By TOBY LICHTIG
First of all, congratulations to the 20 novelists who made it on to the Granta Best of British list. All are impressive young (and youngish) writers, and all will rightly be delighted to have made the cut.
Many will already be familiar to TLS readers, and you can read our reviews of them by clicking on the links in this paragraph. Zadie Smith, Benjamin Markovits and Adam Thirlwell are seasoned authors, and the fact that they still qualify is a testament to how young they were when they first started. Others, such as Ned Beauman and Helen Oyeyemi, remain so young that they will still qualify for the follow-up list in a decade's time. Some, such as Taiye Selasi, have just hit the limelight with their debut novel (Selasi’s Ghana Must Go is reviewed in this week’s edition, out on Friday). The list includes a range of voices, from Evie Wyld to Ross Raisin, Naomi Alderman to Joanna Kavenna to Adam Foulds. Many will be rightly disappointed not to have been selected. There was no space in the top twenty for Jon McGregor, Sam Byers, Gwendoline Riley, and many others. Such is the nature of lists.
Last night’s event was well publicized and hugely well attended – so well attended, in fact, that many invitees were not able to get in and had to wait downstairs while the list was announced in the function room above. There was an air of excitement as the crush of bodies awaited the result. All good fun, of course, but the event did get me thinking about our current obsession with ranking (as opposed to critiquing) culture, and the way in which we all – journalists more than anybody – get caught up in the hype.
Perhaps the one thing more rampant than Prize Culture – what the TLS diarist J. C. wryly refers to as the All Must Have Prizes Prize – is List Culture, an even more arbitrary and compulsive phenomenon. The internet has a lot to answer for on this front. Ask bloggers what gets people clicking, and a Top Ten list will be high (number one?) on their, well, list. It doesn't matter what it's a top ten list of. Detective films. Theme parks. Chocolate bars. We all like a list. It's quick. It’s fun. And it encourages debate on comment boards.
Granta have, of course, themselves branched out. The first Best of Young American Novelists arrived in 1996. There was the inaugural Best of Young Brazilian Novelists late last year, while the format changed slightly for Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, which featured twenty-two authors under the age of thirty-five. This should not to be confused with the Hay Festival Bogotá's initiative, which listed the "39 most promising Latin American writers under the age of 39". Incidentally, those of us who had already heard of Taiye Selasi might have done so because her debut novel appeared on Waterstone's list of 11 best first novels of 2013.
Is there any point to all of this? Well the Best of brouhaha is certainly good for Granta. As Bill Buford explained in a recent Guardian piece, the original Best of British issue was "dreamed up by a marketing guy". And a very clever marketing guy he was too. When it was published in 1983, the inaugural Best of British edition it was a novelty, generating a buzz in an era when Prize Culture meant the Nobel and Booker, and lists were something you used for shopping. Now we order our shopping online while obsessively ranking every area of culture we can think of.
Around 15 years ago, while the internet was still in its infancy, broadcasters also took advantage of the burgeoning List Culture to devise a new genre: the List Show. It was, they quickly recognized, an excellent way of recycling old material, making cheap TV and holding the attention of viewers, who sat transfixed, patiently counting down to see what had been chosen as Number One. In the UK, Channel 4 became pioneers of the genre, responsible for such classics as The 100 Greatest Films, The 100 Greatest Scary Moments and The 50 Greatest Wedding Shockers.
Is all this a problem? Not, I would argue, in as much as it's an enjoyable diversion and opportunity for debate. But I'd hate to see it overshadow the serious business of cultural criticism; that is, the serious business of reading, listening and seeing. There is, after all, a big difference between interrogating the merits and matter of a given piece of art and putting it in an Excel spreadsheet.
And here's the real issue. Criticism can be maddeningly slippery. It seeks to probe and unravel, rather than order and rank. It can be provocative and playful and, at times, opaque. Its value judgements are allusive, elusive and adjectival, rather than numerical. It takes time. It doesn't always generate headlines. It is, above all, difficult to confine to a list.