Oh dear. Is this really the best?
The current issue of Granta (number 163) showcases in 270 pages the work of Young British Novelists who appear on its “once in a decade list of twenty of the most promising writers under forty living in the UK” (page 12). Each author has posed for a publicity photograph taken by Alice Zoo. More about that in a moment.
At some point in my life I began to encounter debut novels and debut novelists. In a British context that links semantically to the debutante, a well-endowed young woman of impeccable breeding who was presented to Queen Elizabeth the Second wearing virginal white dress before coming-out into a season of balls and parties where she would seek to attract the attentions of well-endowed young men looking for brood mares. The tradition had become sufficiently embarrassing for Elizabeth to abolish it in 1958. Of course, some of the debutantes went on to do non-debutantey type things, most notoriously Bridget Rose Dugdale who stole masterpiece paintings for the IRA and married an IRA gunman in her Irish prison. But most did their duty to reproduce the ancien regime.
For their coming-out photographs most of our debs of 2023 dress impeccably; they would not look out of place in Harvey Nichols or Debenham and Freebody (I borrow those two class indicators from Jean Rhys Good Morning, Midnight (1939)). Among those who don’t fit, K Patrick also contributes one of the better pieces - edgy and tightly constructed.
For the most part, the authors do not trouble us with obscenities, profanities or other breaches of etiquette. They have been schooled by their agents and publishers and before that their Creative Writing classes not to upset anyone. Lie back and think of the book clubs! Maybe for this decade’s crop of debs sensitivity nurses have combed through the texts, squashing any lurking nits. It’s true, however, that Saba Sams’s prosaic low-life reportage has been allowed in, perhaps as a lesson to us all.
Eleanor Catton gets into this collection with a restrained piece which did not remind me at all of the confident, exuberant author of The Rehearsal, reviewed here on 6 January 2014 and reckoned “very,very good”.Of course, you are still allowed to howl but in that kind of restrained way which allows the Creative Writing seminar to co-exist on the same corridor as its neighbour, the Flower Arranging class. Yes, you can howl but of course not in the manner of that ugly face in Mr Munch’s nasty painting.
The howling in these pieces is first-person in small family settings usually against the backdrop of natural scenery. In contrast, Isabel Hammad’s unusual piece is interesting because it directly connects to what one might call a bigger picture and Tom Crewe’s because it convincingly imagines how it feels to be one of the little people in someone else’s bigger picture.
But, overall, the picture is a modest watercolour or still life in oils. There is very little that jumps out of the page to demand attention or punches you in an unprepared gut or astonishes you with the virtuosity of its prose.