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The power of Granta’s gift to British writers

19 April 2013

4:39 PM

19 April 2013

4:39 PM

Philip Hensher was one of Granta’s 20 under forty in 2003, so what does he make of the new list? Writing in this week’s Spectator, he says that there are a dozen competent to superb writers on the list but you can keep the rest.

‘When you look at the seven truly regrettable inclusions it is hard to know what the judges were thinking of.’

Philip’s view is that the list ‘seems to have sprung from a list-making corporate machine’ in favour of bland orthodoxy. Philip writes:

‘Previous British lists have had the genuine air of discovery, sometimes uncomfortably so, as the magazine had to feature writers with more comic gusto or who were more politically unorthodox than they would normally publish… Though [the list] contains a good number of excellent novelists, there are some very poor ones here, too. We’re not talking about taste, but about technical command. Authors who demonstrably can’t write dialogue, handle a point of view, create incident or distinguish characters should not have been included.’

The international flavour to a British list is also problematic for Philip. He writes:

‘Clearly, the magazine wanted to express a notion of British prose as voiced by international writers, to the point where they included an author who doesn’t have a British passport. Kamila Shamsie is excellent, but she should not have been eligible.’ 

The usual suspects disagree with that, and there has been some gushing coverage of Granta’s ‘multi-cultural’ approach. There are, however, more thoughtful critiques of Philip’s opinion. Jonathan McAloon, who spent the week pursuing Granta around London, says that the Granta panel has borrowed from the world to strengthen Britain’s weakening reputation:

‘The list is almost half made up of expats… Markovitz, Anam, Shamsie and Guo, by a stroke of luck for us, chose to move here after a portion of their sensibilities would have developed elsewhere; Smith, Szalay, Oyeyemi and Selasi no longer live here. But the double fact of not being responsible for the gifts of half of these, and not being able to hold on to the other, must say bad things about our literary culture. If anything, it is the list’s surprising, almost undeserving strength which throws the British literary reputation into question. If Britain’s list turns out to be world class, that will only be because it has borrowed from the world.’

An inadequate indigenous culture attracting inward investment; the practical immigration argument applied to books. It’s an ingenious analysis, and it forces one to examine British (in the official sense) authors overlooked by Granta. McAloon has his own ideas on this question, though not quite as many as Philip Hensher:

‘Jon McGregor is a superb novelist, widely acclaimed. Not here. Samantha Harvey’s novels are simply masterly. They are mad to leave out Joe Dunthorne, Owen Sheers, Gwendoline Riley, Courttia Newland, Nick Laird and Edward Hogan. These are not passing fancies; they are authors who have established their excellence and are real presences in British writing.’

It may be pleasing to recognise Kamila Shamsie’s excellence; but McAloon’s sensible concerns about the health of British literary culture are not going to be eased if talented young writers are denied the publicity within Granta’s gift. On balance, Hensher’s conclusion is compelling: there is a better British list than Granta’s. Mine would certainly include Joe Dunthorne (nevermind “promising”, Submarine and Wild Abandon are enjoyable, accomplished novels). Beyond that, I am persuadable.

Subscribers can read Philip’s article in full by clicking here. Non-subscribers, you can join us today from as little as £1 an issue , or you can take advantage of our brilliant deal: £27.50 for 13 issues over three months plus a free copy of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography (worth £30). have produced an audiobook of the collection. Here’s a clip that includes interviews with some of the selected Granta authors whilst in the studio recording their stories:

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