By Kerr, Philip
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4597
It was the best of times, it was the worst at times... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us -- we were Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists.
No single literary event in 1990s Great Britain caused as much sniping, backbiting, hissy-fitting, navel analysis and self-castigation as Granta's publication, in 1993, of those writers whom Bill Buford, Salman Rushdie, AS Byatt and John Mitchison judged to be worthy of inclusion on a list of the 20 best of British, aged under 40. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be judged young was very heaven! For a couple of days, anyway. Because it wasn't very long before people started to piss on our parade.
Compared with 1983's publishing Pantheon, the class of '93 (see right) was deemed to be so lacklustre and anonymous that critics were soon announcing, if not the death of the English novel, then its arrival, suffering from an acute insult to the brain, in the Blooms-bury A&E.
Ridiculously, William Boyd blamed "the lure of the byline" for what he termed -- almost as if he had been describing, in Siegfried Sassoon's phrase, "the unhercic dead who fed the guns" -- "a lost generation Kingsley Amis, hardly the most reliable authority on anything to do with young people, suggested that "bright young people now are doing something different" -- a sentiment echoed by, of all people, Nick Hornby. (Obviously, this was before Nick wrote two excellent novels of his own.) David Sexton, writing in the sunny uplands of the TLS, declared that "the desperation of this roster... is self-evident". James Wood, scraping our names off the sole of his boot with a long stick and a copy of the Guardian, opined that the list was "the kind the English novel at present deserves". Julie Burchill excepted only Helen Simpson from her fastidious, Leavisite observation that we were "crap"
Others were even less generous than Julie. A guest leaving the BOYBN launch party told one of our hapless number: "You are ALL crap." After some considerable debate as to who this person might be, it was finally discovered that his name was Paul Morley.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Being in the BOYBN Class of '93 was like walking around a Spanish market place wearing a sulphur-impregnated shirt, with a five-pound taper in your hand, a pointy hat by Philip Treacy on your head and a sign around your neck saying "Have you got a light, mac?" Never before did writing a novel feel like such an act of heretical presumption and vainglory. Just who the hell did we think we were? For many of us, the experience of being lionised (ie, torn to bloody pieces) by literary London, was a useful insight into what it must be like to be a player in an under-achieving England football or cricket team, or an obnoxious, toe-sucking royal, or a defendant at the Nuremberg trials.
Incredibly, there were still a few authors of my own acquaintance who felt aggrieved at having been left off the list; and, in retrospect, those who at the time, looked too grand to bother having much to do with the promotion -- in the end, the whole point of the exercise was to sell a few books -- now look more media-savvy than the rest of us. Oscar Wilde's famous remark about how there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about, no longer persuades, if (in view of what happened to poor Oscar) it ever did; and, for the succeeding generation of young British novelists -- expected from Granta sometime in 2003 -- one feels tempted to commend to them thewords of the American novelist Tama Janowitz, who once wrote that "with publicity comes humiliation". …