Best of Young British Novelists 4, edited by John Freeman – review

There is capable writing but few surprises in Granta's highly globalised anthology

In a sceptical and uncertain world, Granta has a pretty good record for prophecy. Every 10 years the literary magazine draws up a list of young British novelists (I say young; they have to be under 40, so they're young for novelists, ancient for footballers, and early middle-aged by most people's standards). The idea was cooked up in 1983 by the British Book Marketing Council – a distant cousin of the milk and wool marketing boards, which has been long since consigned to the bonfire of the quangos. Since then a panel of literary editors, novelists, critics and publishers has been assembled every decade to come up with 20 bright young things. Now, 30 years after the first instalment, these selections look remarkably accurate.

The 1983 list is the most famous: it included Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Maggie Gee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Adam Mars-Jones, Ian McEwan, Shiva Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain and AN Wilson. But the 1993 sample was not much less convincing: the panel spotted Iain Banks, Louis de Bernières, Tibor Fischer, Esther Freud, Alan Hollinghurst, AL Kennedy, Hanif Kureishi, Candia McWilliam, Lawrence Norfolk, Ben Okri, Caryl Phillips, Will Self, Helen Simpson and Jeanette Winterson. The 2003 list, though perhaps not so glorious, also hoovered up much of the talent that was around – including Monica Ali, Nicola Barker, Rachel Cusk, Philip Hensher, Hari Kunzru, David Mitchell, Andrew O'Hagan, David Peace, Zadie Smith, Alan Warner and Sarah Waters.

Some of these writers probably selected themselves: I shouldn't think that Amis took much spotting. By 1993, Hollinghurst had published The Swimming Pool Library, and Kureishi The Buddha of Suburbia. Arguably, you could design an algorithm to do much of the work – giving due weight to novels published, prestige of publishing house, critical reception, prizes won, shortlists occupied and so on (the Betty Trask and John Llewellyn Rhys prizes for first novels have a good record of uncovering young talent). Even so, the likes of Ishiguro, Ali, Peace and Mitchell were picked out long before they were famous – or even, in Ali's case, before she was published. A few big names have slipped through the cracks because they got into print relatively late – Hilary Mantel, Jim Crace and Irvine Welsh, for instance (just as Mohsin Hamid and Tom McCarthy are too old for inclusion this time round). A few have simply been overlooked: Edward St Aubyn, say. Readers will have their own gripes about exclusions and inclusions but, overall, it's been a remarkably successful experiment. So it is with trepidation that I say: I'm only half-convinced by the class of 2013.

It's hard to take a position with much confidence. Reviewing Best of Young British Novelists 4 is an impossible job, since you're assessing not just the excerpts and short stories in it, but the complete works of all 20 authors (and I know at most half of them in any detail). You're also evaluating them against any number of youngish novelists who were not included: 150 writers were submitted by their publishers to Granta. The seven-strong panel – which included three Granta staff, two novelists (AL Kennedy and Romesh Gunesekera), a current and a former literary editor – then examined 50 writers in detail.

To a certain extent, the selection keeps pace with what a general book-world consensus algorithm would dictate. Of course there's Smith, the undisputed international heavyweight of the UK under-40 category, here represented by a short story set in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Probably next in line is Adam Foulds, author of a much-admired narrative poem about the Mau Mau, and The Quickening Maze, a Man Booker-shortlisted historical novel featuring Tennyson, John Clare and an asylum in Epping Forest. His piece here, an excerpt from a novel about the second world war, is sensitive, capable and intelligent. Ross Raisin is also a shoo-in, with two impressive novels, particularly his debut God's Own Country, already under his belt – though he's perhaps not particularly well represented, with a slightly feverish flood story. Sarah Hall's inclusion is also no surprise – she's a stylish and versatile storyteller, who has submitted an intriguing extract about the "rewilding" of a large tract of Cumbria. Then there's Adam Thirlwell, like Smith a veteran of the 2003 list. Personally I dislike his work, but he is undoubtedly an interesting, innovative writer. And if he hasn't exactly made good on the supposed promise of his debut, Politics, which saw him cast as London's answer to Milan Kundera – well, there's plenty of time yet.

Thirlwell's successor in the wunderkind category is Ned Beauman, one of only two listed writers still in their 20s. Beauman, the author of the ingenious genre-bending historical confections Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident, is talented, funny, clever and – I think it's fair to say – a massive show-off. His piece in Granta, about drug producers in Burma, shows him working well in a less flashy style. Great things are also expected from David Szalay, author of the terrific telesales novel London and the South-East, who has written one of the best pieces in the anthology – in which a Hungarian heavy escorts a prostitute around London's hotels. Helen Oyeyemi was probably an obvious choice; she's a precocious fabulist who wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still at school, and is a veteran of four novels at the ripe old age of 28. Another well-deserved entry is Benjamin Markovits, an Anglo-American best known for his much-admired Byron trilogy; I suspect his next novel, a move away from Eng Lit to rust-belt America, with a story about yuppies attempting to resettle a section of Detroit, will be big. Also uncontroversial, at least on aesthetic grounds, is the inclusion of Kamila Shamsie, the Pakistani author of Burnt Shadows – who, if not yet British, is in the process of becoming so.

The glaring omission is Jon McGregor; I'd take 10 pages of his excellent Even the Dogs, a bleak, spooky novel about homelessness and addiction in an unnamed British city, over most of the work collected here. I felt his omission particularly, given the relentlessly globalised nature of this anthology. It's well known that British literary fiction seeks out the exotic, avoiding middle England in favour of immigrant communities, the more exciting past and urban Scotland. But the collection, I think, takes the tendency too far: less than half the pieces are set in Britain, and two of those are in apocalyptic variations thereof. Otherwise, it's building sites in Dubai, army camps in Somalia, a sheep station in the Australian outback, the streets of Ghana. No disrespect to any of these pieces, by Tahmima Anam, Nadifa Mohamed, Evie Wyld and Taiye Selasi respectively, which are well written and interesting (I was particularly pleased to discover Wyld and her novel After the Fire, a Still Small Voice). But only five of the stories in this anthology are set in modern-day Britain. This would be more understandable if we were experiencing a particularly boring period in our history; but it's generally agreed that we live in interesting times. So Sunjeev Sahota – a writer I'd never heard of before – was both a relief and a revelation. His "Arrivals" is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel about illegal Indian workers living in a shared house in Leeds, and it's fascinating, like a 21st-century Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.

The panel was probably right to include Joanna Kavenna, an intermittently brilliant writer. But I don't think Naomi Alderman, Jenni Fagan, Steven Hall, or Xiaolu Guo have made any particularly compelling case for their inclusion, especially on the basis of what has been published here. To use a possibly random point of comparison, I would have preferred Joe Dunthorne over them any day, on the strength of his very funny debut Submarine, if not his second novel. (And it would have been nice to have a bit of rainy Swansea, as well as Lausanne, China, New York, Harvard etc.)

The Granta list is designed as a cheerleading exercise, part of the apparatus of support that younger writers need to thrive. So what I'm going to say probably counts as a heinous act of party-pooping: but Best of Young British Novelists 4 doesn't, as a whole, inspire about the future of the British novel. It offers some exceptional writing, but mostly solid, old-fashioned storytelling or hit-and-miss, boil-in-the-bag postmodernism. If you look at the selections from 1983 onwards, you see a gradual but unmistakable tailing off of talent as the decades progress. I'm afraid that this list continues that trend.


Theo Tait

The GuardianTramp

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