A Magazine for All Seasons: An Analysis of the factors contributing to the rise of Granta Magazine - by Louise Bennetts|
This paper analyses the factors that have contributed to the evolution of Granta Magazine from a small student publication, to one of the world�s pre-eminent literary publications. The paper also looks at some of the editions of Granta that have achieved critical acclaim as well as some of the criticisms of the magazine and its content.
The phrase �literary magazine� would, in the past, have conjured up images of professors and English students pouring over volumes of 19th century poetry and literary critiques. Literary magazines, like medical journals, were accessible only to a few who were for the most part, themselves practitioners. The past two decades have seen some serious revision of that original stereotype, thanks, at least in part, to the publication that the London Daily Telegraph has hailed as the �most impressive literary magazine of its time� - Granta. From its editors� choice of material (not a poem or literary critique in sight) to its publication of �best young novelists� lists, Granta Magazine has in every sense taken the literary world by storm since its revival in the late 1970s. What makes Granta a particularly interesting publication to study is its unusual format (or perhaps lack thereof) and its ability to consistently select and attract writers of the highest calibre. The purpose of this paper is to give a broad overview of the factors that have made Granta one of the English-speaking world�s pre-eminent literary publications. The paper is primarily a descriptive, research-based critique rather than a literary critique and is structured in five parts. Part One describes Granta�s history and the evolution of its editorial policy, while Part Two analyses its publication of lists of �best young novelists� every decade since 1983 and the impact this has had on Granta�s standing in the literary world. Part Three consists of an analysis of some of Granta�s more famous publications, including �Travel� (Granta #10), �The Family� (Granta #37) and most recently, �What We Think of America,� (Granta #77) an issue analyzing foreigners� perceptions of the USA, post- September the 11th. Since no publication is without its critics, Part Four evaluates some of the criticisms of the magazine, in particular its tendency to look at the world from a solely western perspective. Part Five concludes.
Granta: A Brief History
Granta Magazine was originally founded in 1889, by a group of Cambridge Students who wanted to start publishing a journal of student political and literary compositions, literary critiques and poetry (About Granta Magazine, 2003). For over 80 years the publication was reasonably successful, not least because of its close ties to Cambridge University - a breeding ground for many of Britain�s most talented writers - where it had access to the early work of writers such as Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and A.A. Milne. However as Charles Sugnet (1991) notes, by the mid-1970s, Granta Magazine was simply another �near defunct student publication named for a river in Cambridge.� Money troubles and general apathy seemed to have secured the venture�s failure. Enter a group of dynamic postgraduate students, led by Bill Buford, described alternately as �a brash young American,� (Sugnet, 1991) �a young man with considerable marketing chutzpah� (Carver, 1995) and a man with �a huge talent for finding new writers,� (Huhn, 1995).
Ian Jack (Interview - 2003), the current editor of Granta, highlights three factors that contributed to the initial success of the re-launched publication. The first was that Buford, who served as editor of the magazine until 1995 when he joined the New Yorker as Literary and Fiction editor, convinced the multinational publisher, Penguin Books to invest in and market the publication on a quarterly basis. Secondly Buford managed to commission the work of a number of talented and well-respected authors and developed a considerable talent for discovering pieces written by unknowns who, in later years, were to become household names. Finally, the re-launch of the magazine in the late 1970s, occurred just before public interest in new writing peaked, sparked initially by the advent of writers of the calibre of Rushdie and Amis. Indeed Britain had experienced a dearth of quality �literary� writing during the 1970s and even Buford (1993) admitted that he had no young British writers to put in the first few editions of the magazine - consequently the first edition of Granta was titled �New American Writing� and concentrated on accomplished American writers whom had not yet been published in Great Britain.
