The picture on the right isn’t, as you might have assumed, a close-up of my face first thing in the morning before I’ve had time to apply the slap (although I can see the resemblance) it’s a picture of the surface of the moon, taken by my son from Greenwich Park. He was looking through the very large telescope in the Observatory at the time, but I’m still amazed by the fact that technology allows a 15 year-old schoolboy to take a photograph like this with his phone (or rather, it did, before he dropped it in the sink and it died on him; he is his mother’s son, after all). He’s now bereft, as until he gets a replacement the constant contact he usually maintains with his friends has been severed, and he has to wait as much as 17 1/2 hours before he can catch up with them again. Having grown up in a house without a phone of any description, my attitude to the constant stream of information that floods our lives is more ambivalent; there are times when I would definitely prefer not to be disturbed (my summer holiday was not in any way enhanced by the receipt of an email from my parents’ MP, for instance). The thought of wearing glasses that update you with news feeds makes me feel queasy.
No doubt it’s because of my age – and that brings me on to the latest Granta list of Young British Novelists (did you see what I did there?). I have to declare an interest, as I know a couple of them and share an agent with another, but I think they’re an impressive bunch. Having to make a selection of just 20 from the many talented young writers out there will always be contentious, but I found Theo Tait’s article about the list in the Guardian mean-spirited. His assertion that these people, 4 of whom are, or will be, 40 this year, 2 of whom are still in their Twenties, and the rest in their Thirties are in ‘early middle-age by most people’s standards’ is truly bizarre – unless the people he’s thinking of are the under 10s. Speaking as someone who took quite a while to get off the starting blocks, I am full of admiration for anyone who can complete a novel and get it published before their 40th birthday at all, let alone garner enough critical acclaim to feature on one of Granta’s lists.
As A S Byatt has pointed out in the past, many women with children don’t have sufficient time to write until they’ve passed the Granta cut-off age, yet for the first time there are more women than men in the line-up – so what’s changed? I’d venture to suggest that the increasing number of Creative Writing MAs might have something to do with it. The two writers I know were both at Goldsmiths, and I met another in between completing an MA at Royal Holloway and publishing her first novel. I don’t know how many of the others took a similar path, but I have little doubt that if I’d been able to take the course that I took when I was twenty years younger I would have developed the self-confidence to make an attempt at producing a full-length novel at a much earlier age than I eventually did.
Tait complains that most of the writers chosen have written pieces set outside middle England, but as many of them have roots elsewhere that’s hardly surprising, and I suspect that if they had written about middle England he might have accused them of being parochial and unadventurous. A writer’s subject matter is a matter of individual choice; anyone who tries to write what he or she believes the readers might want is on a hiding to nothing. It’s the quality of the writing that matters, and Tait’s conclusion that ‘If you look at the selections (of YBNs) from 1983 onwards, you see a gradual but unmistakable tailing off of talent as the decades progress’ is frankly ridiculous. As he says himself earlier in the article, the chosen writers are to be judged on their whole output, rather than the pieces in the Granta anthology – many of which are excerpts from novels in progress – and some of them have only published a single novel so far. They have their entire careers ahead of them and they may be writing for another 50 or 60 years. I imagine that they will currently be feeling a combination of delight and pressure to live up to their inclusion on this list – perhaps accompanied by a twinge of embarrassment or guilt; what is the point of raining on their parade by informing their potential readers that they’re simply not as good as writers from the earlier selections, who have had as much as three decades to hone their craft, several of them publishing their earliest work before some of the current lot were even born?
Anyway, I think it’s time to acknowledge those of us who are a little less precocious. I propose ‘A Random Selection of Slightly Rackety British Novelists who are Knocking on a Bit’. Sad thing is, I probably wouldn’t even make it on to that one…