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Brawling Over the 'Best'

July 28, 1996|Nick Owchar | Nick Owchar is an assistant editor for Book Review

The book that's causing the greatest anxiety and heart palpitations this summer--at least in some circles--may surprise you. It's not a mystery-thriller involving an attractive, young attorney. Nor is it a book about the latest revelations of scandal in the White House. It's the summer issue of Granta, that king of the high-brow literary quarterlies.

"The Best of Young American Novelists" might sound like a pretty tame, quite ordinary title, but public reaction to the current issue of Granta has been anything but ordinary. In popular publications here and in the British magazine's homeland, angry critics have been firing salvos ever since the "short list"--52 semifinalists who were whittled down to 20 finalists--came out late last fall. The controversy didn't stop when the finalist's names started circulating through the literary grapevine before the issue's publication in June.

"In choosing a device for driving young American novelists crazy with envy and worry," wrote David Streitfeld recently in Vogue, "you could hardly do better than hold a contest dividing them into 'the best,' 'the almost-best' and 'the rest.' "

Ah, but the people at Granta are accustomed to flak. In 1983 and 1993, they published special editions highlighting the 20 best young (meaning "under 40") British novelists. Despite complaints that the contest was unfair and inaccurate, 1983's crop of winners looks pretty good with the benefit of hindsight: Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie were just a few of the winners.

Does this bode good things for the winners of Granta's American version? Some future literary leaders might be among the names of Granta's 20 best, cited here with their best-known works:

* Sherman Alexie, "Reservation Blues"

* Madison Smartt Bell, "The Year of Silence"

* Ethan Canin, "The Palace Thief"

* Edwidge Danticat, "Breath, Eyes, Memory"

* Tom Drury, "The End of Vandalism"

* Tony Earley, "Here We Are in Paradise"

* Jeffrey Eugenides, "The Virgin Suicides"

* Jonathan Franzen, "The Twenty-Seventh City"

* David Guterson, "Snow Falling on Cedars"

* David Haynes, "Somebody Else's Mama"

* Allen Kurzweil, "A Case of Curiosities"

* Elizabeth McCracken, "Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry?"

* Lorrie Moore, "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?"

* Fae Myenne Ng, "Bone"

* Chris Offutt, "Kentucky Straight"

* Robert O'Connor, "Buffalo Soldiers"

* Stewart O'Nan, "Snow Angels"

* Mona Simpson, "Anywhere but Here"

* Melanie Rae Thon, "Iona Moon"

* Kate Wheeler, "Not Where I Started From"

Granta based its selection on nominations from booksellers, publishers, librarians and literary agents. About 300 novels were sent to five groups of regional judges, who narrowed the field to 52. The final selection of 20 was made by writers Robert Stone, Anne Tyler and Tobias Wolff, and Granta Editor Ian Jack.

The West region (everything between Hawaii and New Mexico) was judged by writers Leonard Michaels, Marilynne Robinson and James Welch. Four of the West's regional winners--Alexie, Canin, Guterson and Simpson--made the final cut. Here are the other eight:

* Rick Bass, "Platte River"

* Cristina Garcia, "Dreaming in Cuban"

* Chang-rae Lee, "Native Speaker"

* Renee Manfredi, "Where Love Leaves Us"

* Antonya Nelson, "Family Terrorists"

* Ann Packer, "Mendocino"

* Charlotte Watson Sherman, "One Dark Body"

* Steve Yarbrough, "Mississippi History: Stories"

Of course, many critics have asked, what about Bret Easton Ellis? Or Nicholson Baker? Or Donna Tartt? Some thought that too much emphasis was put on making sure there was a geographical balance among the winners.

But the byproduct of these arguments seems ultimately beneficial. What's being discussed now in major publications? Contemporary American literature. It's bound to peak interest in young writers, which can't hurt.

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