Prior to its re-launch, Granta�s editors had toyed with the idea of creating a magazine entirely dedicated to literary discussion, or �writing about writing� (Houissa, 2001). This idea was quickly abandoned in favour of a mixture of fiction, non-fiction, reportage and photography. What made Granta�s editorial policy stand out from other literary magazines was its insistence in placing non-fiction on equal footing with fiction as well as its particular fondness for what Ian Jack (Interview - 2003) describes as �the realistic narrative�. Granta, initially under the guidance of Buford and now Jack, has also developed a liking for the dramatic and the �newsworthy,� hence the occasional criticism that the magazine is �too journalistic�. Granta never publishes poetry and following its original decision to abandon the �literary forum� model, avoids reviews and other �writing about writing.� In the two decades following its 1979 re-launch, Granta moved its head office to London, cut its ties with Cambridge University and (more recently) Penguin Books and secured the support of the publishing outfit owned by Rea Hederman, also owner and publisher of the New York Review of Books (About Granta, 2003).
People Love Lists
Possibly the feature that put Granta firmly in the public eye, was the decision taken by its editorial staff to publish �best of� lists at regular intervals. Jack (2003) notes that this was not originally Granta�s idea - in fact, Britain�s Book Marketing Council had organized a promotion called �Best British Writers� two years before Granta published its first �Best Young British Novelists� list in 1983. Jack also notes that at the time of the Marketing Council�s promotion, none of the writers were particularly young, nor had many of them written a book in years - �It looked like a piece of cultural nationalism that belonged to the Second World War - Writers Against Hitler� (Interview, 2003). Perhaps it was the lack of young, fresh talent publicly represented amongst the ranks of Britain�s finest writers that inspired Buford to dedicate an edition of the magazine to �young� British writers two years later. The first list included the likes of Rushdie, McEwen, Barnes and Amis and many other writers who were to achieve much critical acclaim in the years following the publication of the list and, as a result, set the standard for future lists. Buford (1993) points out that the writers who made the list in 1983 were not better than the 1993 list at the time the list was released, but many had written outstanding books later on - �the overall standard hadn�t necessarily been that high, but the reality was that more than half of the writers had gone on to write exceptional books.� The list therefore became less of an analysis of the current state of the British novel and more of a prophecy of what was to come.
Granta publishes the �Best Young British Novelists� list every 10 years. Unsurprisingly, the release of the 1993 list was eagerly awaited in London literary circles and the announcement was greeted with much fanfare. However, as one of the novelists who made the 1993 list, Phillip Kerr noted in the New Statesman (2002) �the very excellence of �83 quite spoiled anything else that came after it� �83 was so good that �93 couldn�t fail to disappoint,� and the list had as many detractors as supporters. John Wood said rather derisively at the time that the list �was the kind the English novel at present deserves,� (Kerr, 2002). In hindsight, the writers who made the 1993 list were far from ordinary and included the likes of Louis de Bernieres, Banks, Ishiguro, Okri and Will Self.
Buford (1993) noted in his introduction to the �Best of Young British Novelists, 1993� (Granta #43) that the initiative �is not only a special issue of Granta, it is a marketing campaign: at its most elementary level, nothing more than a gimmick to get people to by literary novels�. Ten years later Ian Jack (2003) highlights the fact that the Best of Young British Novelists initiative was (and remains) an �exercise to publicize the literary novel� in a world �where �thrilling debut by a young writer� has become the standard blurb� and lists the criteria he and several other judges used in deciding who made the 2003 list (see Appendix A for the final 2003 list). Firstly, to be considered the writer of a �literary novel� one must have written an interesting and original work of fiction of no less than 30 000 words. Jack also notes that although defining what constitutes a �literary novel� is difficult, certain categories are easily excluded. For example, the literary novel is not commercial (the typical Archer or Grisham book) and it should not be able to be categorized into a genre, such as fantasy, crime or children�s literature. These requirements are true of all the literature that appears in Granta Magazine as well.
The Economist notes that Granta�s �formula makes no attempt at coherence and stands or falls by the potential its subject offers for reflections from multiple perspectives.� Luckily, a number of the subjects that Granta�s editors have chosen over the years seem to have struck a chord with the reading populace. Perhaps Granta�s most notable feat following its re-launch, was redefining the concept of armchair travel, through the publishing of writers such as Bryson, Chatwin and Kapuściński. Even one of Granta�s most vocal critics, Charles Sugnet, agrees that the first of Granta�s travel issues (Granta #10) �sparked a boom in travel publishing.� That particular edition has been reprinted eleven times and two subsequent editions, Granta #20 and Granta #26 were also dedicated entirely to travel. Besides these three editions, writing about places - though not explicitly from a traveller�s point of view - often appears in editions of Granta that are dedicated to other topics and a few editions have also been dedicated to specific countries, such as Granta #57 (India!), Granta #29 (New World) and Granta 70# (Australia: the New New World).
