Granta's Grotto

by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland on Sunday, December 2002


Christmas came early for me this week, in the form of an e-mail from my publisher. Congratulations, it said, you've been selected for Granta's "Best of young British writers", officially announced on January 6th. This all came as a very pleasant surprise: I had no idea I'd been in the running for the forthcoming and much heralded line-up of the nation's bright-eyed literary starlets - a venture which publisher Granta undertook previously in 1983 and 1993, with past alumni including the likes of Will Self and AL Kennedy. It was very nice to think that somebody somewhere considered me one of the "best"; even nicer to be told that at 41 I was still officially "young".

It all sounded too good to be true; but next day a call came from a charming young woman at Granta, bearing the official news. "That's wonderful," I said, "though to be honest, I thought I was too old for the list."

Pause at the other end. "Why? When's your date of birth?"

"October '61."

Longer pause at other end. And suddenly I realised it really was too good to be true after all. Santa Claus - or to be more precise, publishing editor Ian Jack - called me back later from Granta's grotto in London to explain, with considerable tact and understandable embarrassment, that unfortunately there'd been a little mix up at the sleigh depot. Granta's "Best of British" is strictly for writers under forty, and although the judges loved my novel Mr Mee, it had evidently been submitted by my publisher in error. Now that the error had been pointed out (by yours truly) my book had to be disqualified. Cue return of unopened champagne to fridge, as red-faced reindeer flies off into the night.

Okay: win some, lose some. If like me you're a novelist by profession, then not winning prizes or getting on shortlists is something you do a lot of, and believe me you get used to it. And if my publisher thought I was a few years younger than I really am, well, people make that kind of mistake with me all the time (I put it down to eating lots of fruit and having plenty of early nights). But there is a slightly larger issue here. The only thing that barred me from the hall of fame is being born the wrong side of 1963. Once upon a time writers grew up first, then they wrote about it. These days, it seems more and more like it has to be the other way round, if you want to stand any chance of making a name for yourself.

Of course, Granta are perfectly entitled to make any rules they want - writers under 20, over 60 - it's their show, and I don't begrudge them it. Nor have I any intention of casting aspersions in advance against whichever twenty writers make the list in January - I'm sure they'll all deserve to be called both "young" and "best".

But increasingly, the book world is being overtaken by the notion that young equals best. Publishers no longer need nurture an author's career over many years; instead they turn a nice profit through filling our bookshops and newspapers with an endless succession of photogenic 20-something debut novelists all of whom are billed as the Next Big Thing, and can be quietly dropped if they fail to break through. My advice to "young" writers: start planning for the second career you'll need when you're "old" - it comes sooner than you think.

But hey, it's not so bad. Santa may have robbed me of my youth this week, but I feel pretty sure the "best" half of my life is only just beginning. Happy Christmas!