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
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral