Best British or Irish or Commonwealth fiction since 1980

IN today’s Observer there is a fascinating article by Robert McCrum on the above topic.  Apparently in the US they recently had a poll ( for the best American novel of the past twenty five years) and Beloved by Toni MOrrison came out on top.  Apparently the great Roth’s vote was split between many novels.

The Observer decided to carry out a similar poll for those writers eligible for the Booker.  They polled around 120 writers and broadcasters to choose the best British or Irish or Commonwealth fiction since 1980.  The list is interesting, as are those who had more than one book nominated.  The article contains some hidden gems though.  One writer apparently voted for his or her own book (if you scan the list of contenders at the end can you guess who it was? – I have my suspicions given the reaction of one author when COetzee won his first Booker).

There is – as far as I can tell – only a few “genre” books anywhere near the list – a Derek Raymond novel and A Perfect Spy by le Carre (in my view his finest novel), although Banville’s spy novel about a fictionalised Blunt “The UNtouchable” is nominated and some sf offerings of Ishiguro and Atwood.

There is one surprising omission – Ballard – although I am of the view that his best work is before the start date.

The list of authors with more than one book nominated (not including trilogies which seem to have been treated as one entry hence Golding’s sea trilogy, Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown books, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy are there) includes:
Angela Carter, JM COetzee, Penelope Fitzgerald (who to my shame I haven’t read), Alasdair Gray, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jim Kelman, Ian McEwan, and John McGahern.  Ishiguro and McEwan have 3 nominations.  Coetzee has 4.  Gray’s nominations are Unlikely Stories Mostly and 1982 Janine (presumably nominated by Jonathan Coe – who dedicated one novel to 1994, Janine) but surprisingly does not include Lanark – although the list of those polled does not include some of the younger novelists particularly influenced by Lanark.

Anyway, the top ten is as follows:

First place               Disgrace (1999) JM Coetzee 
Second place         Money (1984) Martin Amis 
Joint third place    Earthly Powers (1980) Anthony Burgess 
                                  Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan 
                                  The Blue Flower (1995) Penelope Fitzgerald 
                                  The Unconsoled (1995) Kazuo Ishiguro 
                                  Midnight’s Children (1981) Salman Rushdie 
Joint eighth place The Remains of the Day (1989) Kazuo Ishiguro 
                                  Amongst Women (1990) John McGahern 
                                  That They May Face the Rising Sun (2001) John McGahern 

If polled I would have voted for 1982, Janine.  I have still never read anything quite like it.  For those that have not enountered the novel Gray’s self-penned blurb gives the idea:

“This already dated novel is set inside the head of an ageing, divorced, alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations who is tippling in the bedroom of a small Scottish hotel. Though full of depressing memories and propaganda for the Conservative Party it is mainly a sadomasochistic fetishistic fantasy. Even the arrival of God in the later chapters fails to elevate the tone. Every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books, Lanark and Unlikely Stories, Mostly, is to be found here in concentrated form.”

About loveandgarbage

I watch the telly and read when not doing law stuff and plugging my decade and a half old unwatched Edinburgh fringe show.
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12 Responses to Best British or Irish or Commonwealth fiction since 1980

  1. camies says:

    I didn’t take to their distinction between American and what they called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ literature. Anglo-Saxon? Isn’t that ‘Beowulf’? What about the Scots and Welsh and Irish (and for that matter the North-East English) who never were Anglo-Saxon? If they meant British they should have said so. Perplexed.

  2. tanngrisnir says:

    …but surprisingly does not include Lanark…
    Lanark was published before 1980, wasn’t it? That would rule it out; otherwise, the omission is astonishing.

    • Published in 1981 but in gestation for 20 plus years.
      The panel does not include Gray, Kelman, Galloway, Welsh, Warner, Kennedy, Self, RObin Robertson (the Jonathan Cape part of Scottish fiction and editing). Mr McCrum is very loyal to his publishing house when you go through the list…

      • tanngrisnir says:

        Interesting, I thought it was earlier. (I can’t recall where my copy has got to.)
        So that makes me wonder exactly when that convention was in the Ingram where Gray was one of the guests, because I thought that pressure of work had stopped me going to cons by 1981/2.

  3. I should actually read some non-genre fiction one day. I am supposed to be interested in English literature but I’m very lazy about reading “middle-class divorcé finds new life through shagging teenage girl” epics unless they have SPACESHIPS, CRIME or FAIRIES as a background.
    The book you describe sounds so grim it might actually be a black comedy.

    • 1982 Janine is a black black comedy, experimental, political, powerful, and the the blurb is self-deprecating self-parody prompting one reviewer to write that gray is the sort of vainglorious lout who will stay up at night practising his Nobel speech (which he gleefully reprinted in the first paperback edition under a collecion of reviews both pro and anti).
      Gray has writtn three sf/fantasy novels: Lanark – whcih includes a fantasy scetion set in an alternate version of Glasgow; Poor Things – sometimes described as a feminist reworking of Frankenstein, and winner of Whitbread Novel and Guardian novel prizes; and a History maker – a short sf novel set in a future where border tribes fight for entertainment.

      • tanngrisnir says:

        The funny thing is, Gray is rather shy and tends to blush enormously if you pay him the slightest compliment.

        • It’s what makes him such an endearing reader of his work. I remember attending the Edinburgh launch of A History Maker in James Thin and the room was packed. He looked mortified and then proceeded to render the performance in Goon voices (which affected my first reading of the novel).
          He is though a wonderful reader of his work. Do you have the recordings of his readings of Unlikely Stories and Book 3 and 1 of Lanark?

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