalled later, a typically Eighties phenomenon, an application of “enterprise culture” methods to a notoriously stuffy and conservative area of retail trade. Under the direction of Desmond Clarke, the council instigated a series of promotional campaigns for literary fiction, children’s books, travel writing, etc., under the general heading, “Best of….” Participating publishers and booksellers mounted special window displays and organized signing sessions. How the books were selected, and by whom, was not disclosed, but whoever chose The Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 had excellent taste. Perhaps Buford was involved, because he published specimen work by the twenty writers, all under forty, in the seventh issue of Granta. They were: Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, Ursula Bentley, William Boyd, Buchi Emecheta, Maggie Gee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Judd, Adam Mars-Jones, Ian McEwan, Shiva Naipaul, Philip Norman, Christopher Priest, Salman Rushdie, Lisa St. Auban de Teran, Clive Sinclair, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain, and A.N. Wilson. Few of these writers have failed to fulfill their early promise, and several have become very well known indeed.

Ten years later, in 1993, with the Book Marketing Council no longer in existence, Buford organized a new round of The Best of Young British Novelists under the aegis of Granta, and published extracts from their work in his forty-third issue, with an introduction that (for the first time) named the judges. They were: Salman Rushdie, A.S. Byatt, John Mitchinson (marketing director of the Waterstone’s bookshops chain), and Buford himself. The writers chosen were Iain Banks, Louis de Bernières, Anne Billson, Tibor Fischer, Esther Freud, Alan Hollinghurst, Kazuo Ishiguro, A.L. Kennedy, Philip Kerr, Hanif Kureishi, Adam Lively, Adam MarsJones, Candia McWilliam, Lawrence Norfolk, Ben Okri, Caryl Phillips, Will Self, Nicholas Shakespeare, Helen Simpson, and Jeanette Winterson. The publication of this list provoked a considerable amount of controversy in the British press. The chief complaint was not that the judges had overlooked deserving young writers, but that the new list compared so unfavorably with the class of ‘83 as to discredit the whole exercise. The implication was that whereas the earlier list drew attention to genuine talent, the new one was merely hyping mediocre or immature young writers.

The judges retorted with some justice that, at the time, most of the writers on the 1983 list had yet to prove themselves. Certainly the 1993 list already looks rather more heavyweight than it did three years ago. And it would be absurd to pretend that the 1983 list had some kind of canonical status, uncontaminated by commercial considerations. But what had begun as a mere marketing strategy, its promotions forgotten as soon as the special window displays were dismantled, had become, partly as a result of Granta’s involvement, something like a literary prize shared between twenty winners: the right to put Selected as one of the Best of Young British Novelists on one’s dust jacket. In an overcrowded marketplace, where too many authors and titles clamor for review space and the reading public’s attention, such distinctions matter, and the controversy generated by competitions does no harm to sales. In short, the “Best of…” story illustrates one of the most striking features of recent cultural history, the collaboration—some would call it an unholy alliance—of big business, the media, and high art, to their mutual material advantage.

Last year Bill Buford gave up the editorship of Granta, and returned to America to join The New Yorker. Perhaps he felt he had done what he could for British fiction, or perhaps he felt that American fiction now needed his attentions more urgently. At any rate, his editorial seat was handed over to Ian Jack, a highly respected journalist and editor of The Independent on Sunday, who had evidently had enough of the circulation war-of-attrition waged between British quality newspapers in recent years. Jack seems to have inherited, rather than instigated, an American version of The Best of Young British Novelists, the fruits of which are displayed in the current issue ofGranta. The rules are the same—eligible writers must be under forty and have published at least one work of fiction—but the process of selection has become much more open, democratic, and (one is bound to say) bureaucratic, in deference to American notions of fair play. Nominations were invited from many different constituencies, and several hundred titles were submitted. These were distributed among five regional judging panels, who forwarded their recommendations, fifty-two in all, to the final judges: Ian Jack, Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, and Anne Tyler. There was a fifth appointed judge, Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, of whom Jack enigmatically remarks, “Professor Gates, unfortunately, could not be traced by fax or phone during the judging, and has spoken to no judge since.”

Many judges of literary competitions embark on their task with pleasurable anticipation of exercising their judgment and bestowing patronage, and then panic as they become aware of what is entailed: the grief and rage of disappointed writers, publishers, and agents; the derision and disgust of critics who disagree with the judges’ verdicts; the possible humiliation stored up for years to come if the chosen writers fail to live up to expectations. It is clear from Ian Jack’s introduction that he and his colleagues suffered all these misgivings. Indeed, The Best of Young American Novelists is prefaced by so many apologies, caveats, and rhetorical hand-washings as to undermine the whole enterprise. The regional judges, says Jack, “got [the writers] wrong, as judges tend to do…. We wondered for a time if we might not override previous decisions and call in one or two glaring omissions [but] we decided to let the shortlist stay as it was; emendations would need to be wholesale…. In other words, we would have picked another bunch of wrong writers.”

In fact the exercise was by no means as futile as that remark implies. Everybody knows that “best” in this context is not an absolute and authoritative judgment, but it is not totally arbitrary either. A selection arrived at through such careful sifting of so many writers by well-qualified judges must havesome sort of representative value, must tell us something useful about the younger generation of American literary novelists and short-story writers. It can be used as an illustrated reading list of young writers to look out for—on this level, it is the differences between them that matter. Or it can be used to try to identify the dominant characteristics of contemporary American prose fiction, in style, narrative technique, and subject matter—on this level it is the similarities between them that are interesting. I may say that I approached the selection with an open mind and very limited acquaintance with the work of young American writers. I recognized the names of only three or four of the chosen twenty and had previously read the work of only one, Lorrie Moore.

Perhaps for that reason, I find it hard think of Lorrie Moore as a young writer, in the same category as the others. She is represented here by a characteristically accomplished story, wry but compassionate, called (with faint connotations of martyrdom) “Agnes of Iowa,” about a woman struggling with the fate of being plain and uncharismatic. Only once in her life does Agnes glimpse the possibility of passion and romance, when a South African poet visits the college where she teaches night classes, but nothing comes of it, except that for some weeks after his departure the departmental secretary’s memos come written on the back of scrap paper salvaged from surplus posters for the poet’s reading.

She would get a simple phone message—“Your husband called. Please call him at the office”—and on the back would be the ripped center of Beyerbach’s nose, one minty eye, an elbowish chin. Eventually there were no more, and the scrap paper moved on to old contest announcements, grant deadlines, Easter concert notices.

What are the other best young American novelists writing about? Well, there are two novels-in-progress about Haiti. One is a historical novel by Madison Smartt Bell about the slave revolution of the early nineteenth century which reads, in the extract printed here, like a literary Western, describing the heroic endurance of an escaped slave searching in a pitiless landscape for the legendary General Toussaint L’Ouverture; the other, by the gloriously named Edwidge Danticat, herself born in Port-au-Prince, is about the massacre of Haitian refugees on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1937, told from the point of view of a Haitian servant in a bourgeois Dominican family.

  1. *

    Editors’ note: Granta is now owned by the company that also owns The New York Review.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print