Bill (and Pete's ) excellent adventure

Bill Buford took a student mag, gave it lit-cred and a circulation of 1 00,000. Now he's leaving Granta for the New Yorker.
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The Independent Culture
The date: early spring, 1979. The place: a student house known as Red Gables, just outside Cambridge - a rambling, fully-detached pile that had clearly been rather grand in the first part of the century, but has collapsed into such a sordid condition that even the Young Ones might think twice about taking up residence. (There is a true Red Gables story from the summer of '78 about a festering pile of . . . no, some anecdot e s are better left undisturbed.) The cast: Pete, a third-year undergraduate at King's; Bill, an American graduate at Clare; and me.

Pete and Bill have decided to take over an old student mag, and revamp the thing into a perfect bound book format, with proper grown-up typesetting, unblemished by smeared fingerprints and blobs of Tipp-Ex. They need a bit of a hand with proofing the first issue, so I pitch in, as do the other half-dozen residents and anyone else foolish enough to put their nose round the door. Our workspace alternates between Pete's bedroom and mine: Pete reads out copy at the speed of a Gatling-gun, I run a pencil dow n the sheets until my eyes cross, and Bill is off doing some kind of mysterious deal with the printers.

Flash forward 15 years. Pete, or Peter de Bolla, is now a Fellow in English at his college, and an executive editor of that quondam student mag; the mag itself, Granta, has become not just the most successful literary periodical of the past two decades (or, in the words of one contributor, Redmond O'Hanlon, "the best literary magazine more or less ever"), with a circulation estimated at around 100,000 copies, but the centre of a thriving imprint, Granta Books; and Bill Buford, its hands-on editor and pr esiding spirit ever since Red Gables days, has just decided to abandon his fiefdom and join the New Yorker as literary editor.

It's a long way from Red Gables to the Algonquin, but in a scant decade and a half Buford has evolved from an amiable postgrad with a mild whiff of the Hemingways to - another superlative - the most conspicuous, admired (and denigrated) literary editor since Cyril Connolly. Among the key components of the Buford myth is the story that he "discovered" Salman Rushdie - a bit of an exaggeration, though the third issue of the born-again Granta did carry an extract from the as-yet-unpublished Midnight's Chil dren, and he remains a close friend of Rushdie.

Granta gave currency to the term "Dirty Realism", introducing Britain to American writers including Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tobias Wolff and Bobbie Ann Mason; and he helped America, where two-thirds of the magazine's copies are sold, to makethe acquaintance of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Bruce Chatwin and James Fenton.

More recently, he has commissioned or run pieces from Central European writers such as Kundera, Klima, and Ryszard Kapuscinski, and brought John Berger's neglected work back into print. Moreover, as O'Hanlon says, "without Buford there wouldn't have bee n the great vogue for travel writing over the past decade. Certainly the French credit him with that - he's big in Europe, too, you know".

The New Yorker is hardly a low-profile publication, but its reputation as the proving ground for young American writers has been gradually eroded - an erosion symbolised by the resignation of Garrison Keillor after the appointment of Tina Brown as editor. If Buford can help to reverse the slide - without compromising circulation - he will soon be big in America, too.

What has brought Buford to this unexpected eminence? Several qualities have contributed: energy ("He is packed with testosterone," says O'Hanlon), a shrewd nose for talent, and above all, a hands-on approach to copy-editing that has become legendary in literary circles, and which leaves writers either purring with all the unaccustomed attention ("He treats you like a mistress," says one "with constant phone calls, taxis arriving at all hours for copy . . .") or reeling with shock at the fact that Buford not only asks for rewrite after rewrite but will step in and do the job himself if he sees fit.

"He's brutal!" says de Bolla, "but Bill has an uncannily good eye for picking out the good material from a large body of text, so that time and again you'll find that the novel extracts you read in Granta are often better than anything else you'll see when the book is published."

Few magazines have ever borne the stamp of an editor quite so plainly as Granta has borne Buford's, though not everyone has been pleased with that impress. Blake Morrison, whose And When Did You Last See Your Father? was edited by Buford for Granta Books, notes that "there have certainly been complaints that the magazine is much too male, too laddish; that it can be a bit too slick or sensationalist; and that it's moved too far away from fiction and become too taken up with current affairs".

For all this, Morrison is just one of many writers and readers who feel that the magazine remains uniquely enjoyable and exciting; and he sums up Buford's role at Granta in a single word: "Irreplaceable." "You only have to start thinking about who could step into that job to realise that there's simply no one else who could do it as Bill has." De Bolla agrees, and thinks that the search for the editor who will keep Granta in its present position of eminence is going to be a tricky one.

The board could probably do worse than go hunting for a young American graduate student, hanging out in a decrepit house somewhere on the fringes of a university town . . .

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