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This week on the Granta blog, ahead of the launch of Granta’s first ever Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, Adam Thirlwell asks: Why do we do it?

This, of course, is the era of Lists. But no, I’ve gone too fast. The real definition of our era is this: it’s the era when reading is difficult. We are in the kindergarten of images, the playground of spectacle: the total jouissance. When I was a kid it was the era of video; the Walkman and the floppy disc. In other words, dear remaining readers, it was still the era of words. Now, the images are so much less solid, so much more transparent and dissolving and so the images are everywhere. Which is why in minute resistance to the fact that images are everywhere, are transparent, and that reading is difficult, a certain kind of sad and noble person begins to make Lists. These are the Lists of Necessary Reading.

Such lists, of course, come in two versions. First, there is the private list, expressing a nostalgia, a guilt at the sadly unread. And this list is really only a wish. Because we know that the moment of reading is in fact a chance moment: that the perfect reader still needs the perfect moment in order to read the perfect book. So that most books, even the books we know we want to read, will never be read at all.

The other version of this list is a public version. And this version is still nostalgic, true, it’s still a form of guilt: but it is also a strategic decision. It is part of a politics. And this is the list formed not just by the sad and noble person, but by an even grander category: the sad and noble magazine.

Because let’s be honest about the problem. Some literature, naturally, some of the time, becomes the literature that is briefly read. Let’s delete literature: let’s call it novels. The novels that are briefly read have three categories. There are the Novels That Everyone Is Reading: the novels of momentary stardom. Apart from these novels there are two other ways for a novel and a novelist to emerge in public. There is, sometimes, the Avantgarde that enrages and disturbs – with its crazy games, its crazy sextalk, its crazy violence. And then, sometimes, there is the Lost Avantgarde that enrages and disturbs: the historical avantgarde, the rediscovered classic. These are the three categories of books that reach the category of reading. Whereas most novels most of the time inhabit a strange realm of the calmly unread: the absolutely absent. And this is why a certain kind of noble magazine decides to invent a public Reading List. They are a magnanimous form of publicity. Even if, of course, a ruthlessness is already visible: where are the Lists of the Very Old? Where are the Lists of the Very Foreign? Because this is the age of spectacle, after all. Even the listmaker knows the limitations.

Of course, a list itself is a paradox. First, a list will seem too small. How could they have forgotten so many novelists? Soon, however – in about, amigo, four or five months – it will seem alarmingly long. How could they have remembered so many novelists? In prospect, most lists will be inaccurately limited. In retrospect, they will seem inaccurately generous.

And then there is a deeper paradox. A List is designed to self-destruct. It’s a group that’s designed to dissolve into the pure singularities of individual names. Because a list is just a strategy, an act of resistance. (I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the first Lists were drawn up by the ignored avantgardes of the Twentieth Century: the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Futurists…) Its medium is the present moment. And so although every novelist wants to be included on a list – sure you do, sure you do – the unread novelist also knows that the deeper history of the novel takes place in the future: where you float free of lists entirely, and enter the stratosphere.

~

From Monday we will be presenting interviews with the writers in ‘Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists’, including responses to their stories by former Best Young Novelists.

Previously on the Granta blog... Patrick Ryan on what he’s reading (and what he ate); Ollie Brock on phototextual translation and Nicholson Baker; John Freeman on driving in Lahore.

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