Why We Read What We Do

Kamila ShamsieKamila Shamsie

Granta's list of the best 20 young British writers has some fine answers, in these 'unreaderly times'

The Granta quarterly's line-up, every decade, of the best 20 young British writers has a proud back story. Its first such list, Granta 7 in 1983, bestowed the honour on, among yet others, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, William Boyd and Graham Swift. These seven men in particular went on to adapt the novel form in ways that would now nominate them as the best practitioners of their craft along any criteria you'd care to choose. Consequently, Granta's subsequent efforts to interest readers have struggled to match that opening act, and understandably so. Indeed, a decade ago, while introducing the 2003 list (Granta 81), the then editor, Ian Jack, sounded almost apologetic: "There have been many comparisons with the famous list of 1983, and no doubt there will be more. They do no good at all. That was a special generation. This may be one as well. We have another 10 years to find out."

Alas, the class of 2003 did not quite match up to that of 1983, though Sarah Waters, Peter Ho Davies, Hari Kunzru and David Mitchell are writers special by any reckoning. The star of that list, Zadie Smith, continues to dazzle by doing something new with each novel. Smith deservedly makes it to the 2013 line-up too, given that she is still under 40 and continues to be a British citizen, the two key criteria for eligibility for consideration. In fact, her presence this year (Granta 123) allows us to reformat the axes along which the best are chosen, so that we focus less on profiling a generation and more on asking a question appropriate to these, in Granta editor John Freeman's words, "unreaderly times". What is it that we look for in a good literary novel?

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