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The Predictive Success of Listmaking [Granta]

Let’s start by saying what really shouldn’t need to be said: Being included in one of Granta‘s “Best Young XXX Novelists” special issues is an incredible honor. These come out once a decade, with four iterations of “best young” British novelists, three for American writers, and, as of this month, two for Spanish-language authors. I believe that this issue contains the most authors (25), and, taking into mind the number of Spanish speakers around the world—and the impact so many of these writers have had on world literature—making this list is nothing to scoff at. Same goes, in a slightly different way, for the New York Public LIbrary Young Lions Award, or the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.” These are the sort of lists that you can ride for a career. Or that can launch one.

Which brings me to my first evaluation (of five) of “success” with regard to this special issue. Namely, how predictive is it? Do these authors go on to have long, publication-filled careers? Does this inspire them? Does it open more doors? Does it create a set of expectations that can be mentally hard to live with? Who knows! This is either a “me problem,” or related to the sheer speed (and amount) of information these days, but prior to starting this project, I probably could’ve named . . . eight? ten? of the authors on the first Spanish-language Granta list without looking. I remember the ones we published (Labbé, Neuman, and Zambra before the list was a list), and remember the handful of others who broke out (Schweblin, Barba, Oloixarac). But that’s about it.

I had a similar reaction when I looked through the Best of the Brits from 2013. Actually, my reaction was, who are these writers? I know I’ve pigeonholed myself into the world of international literature, but that’s not all I read and definitely not all I’m aware of. So what does this mean? That these authors are still under the radar, or that I’m an ignoramus, or that these lists aren’t all that predictive of future success?

[I’ll spare you the 500 words on baseball scouting, future value projections, ZiPS, and all that. But!, for the handful of baseball nerds who read these posts, take a look at the 2010 Top 50 MLB Prospects from MLB and assess if this is a “good” list or not. Like what’s about to happen with the Granta evaluation, it’s really hard to evaluate this, since we don’t have the counterfactuals—which prospects became superstars, but weren’t included on this list? Nevertheless, it’s a) the profession of hundreds of people to evaluate talent and distribute finances and resources accordingly in order to win games and keep their job, and b) there are some super studs on this list! Giancarlo Stanton below Jason Heyward is good for a chuckle, but both are All Stars who have accumulated 32.7 and 40.3 fWAR over the course of their careers. (An “average” major leaguer who can keep his job will accrue ~2.0 fWAR a year, so both Heyward and Stanton are good.) If we look back on these lists and didn’t see MadBum and Strasburg and Buster Posey, it would call into question the whole enterprise. OK, away from the baseball and back to the books.]

For every author included in one of Granta‘s lists, I can come up with a different metric of success. Overall sales! Whether the author’s works are in print fifteen years after publication! Teaching appointments! Amount they can command on the “lecture circuit”! Or, the one I ended up going with out of both laziness and informational access, how many books did these writers publish post-nomination.

Let’s pause here for a moment to point out that this metric is shit. Some authors, *cough* Pynchon *cough*, take a decade to write their next masterpiece, others don’t care about being in the inner circle of the Writers Hall of Fame and just produce because they need to make money. And, given that I only did the research on three issues for a grand total of sixty-three writers . . . well, that’s very much a small sample.

But, you know what? Three Percent isn’t about measured responses or unquestionable methodologies. It’s about a half-assed application of statistical principles to the world of literature and hot takes. (Stay tuned for that. I’ve been trying to talk myself out of what I want to say about one of these stories all day and . . . I’m losing this argument. Sometimes you just have to speak your truth about bad writing.) Isn’t that the grand truth of our Internet moment? We can all make lists, we can all share our opinions. It’s just that some opinions matter more, and some outlets have more cash and cliche. Enough of this caveating, let’s get to it.

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“Our Windowless Home” by Martín Felipe Castagnet and Frances Riddle is one of my favorite pieces so far. (And not just because Dalkey published him already. In multiple covers if Google Images is to be believed.)

This story is much quieter than many of the others I’ve read so far. It’s about the end of a sculptor’s life. Euphrates, after moving to the city as a young boy, becomes one of the most talented and prominent female artists of their time. So talented in fact that she is given a special ring that essentially gives her funding for life from a secretive foundation. As the story starts, she’s reading her medical test results and carving her headstone. And, most importantly, deciding who she should pass the ring/foundational benefits on to. Her most-hated—and thus most respected—rival?

For context, here’s the synopsis of the Dalkey-published Bodies of Summer:

The existence of an afterlife is now a fact: heaven is the Internet. Death is only an interruption as souls can be uploaded to the web and new bodies can be purchased by those wishing to reenter the physical world. The need to settle an old score pushes Ramiro Olivaires to move from the comfort of virtual existence back into a human body. Ramiro’s grandson, however, can only afford the body of an overweight middle-aged woman. In the shell of this new body, Ramiro must adjust to the dizzying transformations that the world has undergone since his death. Using Ramiro himself as an avatar, Castagnet walks us through a stifling new version of reality where sex, gender, identity, religion, and politics are defined by the limitless possibilities of the human body. Castagnet is considered one of the most promising new voices in Latin American literature and Bodies of Summer shows us why.

And here’s a short excerpt from “Our Windowless Home” to give you a taste:

The sculptor blinked and resurfaced, her mind clear. She put the envelope in the third drawer of her desk. The news was expected, it didn’t take her by surprise, but she had many issues left to resolve. She remembered all too well her writer friend, probably the most intelligent person she had ever known. But even though he was in bad health, he hadn’t left a will and now his books were being published in shamefully bad taste: they’d printed his drafts, notes taken on napkins, even some of his grocery lists. That wasn’t going to happen to her. She had a strong distaste for the legal side of things but she had resigned herself, just as she’d resigned herself to the doctor’s appointments. It had already been decided that the final resting place for her body of work would be the regional museum which she had helped set up in Little Pass to exhibit some sculptures rescued from the lake. It wasn’t the most prestigious museum or the one that would attract the largest crowd but a place filled with respectful hands, careful caretakers. They had yet to settle the final details but they were so close to reaching an agreement, with enthusiasm on both sides, that she wasn’t really worried.

She touched each of her statues, one by one, or at least all of those she could reach. They were the few that were left, the ones she had been able to avoid selling off; if it were up to her she wouldn’t have gotten rid of a single one: they were like family, silent relatives. Each one communicated a different feeling, like the one that brought to mind a steaming cup of tea, or the one that absorbed the heat of the day, no matter how cold it was. It was important to touch them, a ritual to wake them up and keep them alive. The swimmer crouched in diving position, completely doubled over, hands disappearing into the water or the air. The perfume seller, one of her first pieces: everyone swore they could smell the half-open box the young woman held with her head bent (she still ran into the model from time to time, now matronly with sagging breasts, working at the local papershop). And the blind dog lying on his pedestal beside the studio door, perking up his ears but with an unfocused gaze. She stroked him: the bronze was smooth and worn. Her friends always petted him, at her insistence, for good luck.

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Here’s my (suspect) methodology:

  1. I looked at three issues of Best Young Granta: the 2003 British one, the 2007 American one, and the 2010 Spanish-language one.
  2. Using both English and Spanish Wikipedia, I counted up the works of fiction published by all the included authors over the ten year period following the publication of the issue they were included in. (So for 2003 Brits, I counted short story collections and novels published between 2004 and 2013.)
  3. For the Spanish writers, I also counted up how many books of each author were published in translation between 2011 and 2020.
  4. All of this was done in ten year increments so that all three batches of writers—British, American, Spanish-language—had the same amount of time with which to have produced new work.
  5. I came up with averages for each issue and for the lists as a whole.
  6. I started writing this post with no other data.

Things I know about this approach that are flawed (off the top of my head):

  1. As mentioned above, there were only 20 British writers, 21 American, and 22 writing in Spanish. That’s a small sample size!
  2. I took none of the different publishing scenes into consideration. But I assume—based partially on results—that Americans don’t rely on book publication for income the way that Spanish-language writers do. The Anglo System is all about Buzz, Recognition, a Sinecure at a Prominent University. You don’t have to produce for that, yet no one would argue that tenure doesn’t equal success.
  3. Production doesn’t equal success. Incorporating sales—within some sort of context regulating way—would be far more advantageous. If you published three works of fiction post-Granta, and your name is Zadie Smith (again, NOT including her editorial work or uncollected stories, which is what makes ZZ Packer so interesting as a Best Young American), you’re obviously doing all right, even if your compatriots (Toby Litt, David Peace) published more.
  4. We don’t know who was eligible but not on the list. That would add a lot of detail about the predictive power of these lists.
  5. Similar to sales, I left off all information about which presses published these books. A self-published novel is equivalent to a seven-figure deal from Knopf.
  6. I started looking this info up with all of this in mind and knowing, willfully, that I’ll be ignoring it.

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“Buda Flaite” by Paulina Flores and Megan McDowell is one of the least interesting, least entertaining, most gleefully bad stories I have ever read. (If you’re here for the opinions and jokes . . . well, buckle up.)

That said, let’s start with the good:

. . . . . .

. . . . . .  hmm . . . . . .

. . . . . .

She’s published by Catapult! All that Koch money going to a young Chilean author? For it!

And, yes, here we go, Humiliation should’ve been featured on the “Taylor Swift As Book Covers” Instagram account. (Or already was?)

PHEW! Let’s just run some quotes:

Age: Buda just turned fourteen.

As for a gender, we could propose the definition ‘non-binary’, but the truth is that Buda doesn’t give the matter much thought – wanting, perhaps, to indicate that the mere act of classification is too closed or static for their person to brook. They knew that people referred to them as boy or girl according to what those people wanted to see (thus projecting their own personal virtues, defects or shortcomings), and so they didn’t take it personally. And if anyone ever felt curiosity – and/or disgust – at their singular appearance and asked a direct, ‘What are you?’ Buda simply responded: ‘I’m me,’ adding, ‘your favorite flaite,’ if the situation merited coyness.

As for your humble narrator – who also holds a multiplicity of voices – we will follow Buda Flaite’s example and not complicate life: we will flow between various genders – or none at all – as the case seems to call for, and leave it at that.

I literally guffawed my way off my chair at “too closed or static for their person to brook.” GROAN. And “as for your humble narrator”? HARD PASS. But wait! Your humble blogger has many more examples of why the voice aspect of this story just simply doesn’t work.

Buda Flaite had also participated in the protests, but now regretted it . . . No, they didn’t regret it – how could they regret closing down the soul-devouring demon?! It was something else, only right now they couldn’t quite understand it (Buda said this out loud, as she tended to do when inspiration was near). ‘It’s something else, I just can’t understand it right now,’ they repeated, and then their eyes met those of a skater kid who was on the edge of the highest bowl. Judging from his frightened aspect he must have been a beginner, and he was looking at the slope that awaited him as if it were the side of a skyscraper. But he can’t do it afraid – that’s where Buda’s thoughts went, something along the lines of: fear is your worst enemy. What they said to themself out loud was: ‘Voh dale: siempre con la fixa y nunca con la pera.’ The attentive reader will recognize a couple words we’ve already mentioned, but still, this kind of phrase is what the faint-hearted refer to as untranslatable. Even so, we’ll take Buda’s advice and give it a try: It’s something like, ‘Go on and get it, always savage, never shook.’ Get it?

This was the paragraph I sent to [REDACTED] who replied with: “Is this a first draft from a freshman creative writing class?”

‘Amiga! ’ Buda shouted to a skater girl as she rode past.

‘You got a smoke?’

The girl looked at them in the grass. Buda noticed that her eyebrows were bleached and they trembled almost imperceptibly, just an instant.

‘Tobacco,’ said the girl.

Buda made a head movement that seemed to say: ‘It’s all good.’

While she took out the implements, the skater asked their name.

‘Buda. What’s yours?’

‘No way! Sick!’ said the skater girl with a smile, and, feeling an instant attraction, she sat down beside Buda. ‘My name’s Azul.’

‘Azul like the sky?’ asked Buda mischievously.

‘Nope, like the ocean.’

‘Yeahhhh!’

They had an awesome time smoking tobacco, plus a little weed that sunk them into a state of balsamic serenity, very much in keeping with the golden rays that paid tribute during those hours to the paltry patches of grass in the decrepit park.

Which should we start with? The gross purple prose (“a state of balsamic serenity”) or the bad dialogue (“You got a smoke?” instead of “Got a smoke?” and “Yeahhhh!”) or the wonky slang (as the father of two nonbinary kids above 14, “Sick!” is 100% not their lingo). Speaking of very questionable slang, let’s not let this slide: “Go on and get it, always savage, never shook.” (The only real Google results for this are for Randy “Macho Man” Savage and a shirt that says “Always Savage, Never Average,” which might be related, but “Macho Man” died in 2011 and his heyday was in the 1980s, so I’m pretty sure that’s all a nice coincidence. Not that you can’t invent new phrases, but hoo-boy, it works better if they’re a bit more legit.)

But wait! WAIT! Don’t dismiss this story quite yet! The part that made me almost light things on fire was the fucking QR CODE in the middle the narrative that links to . . . a video of a song about a man singing “about being shown how to love.” Namely, The Weeknd. Who, mind you, wandered through a hall of mirrors, entertaining no one outside of Canada at his Super Bowl set a few months back.

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“Juancho, Baile” by José Ardila and Lindsay Griffiths and Adrián Izquierdo is the sort of story I would’ve loved to have had to analyze on the SAT.

It’s a fine story—almost all of the pieces included in this issue are–but it’s not an overly complicated one. And that’s been my biggest takeaway 67% of the way through the issue: A lot of these pieces feel very simple, with time-displaced autofiction serving as aesthetic sophistication. Not really my cup of tea, although I like a number of pieces that have appeared elsewhere by these very same authors that. Which may well be an unintended result of having the selected authors write something new between July 2020 and October 2020. Do you remember those months? Were you functioning at full capacity? Yeah. So, breaks must be given.

