Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

A generation ago, a special book-length edition of the Cambridge magazine Granta helped to kick-start a major change of minds in Britain. And, no, I'm not yet referring to Bill Buford's makeover of the title into a quarterly paperback showcase for new fiction and reportage by the stars of Anglo-American literature – a tale rehearsed again as Granta 100 (£12.99), guest edited by William Boyd, appears. Eight years before Buford's revamp in 1979, Stephen Heath, Colin MacCabe and Christopher Prendergast – the avant-garde of literary studies in Cambridge – had published under the Granta imprint Signs of the Times. This was one of the first works to import into British academic life the kind of theoretical criticism that later hardened into total orthodoxy. Anyone who has studied for an arts degree within the past quarter-century will, willingly or not, have read those signs.

The radical theorists won the institutional battle, but lost the wider cultural war. Buford's canny packaging of novel-extracts, stories, memoirs and travelogues came to occupy the commercial centre-ground. Granta's initial list of young British novelists in 1983 – from Amis, Barker and Barnes at the head to Swift, Tremain and Wilson at the foot – struck almost all the chords that have resonated in home-grown fiction since. Yet the magazine's paradoxical triumph as taste-maker and trend-setter rested on a hatred for its own identity. Its ads scorned the mere "literary" magazine and promised a feast of upmarket Boys' Own Stories to readers weary of navel-gazing bookishness.

Still narrative-heavy, but not quite so hostile to ideas, Granta 100 features a Friends Reunited roll-call of stalwarts. This landmark number reveals its makers to be much possessed by deaths and endings – personal, political and planetary. Amis offers the aborted remnant of a satirical fantasia on an al-Qa'ida-style terror HQ, and its plans for outré outrages. Climate change drives a neat frequent-flyer tale by Helen Simpson and a chilling report from warming Greenland by Isabel Hilton.

Various shades of grief and loss recur, from Harold Pinter's brief pre-elegiac poem to stories by Julian Barnes and Helen Oyeyemi. Ex-editor Ian Jack (who rescued Granta from the cliqueishness of the late Buford regime) has a haunting memoir – or story? – of the Scots legacy in Bengal. The whole show closes with Derek Mahon's poetic vision of a future tsunami: part of a welcome return of verse to Granta's often anti-poetic pages.

Critical essays, another bugbear, sneak back in; but the names of the critics do happen to be James Fenton (on musical history) and Salman Rushdie (on migrant writers' concept of character). Another blind-spot for Granta is fiction from beyond the English-speaking world. Here, Ingo Schulze contributes a fine history-shadowed piece about hunting bears as a German in Estonia, but Boyd oddly brackets him as a "new voice". Schulze has been acclaimed across Europe since the mid-1990s.

True-life or imaginary, storytelling from the Anglosphere has set the Granta tone; critical reflection, especially with a Continental slant, has seemed deeply anathema. So it's piquant to note that the noisiest literary-ideological scrap of 2007 took place, over Islamist extremism, between a long-time favourite of the post-Buford magazine and the one radical theorist of the Seventies who has kept on talking in plain words to lay readers: Martin Amis and Terry Eagleton. Somewhere in the gulf between the two ground-breaking versions of Granta, and the careers of their allies, lies the secret history of what really happened to our cultural life between Thatcher and Brown. Properly told, it might even make a rattling good yarn.