Making the cut

With its much-hyped list of the Best Young American Writers, Granta may have nudged the most neurotic subgroup in the country over the edge

Published January 27, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

When it comes to backstabbing, blood oaths and sheer comic bile, American writers have nothing on the Brits. Over there, lit crit has always been more of a contact sport, and feuds seem to pop up as freshly as this morning's breakfast scones -- whether it's A.S. Byatt tattooing Martin Amis's gumline, Julie Burchill sticking a hat-pin in Camille Paglia's inflated ego, or the annual recriminations over who should have (but didn't) walk off with the Booker Prize. Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, where our idea of a well-aimed spitball is a wan and tetchy letter to the editor in the New York Times Book Review, these British free-for-alls have a winsome combination of slapstick humor and stylized bravado; they're like Benny Hill skits lashed together by Robert Rodriguez.

No single event in the '90s has caused as much hand-wringing (and pea-shooting) in the U.K. as the publication, in 1993, of Granta magazine's list of its purported 20 Best Young British Novelists. The list, which included such semi-notables as Jeanette Winterson, Will Self, and Ben Okri, as well as a batch of virtual unknowns -- Tibor Fischer, Candia McWilliam -- was deemed to be so pale and scrawny that critics began muttering (again!) about the death of the British novel.

Witness the carnage: In The Modern Review, Julie Burchill called the entire list (with the exception of Helen Simpson) "crap"; in the TLS, David Sexton intoned that "the desperation of this roster. . . is self-evident;" William Boyd blamed glossy magazines and "the lure of the byline;" the late Kingsley Amis agreed that "bright people now are doing something different;" and James Wood, holding his nose in the Guardian, wondered if the group wasn't "the kind the English novel at present deserves."

Thanks guys, replied poor Salman Rushdie, one of Granta's 1993 judges. Rushdie called the list's critics "poisonously ungenerous" and "about as supportive as a fatwa."
Whether or not Granta's 1993 list deserved the gang gong it got in the literary press, it certainly looked meager compared to the magazine's 1983 list of the best British novelists under 40. As prescient as it was gimmicky, Granta's debut list neatly skimmed the era's killer elite, from Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes and William Boyd to Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. Unless you want to count Buchi Emecheta, there's hardly been an unblooming bulb in the bunch.

As if to atone for its homeland's slim pickings in 1993, Granta -- under its new editor, Ian Jack -- is wheeling its once-a-decade literary beauty contest over to the States. In June, Granta plans to publish a special issue devoted to work from its first-ever list of the 20 Best Young American Novelists. It's too early to tell whether or not the U.S. group will spark the same kind of gloom and sour feeling that the most recent British list did. But judging from the mixed and muffled reaction to the short list Granta made public late last fall -- 52 writers spread, like college football rivalries, across five regional divisions -- the issue may be in for a bumpy landing.

The list itself, chosen by a panel of fifteen judges that included Jayne Anne Phillips, Leonard Michaels and Maureen Howard, is nothing if not eclectic. The names range from hardy perennials (Madison Smartt Bell, Mona Simpson, Lorrie Moore -- can they really be under 40?) to precocious writers-of-the-moment (Edwidge Danticat, Jeffrey Eugenides, Chang-rae Lee) to novelists who remain mere blips on the average reader's radar. (Anybody read a Melanie Rae Thon, Tony Early or David Haynes novel recently?) What's more, the judges seem to have worked hard to deflect criticism by smuggling a fair amount of political correctness into the mix: There are exactly 26 men and 26 women on the list, as well as a generous sprinkling of African- and Asian-Americans.

But Granta's U.S. list has already raised some hackles, and not just among the usual suspects -- i.e., those who didn't make the cut. The list's critics include writers who've made the list and worry that Granta is publicizing itself at their expense; publishing world observers who find the list bland and full of holes; and at least one depressed judge, novelist Frederick Busch, who says the entire experience taught him "more about about the state of publishing and writer's workshops" than about the state of American fiction.

Granta's preliminary list landed with a particularly hard thud in New York, where many members of the city's pack of very visible and very well-reviewed novelists -- the writers who swim with the sharks -- are nowhere to be found among the fifty-two. Who's missing? Donna Tartt ("The Secret History"), Jay MacInerney ("Bright Lights, Big City"), Brett Easton Ellis ("Less Than Zero"), Rick Moody ("The Ice Age"), Michael Cunningham ("A Home at the End of the World") and A.M. Homes ("In a Country of Mothers"), to name just a few. Elsewhere in the country, among those who didn't make the cut are David Foster Wallace ("Infinite Jest"), Michael Chabon ("The Mysteries of Pittsburgh") and Richard Powers, author of last year's highly praised "Galatea 2.2."

