Young, gifted — and readerless

Why have we never heard of most of the young writers on the latest “Best of …” list?


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Robbie Millen, literary editor of The Times, could recently be found in the T2 section of that newspaper writing about the latest version of the Granta-sponsored “Best of British Young Novelists” list. For those of you not absolutely up to speed with this book world phenomenon, the roster inaugurated in 1983 has been reanimated in each successive decade. 

Whilst the class of ’83 included Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain and co., subsequent iterations have been thought to lack the original’s collective sparkle. Worse, many of the succeeding “best ofs” have also lacked their staying power.

What did Millen think of the list? Although conceding that it was “decent”, he pronounced himself “baffled” and added that it altogether lacked the “sexiness” of what had gone before. He also claimed not to have heard of several of the writers involved (for the record, the Secret Author had come across four of them). 

The main part of his thesis was devoted to the state of contemporary literary culture and the contending forces that have conspired to produce the 20 young people (15 women, four men and one non-binary) on whose shoulders the future of British Literature, if such a thing still exists, may be said to rest.

Predictably, Millen homed in on the rise of the creative writing class — a feature of the university system that barely existed 40 years ago, when Malcolm Bradbury’s celebrated University of East Anglia course led the field. 

Four decades later, with every college campus bursting with aspiring talent, “we are churning out would-be writers, without increasing the size of the potential readership”. 

Just as there are too many PhD graduates chasing too few academic posts, so there are hundreds, if not thousands, of wannabe novelists burnishing their work under the fond gaze of their creative writing tutors.

Surely all these aspirants will be discouraged by sheer proliferation? Apparently not. Millen gets the impression that “you can have a literary career without readers”

According to his adumbration of the specimen modern book world CV, the young novelist these day moves on from an English degree to a Creative Writing MA (which qualifies them to teach the subject), writes short fiction for “micro-literary magazines”, picks up grants, earns positive reviews from fellow-labourers in this tiny vineyard and can expect to be well-regarded by the peer group. Yet, Millen concludes, “Are you really a writer without paying punters?”

Mr Crewe is going to have to keep up his day job at the London Review of Books

Mr Millen is on to something here. As for the paying punters, comparisons with the 1983 list are horribly invidious. One of the few reasonably well-known names on the 2023 roster is Tom Crewe, whose debut The New Life was enthusiastically reviewed on publication earlier this year. 

According to the Secret Author’s researches, this had sold 2,000 copies in the first three months of its existence. Clearly, unless he wins a major literary prize or it gets adapted for television, Mr Crewe is going to have to keep up his day job at the London Review of Books. The same, you suspect, goes for every other ornament of the list with the exception of its one true star, the Booker-winning Eleanor Catton.

Why did the class of ’83 go on to forge such stratospherically successful careers? As nearly always happens in the world of books, talent was only half the story. 

The original Granta list came at the dawning of an age when “literary fiction” ruled the roost like never before, when London publishing was suddenly awash with foreign money, publishers began to realise the value of publicity, and writers found themselves profiled in the front halves of newspapers rather than in the decent obscurity of the books sections. 

It was an age in which a novelist who had the luck to be shortlisted for the Booker could expect to be given a quarter of a million pounds and told to come back in four years with a masterpiece.

As for the books themselves, the novels produced by Amis, Barnes, McEwan and co. in the 1980s may well have had their tricksy side, but it could be argued that they were accessible to the mainstream reader in a way that the 2023 list probably isn’t. 

The Granta press release claimed that those selected were united by their “experimental visions of the future”, whatever that means, and eschew internet culture in favour of “grander presentations of self, society and ecology”. After reading which, I am afraid the Secret Author went off for a nap and an old J.B. Priestley novel.

Want to be a novelist here in 2023? Well, there are thousands of people on hand to encourage you, tutor you and wave you on your way. Unfortunately, you are liable to end up writing for the very audience most writers want to avoid — people like yourself. 

In addition, you will almost certainly not be able to make a living out of what you write, and your readership will never extend beyond the fanbase. There are just too many of us writers. 

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