“There was a moment when novelists were sexy,” says Robbie Millen in The Times. “Martin Amis – phwoarrrr!… Ian McEwan – woof!” The reading public had such a thing for “round-shouldered intellectuals in corduroy jackets” that they became the subject of gossip columns. The peak of this literary sexiness came with the launch of Granta’s “Twenty Under Forty” in 1983. This list of the best young British novelists featured a formidable cast of literary stars: Salman Rushdie, who had already won the Booker; five other eventual winners including Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro; writers like William Boyd and Rose Tremain, who are still knocking out bestsellers 40 years on.
The class of 1983 were an “unusually talented bunch” – and reading was ready for a “boom”. The London Review of Books was founded in 1979; Waterstones in 1982. The Booker was televised for the first time in 1981. Young novelists were “treated like rock stars”, and readers believed that buying The Wasp Factory was as much a statement of “cool edginess” as listening to Talking Heads. It’s no surprise this year’s list hasn’t elicited the same excitement. First off, it’s unapologetically sexist – featuring just four men – and includes four writers who haven’t even had a novel published. Part of the problem is the massive oversupply of creative writing courses flooding the market. They churn out wannabe authors who produce a blinding array of dull books, making it near impossible to weed out tomorrow’s literary stars. The 2023 crop are the literary equivalent of that old joke about boring headlines: “Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead.”