Bryson aside, Granta tends to favour travel (as well as place) pieces that use the third world as subject matter - Carver (1995) notes that on occasion Granta seems to exist solely to �reform Americans� parochial view of the world� (in truth, Granta does not circulate as widely in the USA as it does in Britain and some of her former colonies). Preferences for the �wild and unknown� aside, some of Granta�s most highly acclaimed writing has, in fact, been dedicated to the developed world. Waterhouse (1997) observes that �whatever we may have lost� we have not lost our inborn talent to write well about ourselves� in a review of Granta #56 (What Happened to us?), an edition dedicated to writing about the UK. Similarly, the most recent edition of Granta to achieve widespread critical acclaim, Granta #77, deals with a number of writers� perceptions of the United States and ordinary Americans, post-September 11th. This edition (although perhaps supporting Carver�s argument) was hailed as �the most interesting and useful�of all attempts to capture international reactions to September 11� (Mead and Skinner, 2002) and �the best issue of any magazine trying to explain September 11� (Wilentz, 2002) and included writers such as Ariel Dorfman (the most vehemently anti-American of the selection and, interestingly, a Chilean), Benoit Duteure and Ziauddin Sardar.
Other editions to achieve widespread publicity, were Granta #47 (The Family), which included contributions by Saul Bellow (recounting growing up in a struggling, tight-knit Jewish family), Hugh Collins (a man serving a sentence of life imprisonment for murder), Mikal Gilmore (brother of the serial killer, Gary, who died before a Utah firing squad) and Ian Jack himself and Granta #71 (Shrinks), which was dedicated writing about the mind, psychology and mental illness.
Despite its undeniable role in reviving interest in �new� writing, Granta has not been without its critics. Perhaps some of the loudest condemnation has come from British writers and critics themselves -after all as Carver notes �(Buford�s) taking over an ailing English journal and turning it into a vehicle for personal expansion, caused squeals of pain from traditional Brits in love with losing ventures�. As it is Granta�s publishing of writing about places that has most effectively grabbed the public�s interest, it is unsurprising that it is that same subject matter that has drawn the fiercest and most sustained criticism. In a piece entitled �Vile bodies, vile places,� Sugnet (1991), after reviewing writing by Bruce Chatwin, Nicholas Shakespeare and Martha Gellhorn, notes that �too much of the magazine is given over to imperialist clich�s about race and geography� and that �for Granta, travel too often means a rational disillusioned writer making a foray out of the centre (usually London) to the peripheries (Uganda, Borneo) where he sees they are uncivilized and the people of colour who live there are making a botch of running the place.� As a result Sugnet contests Bill Buford�s claim that Granta is an �adversary of oppression� and further criticises Granta for not commissioning the work of African and Caribbean writers. While Sugnet makes an important point, he overlooks the fact that Granta is a British publication for a predominantly British audience and that it is therefore unsurprising that British (and British-based) authors are the most regularly commissioned writers. Furthermore Sugnet undermines his own argument by supporting Granta�s use of Rushdie�s work on India, because he would have �firsthand knowledge of the country�, but criticizes the magazine�s publishing of Rian Malan�s �Msinga�, overlooking the fact that Rushdie left India in his early teens and has lived his adult life in Britain and Pakistan, while Malan has lived out his life in South Africa. As a result Sugnet�s criticism seems to be based on the race rather than nationality of the authors and consequently lacks weight, but he nonetheless makes a point worth acknowledging.
More broadly, the magazine has been criticized for being too journalistic and favouring the known, although as Carver (1995) observes, neither criticism is entirely accurate, since even topical (newsworthy) pieces are given a new or different slant and both Buford and Jack ensure that a mixture of �knowns� and unknowns are published in each edition. Individual editions have also been subject to criticism although this is usually a result of the way the subject matter has been covered rather than of the actual writing, or the selection of the writing. The Economist (1995) criticized Granta�s �The Family,� on the grounds that the overwhelming majority of the submissions concentrated on fathers (despite the fact that many fathers are absent in western family life) and overlooked the importance of the extended family and siblings and that although the individual submissions were of a high standard, overall the magazine �was less than the sum of its parts�. �The Family� aside, criticism of the magazine�s subject coverage has been limited.
