Like it or not, pretty much everyone today lives in a world of lists. If the lists are not made for us, we compile them ourselves: places to go, things to do and to see. The Italian novelist Umberto Eco found this so interesting as to write a book about it (he also mischievously nominated the telephone directory as the book he would like to be cast away with, on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.)
Mischief and triviality have always been part of the cultural role of lists, but they are also serious and revealing in all sorts of ways. “[N]othing seems simpler than making a list, but in fact it’s much more complicated than it seems: you always leave something out, you’re tempted to write etc, but the whole point of an inventory is not to write etc,” opined the Oulipian thinker Georges Perec, in a 1976 essay.
It is the wilful omission of that “etc” that makes such a minefield of so many lists, particularly when it comes to the prizes that now shower down from all directions throughout the year. In the literary world alone, the last fortnight has seen shortlists for the International Booker and the Jhalak prize for writers of colour in the UK, the Highland book prize in Scotland, and the Griffin poetry prize in Canada.
Each signals a territory and sets out what they are looking for. There may only be one winner, but it is the list of five or six finalists that defines the field and trumpets the values – longlists, for all their worthiness, falling prey to Perec’s outlawed etc. Cynics rightly argue that these are basically promotional and campaigning tools in a marketised culture, which are intended to increase the visibility – and therefore sales – of particular sectors within a fiercely competitive industry. But that is only part of the story.
One of the most contentious literary lists, also just announced, is Granta’s 20-strong Best of Young British Novelists. Launched by the literary magazine in 1983 to establish a benchmark for the finest young voices in fiction, it is greeted each decade with a clamour of dissent. Mainly, this is about those who have been left out: this year’s crop has none of the familiarity of the debut list, which included Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Rose Tremain. The occasional complaint from those who have found themselves on the inside, such as 2013’s Sarah Hall, draws attention to the bloodsport of listings. Comparison, on the sort of platforms a nomination opens up, can be excruciating for a writer.
It takes decades to get a perspective on any one lineup of writers or artists, but decades are what the Granta list is usefully accruing, like the growth rings on a tree. This time there are far more women, but far fewer black writers, than in any previous generation. Above all, it shows a culture in ferment, stripped of its monolithic certainties, trying to decentre itself in ways that can look random (New Zealander Eleanor Catton is eligible because she now lives in the UK; Sally Rooney, hailed as the first great millennial writer, is not, though Irish writers can be nominated for many British-based literary prizes). In short, it’s a bit all over the place, which seems a pretty good measure of these times.