Posted by: Jeanie F | February 25, 2011

Looking for a Great New Author?

 culture show dozen

John Mullen of The Guardian, working with a panel of five judges, has read “piles” of debut novels (actually 57 in all) in order to identify those they consider the “Twelve of the Best New Novelists“. The summary below doesn’t do justice to Mullen’s extensive analysis of the current state of “literary fiction.” I highly recommend you read the complete article.


Mullen includes a well-informed discussion of “literary fiction” – its parameters, its influences, and its characteristics. This should be of real interest to many bloggers and other readers as literary fiction, as a genre, may be difficult to define. According to Mullen, some of the leading characteristics are:

  • Unlike genre fiction, literary fiction expects the reader to pay attention not only to the story, but the way the story is told.
  • It expands the limits and traditions that comprised the popular vision of “the novel” by exploring new forms such as dual narrators and distinct narrative sections, rather than presenting a cohesive single storyline.
  • They are written with what Mullen refers to as “linguistic verve and lexical daring”.
  • They may include narrative sophistication such as multiple plot lines that circle back upon themselves to allow the reader to discover the cause of previous events.
  • The narrative structure may be influenced by television and movie plot lines.
  • Sentences are not written simply to advance the storyline, but to “call attention to their style.”

Frankly, I fear that for many, reading this analysis of “literary fiction” might cause them to want to steer clear of it forever. It fails to address the attempt that literary fiction makes to go beyond the plot diagram we all know – introduction, rising action, crisis, denouement. Good literary fiction uses language and story structure to help us know and understand the novel as more visceral and immediate than genre fiction. It enables us to look at the multiple perspectives that exist in most complicated human interaction, to examine the competing or conflicting external events that influence the action. Good literary fiction takes us into the guts of the story and helps us see how it works. It accomplishes this through the use of language and structure.


Ned Beauman‘s Boxer Beetle (Sceptre) is a piece of staggeringly energetic intellectual slapstick featuring collectors of Nazi memorabilia, gun-toting occultists with Welsh accents, vicious six-legged hardnuts, a country house murder mystery and a Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark ending. It’s crammed with strange, funny and interesting things.

Adam Haslett‘s Union Atlantic (Tuskar Rock) is a big muscular American state-of-the-nation novel in the grand tradition: alive to the cross-currents of class and money, it’s a deft psychological study of big-business hubris. Accomplished and gripping. Note: Haslett has a terrific short story – “Notes to My Biographer” – published by Zoetrope, available online. Check it out!

•Set in backwoods Australia, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld (Vintage) is intricately patterned and fastidiously written novel looks at what it means to be isolated, how men find a place in the world and how we struggle to avoid repeating our fathers’ mistakes. It is rich, ambitious, and touched with sinister magic.

David Abbot‘s The Upright Piano Player (MacLehose Press) is not unlike a nocturne in its tone and mood; it is a melancholy and evocative treatment of a man’s post-retirement crisis. Henry Cage is sketched with just enough subtlety, and allowed just enough sympathy – no more, no less – to make his failings devastatingly real.

Rebecca Hunt‘s Mr Chartwell (Fig Tree), the original Black Dog, is just delightful in his blithe audacity – and that’s how I think of her as a writer – she’s got swagger. She took Churchill’s term for his clinical depression – “the black dog”, hyper-realised it and placed the result right in the centre of a story about grief.

Anna Richards and Little Gods (Picador) – I warn you that from the first chapter you’ll be swept up into a sort of struggling ball of poignant hilarity and will emerge hundreds of pages later laughing and saying “ouch”, with an extraordinary giantess on your mind and in your heart.

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth (Bliss) is laugh-out-loud funny and completely compelling. The protagonist Annie is obese, unloved and deluded. In fact she misreads every situation she’s in and from this disjuncture comes the comedy. It’s a dark, dark tale, but a tale for today.

Deborah Kay Davies‘s True Things About Me (Canongate) is a brutal story in brutal prose. The unnamed narrator works in a benefit office, a criminal walks in and literally claims her. Desire is portrayed here as a kind of breakdown – everything is wrecked in its pursuit.

•In The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (Vintage) a man with Alzheimer’s questions the very nature of self-hood. Beautifully written with recurring motifs it represents the disorientation of Alzheimer’s better than any factual piece I’ve ever read.

•I was completely engaged by Stephen Kelman‘s Pigeon English (Bloomsbury), the story of Harrison, an 11-year-old Ghanaian boy who has come to live in London. One of the hardest things in fiction is to write from a child’s point of view – Kelman does it brilliantly.

The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) piques the interest from the first page. Its narrator is a 61-year-old Pole who has lived in Paris for most of his life, devoting himself to updating a guidebook to the communist countries of Europe. The novel moves cleverly between the comic, the serious and the terribly painful.

•In The Tin-Kin by Eleanor Thom (Gerald Duckworth) a present-day discovery unlocks a previously hidden history – to create a vivid portrait of a Traveller community in the 1950s. Both the contemporary and the historical stories are compelling, and there’s a very skilfully handled tension as the links between the two slowly emerge. She is also extremely talented at drawing big, memorable characters.


  1. A really interesting article. As a literary fiction writer myself, I know how difficult it is to categorise this area. Too often, novels get typecast into one category whereas they may appeal to a much wider audience.

  2. Good point! A novel can be literary AND something else! In fact, the best genre novels are literary at heart.

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