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Granta Young British Novelists
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 8 April 2003

Andrew Stevens

Young, gifted and so what?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the plethora of literary awards and backslapping ceremonies that propel unknown authors onto the bestsellers lists could only have been conceived by someone working in Waterstones' marketing department. Accolades such as the Orange and Booker Prizes have made the likes of Zadie Smith and Louis de Bernieres into household names, guaranteeing their offerings a presence on the Northern Line during rush hour.

I, for one, care not what the likes of Philip Hensher and Kenneth Baker (judges in last years Booker) think of the shortlist put in front of them. But it would appear that, not being content with all manner of lists and shindigs of interest to Radio 4 listeners (but not purchasers of Andy McNabb or Dave Pelzer), the world of publishing has another award to dole out - the Granta Young British Novelists.

Apparently conceived by the Book Marketing Council (which assumedly went the same way as the Milk Marketing Board) in the early 1980s, the 10 yearly list (1983, 1993, 2003…) showcases the crème de la crème of contemporary British fiction, though it is limited to authors under 40 (which doesn't strike me as very young…). You only have to look at the previous listees to see how beneficial it can be to one's career -- winners from 1983 and 1993 now represent a roll call of the British literary establishment: the class of 83 included Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie; 93 included Iain Banks, Will Self, Ben Okri and Hanif Kureishi (that year's Zadie Smith).

Like anything in life, it is often a question of what is left out rather than what is included and with any list of this nature there is bound to be an element of exclusion. Some took umbrage at the non-inclusion of the much-hyped novelist Alex Garland, though as his publisher didn't make a submission it wasn't altogether surprising. More surprising perhaps was the omission of Giles Foden, the promising author of a novel on Idi Amin's regime The Last King of Scotland. Those included on 2003's list range from the predictable to the completely leftfield - Zadie Smith and subsequent publishing 'find' Hari Kunzru were never really going to be left off the list, whereas Monica Ali's winning novel Brick Lane and Adam Thirlwell's Politics haven't even been published yet. Thirlwell and Smith are the youngest members of the list, though the average age tends to hover at 33.

Part of the promotional extravaganza for the list is an event at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank where five members of the list are given the opportunity to read some of their work (either published or 'in progress') and answer a few questions from the audience. Chaired by Alex Clark, a reviewer for The Guardian and the London Review of Books as well as doubling up as a member of the Granta judges, the panel comprised Rachel Cusk, A.L. Kennedy (also a winner in 1993), David Mitchell, Andrew O'Hagan and Hari Kunzru.

After a few perfunctory words by way of introduction from Alex Clark, the audience were thrown straight into Rachel Cusk's reading from a work in progress. Had I have been wearing a watch, I would have been glancing at it regularly, as the prose left little to be desired, a languid account of country life. Media reports suggested that Cusk's track record, as opposed to her recent work, led to her inclusion, and her performance will do little to turn that perception around.

A.L.Kennedy's contribution similarly lacked pace and vigour, though the delivery made up for this to some extent. However, David Mitchell's reading of a work in progress, a witty satire on the literary conveyor belt and the ethics of book reviewing, revealed some promise for the future. Andrew O'Hagan's Scottish gusto in the delivery of a section from his recent Personality ensured much laughter from the audience. Hari Kunzru's reading of a work in progress, a tale of an Indian computer engineer's disappointment at the American dream, better than anything in his sop to multiculturalism The Impressionist.

I was astonished how quickly the pieces were read, and before the audience knew it, there was a section of questions pitched by Alex Clark. O'Hagan, Kunzru and Kennedy hogged the debate. Seemingly the debate concentrated on the contemporary state of British fiction, with all manner of cultural by-products bemoaned from ill-informed reviewers to glamour-obsessed marketing men. The questions from the audience were often vehicles for the questioner's own opinion rather than genuine questions, but those of us who've attended their fair share of these events are used to this.

One good point raised concerned the relationship between the reader and the author and how this can alter immeasurably at a book reading of this sort. As the event drew to a close, it felt somewhat anti-climatic, there no being no bar in which to harangue the authors for a quote to embellish this review.

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