A passion for print: Can Granta still set trends and shape tastes?

Yes, argues the magazine's acting editor John Freeman: readers need its audacity more than ever

Bad things happen up north in the winter, when no one is looking. Like last February, when Canada's heritage minister James Moore gave a speech which poorly disguised the fact that his office was effectively preparing to clear-cut many Canadian journals. Under his directive a literary journal in Canada must now sell at least 5,000 copies each year to be eligible for government assistance. This may seem like an abstruse piece of bookish trivia, until one remembers that most journals are lucky to reach half that number of readers, and that this radical cutback in funding is happening in a country whose tiny journals supported the early work of Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels, and Alice Munro, let alone talented newcomers such as Pasha Malla.

But it's not just Canada leading this retreat. Fearful capitulation has been the norm in so much English-language literary publishing over the last four years. Newspapers in the US and England have slashed book review supplements, and watched dumbfounded as readers upchucked their subscriptions.

Publishers are still buying multi-million celebrity "books" but grow antsy when it comes to signing up literary writers, the type whose fourth or fifth book (such as Joseph O'Neill's Netherland) might someday underwrite an entire season. It's always the end times in publishing, sure, but due to the anxiety over new technology and the comeuppance created by far too much corporate merging these are especially dour ones.

Yet it's a great time for literary journals. Even though the word "novel" means new, the strictures of the market mean that a book cannot be too new, since something truly new will not be instantly embraced. Publishers keep hoping that will happen nonetheless.

A week ago, a friend told me that one of the largest publishers in the US had recently done a survey. The pure cost of making a book, they discovered – before paying any advance – was roughly $65,000. That was the number editors had to keep in mind before they made any decision about signing up a new title. Could it conceivably earn back $65,000?

This question puts most types of literature at an instant disadvantage. Do any books of poems earn back $65,000? What about a short story collection? Can any book in translation stride over that mighty financial hurdle? Or a collection of novellas? Maybe that number was revealed to editors as a reminder, not a rule, but it points rather unsubtly toward what sells: entertainment, scandal, politics, and famous writers with known audiences.

Literary journals are the antidote to this wrong-headed attempt to try and engineer sales. Their primary function, after all, is to undermine this economy of prestige, to promote gross miscegenation, messiness, conflict and disorder; to subvert the market; and to place writers in unexpected places, where they can create their own unlikely community of readers.

Nadine Gordimer had her first publication in the Johannesburg magazine, Forum, but her career as an international writer began with an acceptance from the good ol' boys at the Virginia Quarterly Review. The illustrious – and sadly defunct – Story magazine was founded in Austria in 1931, before moving back to New York, where it introduced everyone from JD Salinger to Charles Bukowski. Arundhati Roy would not have been an unfamiliar name to anyone looking closely at television credits in India; but her fictional voice was launched first in Granta magazine, which circulates primarily in Britain and America, and where her name was indeed new.

It is presumptuous of any literary journal to claim that it has discovered any writers – novelists and poets are hardly nickel deposits, after all – yet a good journal can make it far easier to readers to discover a new writer's work. It can take a piece of writing regardless of where it comes from and what unusual shape its story takes, and ask readers to smash into it. For these reasons the ideal reader of a literary journal is one who yearns for the lash of the new, the way a boxer needs to be hit.

A book is a commitment to one author, one vision. A journal can put forth a dozen or more writers, allowing them to travel with the protective cover of numbers. A reader picking up Epoch magazine in 1959, for instance, would find not only Thomas Pynchon's early story "Morality and Mercy in Vienna" but work by fellow-traveller Ronald Sukenick, the often-overlooked novelist whose work would later appear in the first issue of Granta, when it was re-launched 20 years later.

Thirty years since Bill Buford, Pete de Bolla and Jonathan Levi gave birth to the new Granta, the landscape has changed again. While American literature remains enormously vital and restless – could England ever have produced a Thomas Pynchon? Junot Diaz? – a literary journal cannot in good conscience pretend that an Anglo-American dialogue is at the heart of our cultures. Not when Nigeria alone has given us Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila and Uwem Akpan. Not when Kiran Desai and Suketu Mehta are exploring New York more viscerally than most writers born there, or when some of America's most exciting young novelists, such as Dave Eggers and Tony D'Souza, are finding a way to tell vital stories set in Sudan and Western Africa.

It was John Updike, of all people, writing in the introduction of The Best American Short Stories of the Century, who acknowledged that immigration marks (and has done more to shape) the literature of the US than any other force. As borders around the world have opened up, and people migrate in search of safety or freedom or a better life, the literature of other countries is going to acquire the dynamic vitality that has given American writing its energy.

This massive world-wide migration puts a new challenge to readers and writers alike. It forces us to put the world back into art. For too long, it has been assumed that these things can remain separate; that works which combine them are degenerate and political. But the mind doesn't operate that way, nor does the world, and nor should the literature which we publish and think about.

In troubled and violent times, we do not have the luxury to avoid the hard questions which have stalked English language publishing in recent years. What stories are made visible? In what syntax do they appear? Why are writers in translation made to speak on behalf of their entire country?

Journals can afford to provoke these questions because they have the ability to fail, at least part of the time. They have the ability to use the cognitive friction of juxtaposition, layering, and varying lengths. Rare is the novel which features a one-page chapter and a 120-page chapter between two covers; but a journal can do this because a journal can be anything.

There is an enormous glut of books published every year, but a staggering number of them underestimate their readers, and their potential willingness to go where they haven't been before. The fact of the matter is that reading may be the most mysterious, inexplicable thing humans do. It does not obey market fundamentals the way our dreams do not follow the logic of narrative - or advertising and incentives.

Two of the most successful new journals in the US in the last ten years are McSweeney's and Lapham's Quarterly, both of which spend virtually no money on advertising; began as stripped-down, almost willfully ugly blocks of text; and trusted that the passion of their work, the word of enthusiastic readers, and the vibration of risk-taking fiction and prose could find new readers out of thin air.

A journal, however, cannot simply just publish writing anymore; it has to become a living thing if it is to stay alive. Exciting writing inspires conversation. It creates its own community. It makes inaction impossible, and ultimately drives one away from virtual experience. In a time when public spaces like parks and independent booksellers have been eroded by our blind faith in capitalism and the intelligent hand of the markets, a literary journal can become the excuse to gather. For a great many journals in the past, this sort of gathering has been a closed circuit; a club. The Algonquin round table. Those days are gone forever.

Even as the internet has made parts of publishing more difficult than ever, it has offered literary journals of a certain size the chance to reach readers in new ways – to make them feel a part of something larger. If the forces at work in publishing persist, we're moving towards a world with less and less available in print. Publication on an actual press upon paper which was once a tree will become special again, as it should be - a cause for celebration.

Journals which are lucky enough to afford to print their work, rather than publish it on the internet alone, have an extra excuse to bring readers together. They can give their readers something they can hold. The mystery of an object is not a small thing. It can be an anchor, a foothold, before diving into the deep end, even if governments and publishers are pulling up the lifeline – and especially if they are.

John Freeman is the acting editor of 'Granta' magazine

Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?