A number of factors have contributed to Granta�s success as a literary magazine, amongst them: the decision to focus on writing that looks at the world in a fresh, original and realistic way, the ability to find unknown writers of immense talent and finally, a very original marketing campaign. Since its inception, Granta�s �Best of Young British Novelists� initiative has been considered the benchmark for the state of the British novel by critics and readers of literary fiction alike. Furthermore in Bill Buford and Ian Jack, Granta has had two highly-regarded editors of enormous energy and resourcefulness, which has undoubtably contributed to the success of the magazine. If the Economist is correct in observing that the publication �stands or falls by the potential its subject offers for reflections from multiple perspectives,� Granta is most certainly standing tall right now.
BEST OF YOUNG BRITISH NOVELISTS 2003: The List
Peter Ho Davies
Robert McLiam Wilson
Anon. 1993. Sensationalised! in Economist, April 1994, Vol. 327, Issue 7806.
Anon. 1995. It�s a Man�s World in Economist, June 1995, Vol. 335, Issue 7919.
Anon. 1997. So Many Indias in Economist, June 1997, Vol. 343, Issue 8022.
Anon. 1998. The Silence of the Lambs in Economist, December 1998, Vol 349, Issue 8097.
Berman, J. 2001. Reflections on Taking the Cure in Lancet, February 2001, Vol. 357, Issue 9254.
Buford, W. 1993. Introduction in Granta 43: Best of Young British Novelists 2. 1993. Edited by Bill Buford. London: Granta Books.
Carver, R. 1995. We�re Not Gents in New Statesman and Society, April 1995, Vol. 8, Issue 347.
Granta 20: In Trouble Again: A special issue of Travel Writing. 1986. Edited by Bill Buford. Cambridge: Granta Books.
Granta 47: The Granta Book of the Family 1994. Edited by Bill Buford. London: Granta Books.
Granta 57: INDIA! 1997. Edited by Ian Jack. London: Granta Books.
Granta 77: What we think of America 2002. Edited by Ian Jack. London: Granta Books.
Houissa, A. 2001. Granta (Book Review) in Library Journal, 03630277, October 2001, Vol. 126, Issue 16.
Huhn, M. 1995. Who Sits Where When the New Yorker Music Stops? in Adweek Western Edition, February 1995, Vol. 45, Issue 9.
Jack, I. 2003. NS Diary in New Statesman, 13 January 2003.
Jack, I. 2003. Untitled. Unpublished.
Jack I. 2003 Interview.
Kerr, P. 2002. The Writings on the Wall in New Statesman, June 2002, Vol. 131, Issue 4597.
Mead, W.R. and Skinner, E.B. 2002. The United States in Foreign Affairs, September-October 2002, Vol. 81, Issue 5.
Merrill, C. 2002. Outside Looking In: Global Views of the United States in Harvard International Review, February 2002.
Miller, S, J. 1994, My Father�s Other Life in Harper�s Magazine, August 1994, Vol. 289, Issue 1731.
Sugnet, C. 1991. Vile Bodies, Vile Places: Traveling with Granta in Transition, Issue 51 (1991), Duke University Press. pp. 70-85.
Waterhouse, K. 1997. Disappearing Uncles in New Statesman, January 1997, Vol. 126, Issue 4317.
Wilentz, A. 2002. How They See Us in Nation, May 2002, Vol. 274, Issue 18.
Wilentz, A. 2002. In Cold Type in Nation, October 2002, Vol. 275, Issue 12.
From the Granta Website(www.granta.com):
Date of Access: 27 April 2003.
�Best of Young British Novelists 2003�
Date of Access: 10 May 2003
�Granta 7: Best of Young British Novelists�
Date of Access: 10 May 2003
�New American Writing�
Date of Acess: 27 April 2003