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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A swathe of departures has left Granta in crisis. It needs a bold new direction

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
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.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz