April 24, 2013

Granta editor: Leeds is “completely out of the literary world”


At least one of these people is from a literary backwater.

While the response to Granta’s latest crop of “Best of Young British Novelists” has been largely positive—the list has been widely and deservedly praised for its diversity—comments made by the magazine’s editor, John Freeman, about one of the novelists on the list have angered some. Last Monday, the Guardian included this quote from Freeman, which ostensibly celebrated Sunjeev Sahota, in a piece about the new honorees: “[Sahota] had never read a novel until he was 18—until he bought Midnight’s Children at Heathrow. He studied maths, he works in marketing and finance; he lives in Leeds, completely out of the literary world.”

Freeman’s dismissal of of the northern British city (which would be the equivalent of saying that Detroit or Indianapolis was “completely out of the literary world”) was seized upon by a number of people, both in Leeds and outside of it, on Twitter:

And on Friday, the Guardian published a letter from Hilary Robinson, which defended the literary pedigree of the Britain’s third largest city:

Some of those born in Leeds, or with strong connections to the city, include Alan Bennett, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jack Higgins, Keith Waterhouse, Helen Fielding, Tony Harrison, Arthur Ransome, Alfred Austin, Caryl Phillips, Kay Mellor—and even JRR Tolkien conceived of The Hobbit during his five years lecturing at Leeds University, the same university where the great Wole Soyinka studied. Now Sahota looks to be the latest from Leeds to scale the great heights.

On Monday, the Guardian posted another strong response to Freeman’s comments, this time by Ross Jamieson of Bluemoose Books, the publisher of Hebden Bridge, who offered an astute and at times damning close-reading:

By highlighting everything that is un-literary about Sahota’s background, Freeman was attempting to make all the more remarkable his literary achievements. The problem with this strategy is that Freeman would inevitably sound pompous and snobbish: in childhood and adolescence, Sahota was poorly read; maths, with its love of numbers, is alien to the craftsmanship of the wordsmith; he works in marketing and finance, whatever they are; and he was so culturally uncouth he even bought a modern classic from – of all the blasphemously un-literary of places—an airport…

The more I read it, the clearer it says: Leeds is un-literary, it does not register on the literary landscape, and it is remarkable that anyone from Leeds could possibly produce anything literary at all. Sahota is an outsider, who has been welcomed, initiated and accepted into the literary world. And that is the crux. Freeman’s words ooze insular imagery—of within and without—the literary circle. It is the view from literature’s headquarters.

I am not sure what the likes of Alan Bennett, Tony Harrison or David Peace (from the 2003 Granta list) would make of Freeman’s slip, but I am quite sure that a logical, rational definition of “literary world” would be anywhere where people read. And yes, people in the North can, and do, read. But Leeds, completely out of the literary world, might as well be a dark and dusty crater on the far side of the moon.

There is nothing new about London-centric literary snobbery. But there is something deeply troubling about an organisation which, when declaring the brilliance of British literature’s multiculturalism, its progressiveness, its ability to reflect society, goes on to exclude others in a crass, tribal comment.

Jamieson’s response is particularly useful in that it focuses on the subtext of Freeman’s comments and, in doing so, reveals that there’s more going on than regionalism. Though Freeman appears to have intended to use these anecdotes to highlight the authenticity of Sahota’s obvious and remarkable talent, in doing so he ended up fetishizing its “otherness,” which unfortunately undercuts the otherwise powerful diversity in Granta’s list of best young British novelists. I have no doubt that Freeman never intended to offend the people of Leeds or its cultural pedigree, but in a sense Leeds is beside the point—when you’re looking out from “literature’s headquarters,” Leeds could be anywhere that isn’t London.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.