Granta: Why has Britain’s grandest literary magazine begun to lose the plot?

A swathe of departures has left Granta in crisis. It needs a bold new direction
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As Oscar Wilde never quite wrote: “To lose one senior editor, Dr Rausing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose three looks like carelessness.” Sigrid Rausing’s approach as proprietor and – from this week – overall chief executive of Granta magazine and its associated book imprints has always stressed the importance of being earnest.

Since the sudden haemorrhage of key staff from both the journal and Granta books, open season seems to have been declared on the high-minded Swedish-born anthropologist, philanthropist and (yes, unavoidably part of this story) part-heir to the TetraPak billions. After a botched launch party for the new Granta “Best Young British Novelists” list came the (pre-announced) departure of magazine editor John Freeman to teach in New York. There followed the much less anticipated exits of his deputy, Ellah Allfrey, and the Granta books publisher Philip Gwyn Jones. Allfrey and Gwyn Jones are two of most highly respected – and well-liked – figures in British literary publishing.

Their joint flight has turned the heavy artillery of insider gossip on their former boss. Rausing has said she will assume “full operational and executive control of the company”. Seeking, like all media chieftains today, to cut costs in a chilly climate, she now plans to appoint an editor-in-chief “who will edit the magazine and commission books”. The phrase “poisoned chalice” has sprung to some London publishing lips.

So this might be the moment to specify just what the Rausing earnestness has brought to British publishing. Globally aware, committed to fiction and narrative non-fiction that explores just those areas that much mainstream journalism and book-publishing now timidly avoids, her stewardship has overseen lists that bring to British readers the most urgent of today’s issues in the most engaging literary forms.

A current example: there could hardly be a more urgent priority for politicians and public in the West than understanding why disaffected young Muslims turn to jihadi extremism. Horses of God, the new novel by the Moroccan author Mahi Binebine, just published (in Lulu Norman’s translation) by Granta, takes on just that mission as it probes the human motives behind the Casablanca terror bombings of 2003. The Independent’s Lucy Popescu writes that the novel “movingly portrays the path from disillusionment to violence” and calls Horses of God “a timely reminder of how poverty crushes hope and breeds hatred”.

Rausing’s background in social anthropology, with a PhD from UCL for her research into Estonian collective farms, informs the direction of Granta’s book imprints (less so with the magazine). So, crucially, does her long-standing commitments to human-rights activism in such areas as women’s rights, the prevention of torture, opposition to the death penalty, and the defence of free expression. Since 1995, the Sigrid Rausing Trust has disbursed more than £190m to projects around the world. Its budget for 2013 is £22.5m and it has long-term commitments to supporting democracy in the Middle East, Mexico and Turkey.

But how well do far-sighted philanthropy and hands-on publishing mix? Under John Freeman, Granta magazine has offered a satisfying if not often spectacular read. Its themed issues – from sex and medicine to Pakistan and Britain – have kept up a respectable standard. But it now exhibits very little of the trend-setting showmanship (and outrageous interventionism) that marked the editor who, in the early 1980s, restored the venerable organ to a place in the literary limelight: the inspired, infuriating maverick Bill Buford.

Micro-managed from above, even by a boss with the most benevolent ideals, how far will the next incumbent be able to showcase attention-grabbing mischief, wit and innovation à la Buford, as well as that Rausing-brand earnestness?

Rausing herself sat on the panel of critics that picked the 2013 “Best of Young British” list. That blurring of functions between proprietor and editor looked questionable at the time, especially since the Granta selection of novelists forms the basis of an international roadshow publicly funded by the British Council. Now, it may well become overt and routine.

Admirably, Sigrid Rausing has backed many books and projects that lift the lid on regimes of personal rule, and has done so with unfailing generosity. See a work such as Barbara Demick’s award-winning reportage Nothing To Envy: Real Lives In North Korea for another example of Granta at its finest. It would be a huge shame if Aubrey House, Rausing’s exquisite 18th-century mansion in Kensington, itself became the HQ of a publishing autocracy.