Alt Lit Reading List

outstandingachievementThe Granta 20 Under 40 list is out tomorrow. On the Guardian books blogs, Claire Armitstead comments:

The 2013 selection will be rendered all the more poignant by the death of Margaret Thatcher, who – as Robert McCrum pointed out this week – inspired many of the class of ’83. Ian McEwan, one of their number, offered an explanation for this apparent iron lady irony: ‘We liked disliking her,’ he wrote. ‘She forced us to decide what was truly important.’

In my view, there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on now and people have a lot more to write about (and get angry about) than they did in the days of the late and lamented Mrs Thatcher. But the 1980s was a time for big adventurous novels whereas the 2010s will probably be remembered as a golden age of obscurantism. As ‘degrus’ says below the line:

You’d have to think hard to come up with half a dozen names, never mind twenty. This wasn’t the case in 1983. The first Granta list wrote itself, which couldn’t be said of any of the others since then. Look at Alex Clark’s list, which will be more or less the same as Granta’s. Francesca Segal, Stephen Kelman, Rebecca Hunt, Samantha Harvey, Evie Wyld, Naomi Alderman, Owen Sheers – only if you had a very impoverished sense of fiction’s potential would you be excited by these names. It’s an important question; what happened to the UK’s literary culture in the past thirty years that Francesca Segal is now being put forward as the future of the English novel? Her book The Innocents, though it won the Costa First Novel award (as if that’s supposed to mean much; this year the judges included a middle-ranking stand up comedian and a former presenter of Blue Peter) – this book clearly wouldn’t have earned Segal a place among the first Twenty Under Forty. It’s no less a piece of trash than the famous novel by Segal’s father Erich, Love Story.

The Granta list as an indicator of talent or longevity has also been questioned. As Boyd Tonkin points out, Jonathan Coe, Irvine Welsh and Timothy Mo never made the list but Granta still found room for Adam Thirlwell. Another big change since the 1983 list is that it has become harder for young writers to get published. The country proliferates with creative writing degrees, literary scouts and festivals yet there is a sense that doors are slamming. The perception is that corporate publishing is run by the gatekeepers and cultural bureaucrats, plus Amazon will kill the novel anyway. Too many talented young writers I know are losing confidence, and turning as a first resort to self publishing or small independents with no reach.

Still, it’s easy to be negative about these things so let’s do something positive. Here’s my personal talent list. Obviously, the following are all close friends of mine, or people I owe money to, but I’d still recommend their fiction.

Jenn Ashworth – Jenn has somehow managed to write three well received books in between working full time and raising children. And she’s still in her twenties. Phenomenal. Check out A Kind of Intimacy for a masterful reworking of the domestic novel.

Zoe Lambert – She’s not a familiar name and doesn’t have a major publisher, but Zoe is an excellent writer of the short form and I think her dedication and hard work will pay off, big time. You heard it here first!

Jeremy DunsWe know him mainly for his investigations into literary frauds, but Jeremy also writes compelling Cold War fiction. Start with Free Agent and work your way through.

Chris KillenOkay, he hasn’t published a novel since 2008, but Chris’s experimental skills plus his genuine warmth and feeling for the human condition earn his place on my list. In particular, check out the pilot of his sitcom with Socrates Adams, ‘Great Friends’. How did this show not get commissioned?

Gwendoline Rileyprobably the best and most accomplished writer to come out of Manchester in the 2000s. She wrote her debut Cold Water around ten years ago when she was still slinging drinks in Northern Quarter bars, and it has stood the test of time.

Ben Myers – I haven’t read his new one, but his first novel Richard is a tragic meditation on art, fame and death. (Query: Is Ben still in his thirties? Check)

Alex Preston – for me, Alex’s Alpha cult novel The Revelations was one of the standouts of last year.

Sarah Hall – has several novels under her belt, but it’s her short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference, that blew me away and got her onto the list.

Nick Laird – makes the grade for Glover’s Mistake alone. Set in London during the mid 2000s, this tale of a poisoned love triangle is also a frightening exploration of the emptinesses that intelligent people can make of their lives. Recommended.

And that’s all I can think of. Nine names. The commenter ‘degrus’ is right. This is hard. Any ideas?

Update: Here’s the Workshy Fop’s list.

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One Response to “Alt Lit Reading List”

  1. thom Says:

    Thanks for the link, Max. I’ve been thinking about it this morning, and I’m actually quite optimistic about the amount of talented young writers. From your list, I really like Jenn Ashworth, Zoe Lambert & Chris Killen, and I’d add the likes of Sam Byers, Sam Mills and Nathan Filer. I just don’t think Granta will pick up on many of these.

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