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From Granta, a best-of literary list that’s right for the times

The authors on the 2013 Granta list (left to right): Ned Beauman, Sunjeev Sahota, Naomi Alderman, Benjamin Markovits, Adam Thirlwell, Joanna Kavenna, Xiaolu Guo, David Szalay, Sarah Hall, Steven Hall, Adam Foulds, Tahmima Anam, Nadifa Mohamed, Jenni Fagan, Kamila Shamsie, Ross Raisin, Evie Wyld, Helen Oyeyemi and Taiye Selasi.


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This week, Granta, the celebrated British literary quarterly, released its new, and much-anticipated, Best of Young British Novelists issue. The project began as a marketing tool in 1983 with a list that contained Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and other heavy-hitters, and it's been produced every ten years since then. It is said to consistently predict the next wave of important literary writers – although perhaps the list makes the future, rather than just anticipating it.

This year the anthology differs from those of the previous three decades in one specific way – it's a racially diverse list with more women than men. The headlines announcing its publication reflect this – "British Writers: World Citizens" in The New York Times, "Female-Dominated and International" in The Guardian. (The Globe and Mail ran "Women Dominate Granta's Best Young Novelists List," though it is hard to see how 12 of 20 is especially "dominant.") "Best of" lists are greeted one of two ways these days: Polite, dutiful and often surprised congratulations are offered, or blog posts are typed out angrily expressing shame, scorn or eye-rolls.

In this case, the media's enthusiastic surprise suggests that the list has been born at precisely the right moment. The conversation about how mass culture can more adequately mirror the larger world has been happening outside of mainstream literary culture for decades. Now, thanks in large part to organizations like VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and CWILA (Canadian Women in Literary Arts), which have sought to document the imbalance in our magazines, newspapers and literary periodicals, many mainstream publishers have had to begin to discuss to these issues, and they don't always know how to do so. Granta has indeed produced a diverse list of best young novelists, but the magazine claims this wasn't at all intentional.

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In the introduction to the new edition of Granta, editor John Freeman writes that "literature exists, after all, not just for escape, but to speak truth to power, and it does so by asserting that the world as it is imagined is every bit as important as the world as it exists" and that it tells stories "of ordinary lives, but also of power and oppression." And then, a few paragraphs later, he writes that the diversity of the Best Young British Authors list "caught [the jury] off guard when the list was completed because not once during our proceedings did we talk about the need for diversity, or gender balance, or multiplicity of background."

When a publication like Granta can proclaim they just happened upon a diverse list, it's actually the direct result of oodles of unnamed people working very hard in the background to bring about change. Our refusal to acknowledge that work is part of the wider problem that defines these conversations, and is what author and activist Sarah Schulman calls the tendency to "falsely naturalize change that people fight for." It is failing to recognize changes in our culture that have allowed previously marginalized voices to inch closer to the centre – for the Other to gradually become the author.

A diverse list, quite simply, represents reality. And to be clear: it's an unquestionable good that Granta's list exists. But instead of marveling about an instance of this happening – as we have collectively done this week – we should talk about why this list is the exception and not the norm, and use it as a way to initiate positive, in-depth conversations about how instances like this might become less rare, and less headline-worthy.

There is actually a lot to say about the content of Granta's new list of the best fiction writers under 40 working in Britain today – two of the best on the list, Adam Thirlwell and Zadie Smith, also appeared in the 2003 issue and their pieces in the anthology are predictably stand-out and brilliant. The excerpt from 28-year-old (!) Ned Beauman's forthcoming third novel, Glow, is a highlight for its bold, gritty and engaging style. Canada-born David Szalay's excerpt from forthcoming Europa is striking for its precise and contemplative character development of a monosyllabic bodyguard. It will take a lot to convince me that Steven Hall's writing could stand on its own beyond the gimmicks of upside-down pages, but anthologies, by nature, are subjective, no matter how carefully curated. Tahmima Anam's excerpt from the forthcoming novel Anwar Gets Everything is a breathless story of workers risking their lives building high-rises in Dubai that left images imprinted in my imagination for days.

Hopefully in 10 years, it will be the work itself reporters can respond to, and that will be something to truly and honestly celebrate.

Zoe Whittall's most recent novel is Holding Still For as Long as Possible. She is a frequent contributor to Globe Books.

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