That said, I am baffled by the contradiction in terms between the title of the issue—”Best Spanish-language Novelists“—and this from Ardila’s bio: “He is currently working on his first novel.”

I get how “novelists” is supposed to signify “fiction writer,” but some short story writers will never be novelists and vice-versa.

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“The standards we raise and the judgements we pass have an effect on he atmosphere where writing is taking place, on the influence of scope. And the only way to judge is to compare. Is the reason so many writers on this list have particular voices and an ear for language because we, as a jury, preferred this kind of writing? Or is it a trend? It’s hard to say.”—Valerie Miles

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In the three Granta “Best Young” lists I looked at, the average writer published 2.71 books (novels or collections of short stories) in the decade that followed.

Again: I don’t know if that’s good because I don’t know how many eligible authors published five or ten or whatever, nor do I know which books had spectacular sales and/or impact.

But at least we have a baseline with which we can compare these three lists.

Conclusions:

  1. Americans suck. An average of 1.5 books post-list makes me think these kids looked for a full-time, quasi-writing job post Granta. Which is the American dream, I suppose.
  2. If you’re looking for production, Spanish-language writers are IT. 3.8 books per included author.
  3. I love that NINE of the sixty-three authors published no fiction post inclusion. 14% of the “best young” didn’t produce.
  4. The three most productive authors in the post-Granta decade were: Santiago Rocagliolo, Antonio Ortuno, and Patricio Pron. Again, all writing from Spanish.
  5. I don’t know if 2.7 books a decade is impressive.
  6. I don’t think 2.7 books a decade will keep you alive.

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I have very mixed feelings about “Ode to Cristina Morales” by Cristina Morales and Kevin Gerry Dunn.

Full admission: I/Open Letter made an offer for her novel Easy Reading after I read Katie Whittemore’s sample in 10 of 30 and met them both in London for one of the events promoting that collection. (In ten years, we should run these reports again and see what the differences are between the “success” of a Spanish government program and a private magazine run by one of the wealthiest women in the world. That’s interesting data.) After several months during which Morales’s stock rose, we lost out on the book to Random House. Which is truly good for everyone involved! And I’m excited to be able to simply read this polyvocal novel and not have to edit it.

But. BUT. I don’t care for this story as much as I hoped I would.

It’s written in a highfallutin way, à la an “ode,” with the targets of criticism being male sportscasters who ask dumb questions of female MMA fighters. (“Women of martial arts, I sing of thee. O willful creature, amassers of strength, vessels of action and silence like polished weapons wrapped in velvet cloth!” “O Viana, that you were the inspiration for Vieira the Low Kicker?”)

I have no problem with that, at all: All sportscaster interviews are stupid, and these silly men should be goofed on. But, that’s also why it feels like it’s punching down. Failed journalists ask semi-offensive, mostly unaware questions of sports stars who, even in the best of circumstances, would never say anything that’s actually interesting. “Such is baseball, such is life.”

Although she wants to praise the strength of women fighters (fuck AND yes), she does so in a way that’s so backhanded that I think this story would work better as a blog entry or a Substack. Or a drunken rant in a bar.

That said, you NEED to buy her novel. Full stop. If you’ve read this far, you should trust me.

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The last real statistic I looked up was to see how many books came out in English translation by the authors included in the 2010 list. Answer: Twenty-nine. With no context, that seems . . . fine? Especially considering the best young Americans only produced 32 books TOTAL post-Granta. With absolutely zero statistical analysis, no regression to means, no standard deviation, no rates, no belief that the past decides the future, I’m declaring this a success. And I think my secret hypothesis lives to fight again next decade: The lists from other languages have more impact on which books are being made available to English readers, rather than which authors become household names.

[BTW, both Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell made the Best Young British Novelists lists in 2003 and 2013, which is interesting to note.]

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Speaking of fighting, boxing, and authors who have other books in English, I truly enjoyed “A Story of the Sea” by Diego Zúñiga and Megan McDowell.

Starting with an upcoming boxing, this story drifts back in time to tell of the first ever Chilean world champion of sport, Chungungo Martinez, the master of the Underwater Spearfishing team. Is underwater spearfishing a popular sport? I HAVE NO IDEA. But it’s a great story of belief in your people, wanting to win, dictatorships, scary moments of near death, and more.

It also reminded me of the first time I met the French/Spanish translator Sam Rutter. Hanging out in the barn at BreadLoaf, he showed me this video of “The Most Unexpected Gold Medal in History” (aka, Australia’s first—only?—gold medal at the Winter Olympics):

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Be back on Wednesday with another way to parse “success,” and a grouping of the more “science-fiction” stories, which I am digging a ton.

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The large image associated with this post is copyrighted by John Englart.



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