Thirty years ago, UK publisher Granta unleashed a state-of-the-literary nation list that attempted what Grand National experts do annually: to cull a staggering number of hopefuls down to a pack of dead certs.
Bill Buford, editor of the inaugural list, explained its ethos in a recent Guardian interview about the Best of Young British Novelists: "Trust me, it said. I know what I am talking about. These young writers are the future of literature. Watch. History will prove me right."
What Buford meant was that the list was shorthand for writers to watch over the coming years. Every decade since 1983, Granta has published such a list of 20 writers, who are 40 or under.
In 1993 the list was a who's who of literary darlings: Will Self, Iain Banks, Alan Hollinghurst and Jeanette Winterson. The last list coincided with the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, and many of the names are still familiar: David Mitchell, Hari Kunzru, and Monica Ali.
As Buford implied, there is no doubting the sense of profile that comes with being selected.
Unlike the Booker Prize, or the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, there is no cash sum involved with making the cut. Its intrinsic value comes from the sense of merit and validation. Even if the list is purely speculative, it's one publishers and reviewers take serious notice of.
"I think the state of publishing and culture means we need this list more than ever," says Granta 's editor John Freeman. "Young novelists face structural impediments now, not just aesthetic or personal ones. The publishing industry, which is struggling with e-books, loss of brick-and- mortar stores, and a general malaise about how to sell books, feel this every day. Publishers and the media cheer this list on, even if they disagree with some of the choices."
So how is such a coveted, subjective list decided? Via a seven-strong judging panel that includes Freeman, author AL Kennedy and literary journalists Stuart Kelly and Gaby Wood. Kennedy was included on the 2003 and 1993 lists, and only a handful of writers, including Kazuo Ishiguro, have managed this double inclusion. This year's selection includes two writers – Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell – who featured on the 2003 list.
Looking down through the list of 20 names, there is a palpable shift in the overall tone of the list. Apart from age eligibility, nominees must hold an English passport. In the past, the list was weighted with a monochromatic Britishness, but this year there is increased diversity and multi- culturalism on offer. Many of the writers – such as Tahmima Anam, Xiaolu Guo, Nadifa Mohamed, Helen Oyeyemi, Sunjeev Sahota and Kamila Shamsie – have a hybrid sense of identity and nationality. Also present are a handful of high-profile names, but still ones that are possibly recognisable only to more ardent readers.
There are, however, standout inclusions, with Ross Raisin, who has published two excellent novels, God's Own Country and Waterline , and Evie Wyld. Wyld made the 2010 Impac short-list with After The Fire, A Still Small Voice . It's an exceptional book and one of the best debuts I have read in the past decade. Her second novel, All the Birds Singing , will be published in June.
At 27 the youngest writer is Ned Beauman, who has written two novels. The second, The Teleportation Accident , was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
But can one publisher really define a generation of new writers? Granta is an independent publisher, not just of novels, but also of a quarterly themed magazine. It is well placed to unearth new voices and none of the names on this year’s list have had a novel published by Granta.
Taiye Selasi, born in London to Ghanaian and Nigerian parents, garnered a book deal with Penguin based on one short story, The Sex Lives of African Girls , which was published in Granta 's Feminism issue. Selasi was ecstatic when she heard that she was one of the 20 names. "I couldn't speak when I got the call. It's such an honour. Granta is unique in its legacy. What power it has is its endurance over time."
One of the most striking elements of this year's list is the dominance of women: there are 12 female writers to eight male, including Naomi Alderman, Jenni Fagan, Joanna Kavenna and the prolific Sarah Hall.
Adam Foulds (author of the much-lauded The Quickening Maze ), Benjamin Markovits, Steven Hall and David Szalay are joined by Adam Thirlwell – whose experimental novel Kapow! comes with pages that fold outwards – on the list.
Winning a book prize can lead to a tangible sales bump, but it's harder to predict if inclusion on the list will lead to selling more books. "I think being selected means that these novelists will be watched and their books anticipated in a new way," says Freeman. "It is a kind of pressure, but also, a kind of hope. As readers, we want them to tell us what we don't already know."
An Irish equivalent
Anyone glancing down the past three decades worth of lists will notice the absence of Irish writers, due to the prerequisite ownership of a British passport. Given the regard and status of Irish writing, and the need to keep championing books, there is definite scope for a doppelganger Irish list. Perhaps arts festivals or a respected literary journal, such as the Stinging Fly or Dublin Review , could be a perfect vehicle for 20 of our own writers of future note.
“Young novelists have always had, I think, an uncanny ear for the way we speak and dream, and how that’s changing, and if the novel – which is a social document – is to challenge our times, it needs to speak in its many tongues,” says Freeman.
“There is a whole new generation of novelist out there channelling these sounds, the new sound of truth. But we can’t hear them all the time because it has become harder than ever for young novelists to keep publishing.
"The market is abysmal; the noise of culture and complaint is louder than ever. This list is a chance to stop and hear what they're saying."
Granta's best of young British novelists 2013
Ellah Allfrey, deputy editor of Granta magazine
John Freeman, editor of Granta
Romesh Gunesekera, author
Stuart Kelly, literary editor of Scotland on Sunday
AL Kennedy, author
Sigrid Rausing, publisher of Granta
Gaby Wood, head of books at the Telegraph Media Group