"Granta's past lists have been extremely prescient, right on the mark," says James Linville, an editor of the Paris Review. "And they've been extremely important in people's careers. But any list like this which doesn't include the authors of 'The Secret History,' 'Less Than Zero,' 'The Liberty Campaign' (Jonathan Dee), 'The Ring of Brightest Angels' (Moody), and 'A Model World' (Chabon) just misses somehow, the way 'Hoop Dreams'" was overlooked by the Oscars."

Linville adds that he was "dumbstruck by the homogeneous composition of the jury" -- which is all white, and two-thirds male -- and he wonders whether "you need to do this kind of dog and pony show to bring attention to what is already an excellent magazine."

Granta's judges deny that there was any conscious effort to slap around this generation's hipper, better-selling writers. "We're simply literary writers ourselves, and we're going to pick literary writers," says Frederick Busch. "It doesn't matter whether you're a writer of the moment or not."

The prickly Busch can't resist adding the observation, however, that "if you look at this list, you might think we have something against hairdo's. Rick Moody had some great hairdo in one of his jacket photos."

Hairdo's or no hairdo's, Busch says he found that the judging process -- books had to be submitted by publishers, librarians or booksellers for consideration -- exposed serious flaws in the way books are published today. "I read too many books that should have been short stories," he says. "Books where scenes were simply stitched together and called a novel. These novels are really crimes against writers. They're written to fulfill a contract, or because some editor is pushing too hard to find the second coming of Jay MacInerney."

What's more, Busch calls the Granta list "a really stupid idea and just a way to promote the magazine. This list is just as corrupt as any other literary award -- the PEN/Faulkner, the National Book Awards. The judges pick their friends, their students, their lovers. They pick writer X because writer X is a woman. Or they pick writer Y because writer Y didn't win last year. But having said all that, I'd rather have my voice affecting the outcome than anyone else's."

Busch says he found only two books he really admired: Joanna Scott's "Various Antidotes" and Indira Ganesha's "The Journey." "Maybe the next really great writer is out there and their book just wasn't submitted," he says.

Busch's cynicism seems to have trickled down to some of the winners themselves. "Did I win anything or not?" asks one young New York-area novelist who made Granta's list, and who asked not to be named in this piece. "For one thing, there's no cash award. For another, Granta is asking my publisher to put up money to send me on its own reading tour to publicize the list. I didn't spend four and a half years working on my book in order to become an advertisement for Granta."

Granta didn't make any friends among writers, either, for the painfully protracted manner with which it announced the 52 finalists. Word about who made the short list began dribbling out last fall, long before the group was made public. "It was excruciating," says Ken Foster, the director of a popular reading series at KGB, a downtown New York nightclub. "Granta made the mistake -- or maybe it was intentional -- of notifying the winners by phone long before the whole list came out. So for a month or two, nobody knew who'd won. People were afraid to ask each other."

Two writers from New York who did make the list -- Jim Lewis ("Sister") and Binnie Kirshenbaum ("Disturbances in One Place") -- admit, somewhat warily, that they're happy to be on it.

"These things are so arbitrary," says Lewis. "But for me, after toiling in semi-obscurity for a long time, it can't be anything but good." Lewis hopes being on the list will encourage a publisher to bring out a paperback edition of "Sister," which came out in hardcover in 1993.

"I was impressed with the list," Kirshenbaum says. "Present company excluded, I thought it was very good and eclectic. People like Donna Tartt and Brett Ellis have already gotten so much attention -- not that they shouldn't have been included if they were among the best -- that it felt good to see some writers highlighted who haven't broken through and achieved celebrity."

Some industry observers think the exclusion of some of the bigger names was, if not intentional, certainly convenient. "You aren't going to sell any magazines by telling people once again that Michael Chabon or Donna Tartt are the best writers of their generation," says Dan Max, a senior editor at Harper's Bazaar. "You need some new faces."

"There's less conspiracy in these kinds of things than some people would like to think," says another Granta regional judge, novelist Beverly Lowry. "You just can't take it all too seriously. List-making is always going to bother me to some degree, and you can make a case for not participating. But it's also how you help people. It seems like a compromise that's worth making."

Writers like the New Mexico-based novelist Antonya Nelson, who made the short list for her novel "Family Terrorists," seem to agree. "At least when you are choosing 52 -- or even the final 20 -- you have a range of writers represented. It's not like someone is saying, Here is the very best writer in America under 40, which would certainly prompt some hostility."

When Granta publishes its top 20 in June, whatever hostility that bubbles to the surface will probably be directed at the five final judges: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Robert Stone, Anne Tyler, Tobias Wolff and Ian Jack.

"We'd just like to think we gave them some good choices," says Maureen Howard, a regional judge. "All we are really trying to say with our choices is: These are some pretty good books to read."

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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