Granta Best of Young American Writers 2007

28/04/07, The Times

First, the number crunching and statistical analyses that all lists seem to invite. 5 out of the 21 were born abroad: Daniel Alarcón, Olga Grushin, Yiyun Li, Akhil Sharma, Gary Shteyngart. One – Rattawut Lapcharoensap – was born in the US but raised in the country of his origin, Thailand. Yet another, John Wray, was born in the US but holds dual citizenship by virtue of having an Austrian mother. And Uzodinma Iweala is advertised as ‘born to Nigerian parents’ in Washington, DC. The second Granta list of Best Young American Authors – the first was eleven years ago – reifies and validates the best things about the US model of immigration, vital at a time when so many of us in Europe have forgotten what a miraculously diverse, polyphonic, unmonolithic country it is, how multum in parvo its culture. When you ponder the fact that the first list contained only one such new migrant, what does it say about the contours of American writing today?

The judges of this year’s list offer a new model of writing on this evidence, that in which ‘ethnicity, migration and “abroad” [have] replaced social class as a source of tension’. Almost everyone on the list writes about going forth, about stepping out and encountering a different culture, a different land, different peoples. It is the opposite of self-enclosedness, a deliberate breaching of membranes and boundaries. Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, travelled to Ukraine, Nell Freudenberger’s debut collection of stories, Lucky Girls, is set in India and South-East Asia, John Wray’s first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, imagines Austria during the Second World War, Jess Row’s The Train to Lo Wu has Hong Kong at its heart.
The other striking feature, revealed by Ian Jack’s introduction to these authors, is that almost all of them went to Creative Writing school. While this points to an increasing professionalisation of the writing of fiction or, as Jack surmises, the choice of writing as a career by more and more Americans of the new generation, it needn’t induce the usual hand-wringing and breast-beating about the emergence of a fiction factory, certainly not on the evidence of the writing by the authors on this list. It could also be a pointer to a pragmatic strategy: it is well-nigh impossible to find a literary agent, that first step on the road to publication, if you do not have a reputable Creative Writing School degree behind you.

A more sobering thought occurs when one looks at the first list from 1996: about 7 of the 20 – Ethan Canin, Edwidge Danticat, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, David Guterson, Elizabeth McCracken, Lorrie Moore – have sizeable, if unequal, literary reputations 11 years down the line. A 35% success rate is a very respectable predictive or speculative figure for an exercise of this kind but posterity will change that number, as it will shape the receptions and reputations of the writers on this new list.

As for me, I’m keeping my beady eyes on the trajectories of my favourites: Daniel Alarcón, who writes of the ravages of war in South America, and the stories of private lives caught up in it, with haunting clarity and a startlingly perceptive humanity; Rattawut Lapcharoensap, whose restrained, moving stories of travel and tourism in South-East Asia suddenly get up and bite when you’re least on the lookout for such a thing; Yiyun Li’s austere, beautiful stories of the deferred human cost of the Revolution in China in her stratospherically brilliant collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (winner, among a raft of other things, of the Guardian First Book Award in 2007); Olga Grushin’s surreal, Gogolesque, astringent first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, a blackly funny and poetic book about political betrayal and its uneasy accommodations that finally come apart; Nell Freudenberger, whose first novel, The Dissident, inspired by the life and works of the Chinese performance artist, Rong Rong, meditates on the fraught business of authenticity and truth in art while telling a gripping story that never puts a foot wrong; and Akhil Sharma, whose bleak, devastating novel, An Obedient Father, paints one of the most searingly undeluded and truthful pictures of the real India that fiction has to offer.