Hello Ian, goodbye Bill

Granta makes names, fashions, and a modest profit. As Ian Jack prepares to take over from Bill Buford, its founding editor and moving spirit, Malcolm Bradbury takes the pulse of Britain's top literary magazine
Click to follow
There aren't many literary magazines in Britain these days that stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood - as Penguin New Writing and Horizon, Scrutiny and the New Review all used to in their seasons. But one certainly does. It's Granta - the glossy-coated, much-marketed international magazine that, for many readers worldwide, contains some of the best new and original writing to be found anywhere.

Now just reaching its 50th issue, Granta these days is a powerful and institutional arbiter in fresh literary reputations. It's a key imprint of Penguin Books, themselves just celebrating their 60th anniversary. It publishes not just the well-subscribed and admired magazine, which today has a substantial proportion of its readership in the USA, but Granta Editions (Nicholson Baker, Salman Rushdie, Romesh Gunesekera etc) and other associated products (in Britain it's the distributor of the wonderful, well-edited Library of America, classic editions of the major American authors).

Granta has come a long way from the small Cambridge magazine that first spawned it. It all began obscurely in 1979, when a visiting American research student, Bill Buford, managed to assume control of what was essentially a local, if interesting, campus periodical. Buford - aided by Peter de Bolla - was determined and ambitious, editorially clever, instinctively international in his reach. He set out to transform the magazine - referring back to new writing in the USA (Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff etc) but increasingly drawing in the innovative spirit in British fiction and non- fiction writing that had begun to show during the Seventies.

A good magazine is a culture, a way of looking at and writing down the world. And fine editors have magical properties - laying a spirit, a voice, a distinctive cultural instinct over the varied baggage of contributions they can make come their way. Granta at once became Buford's magazine, reflecting his view of the cultural scene in Britain and beyond it. What's more, he was able to put the magazine on a sound economic footing, finding a fresh, wide-scattered youthful audience and the warm support of publishers, agents and bookstores.

Feeling their way, the early issues had inexpensive, even timid covers and mostly American contents. Not until issue 4, with support from the Eastern Arts Association, did the modern gloss really start showing. But by then the voice was clear. Buford had made his first issue (Spring 1979) an invaluable round-up of innovative "post-modern" American writing (William Gass, Donald Barthelme, John Hawkes). His second, heavily devoted to George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A H, also had work by two fine and risky American writers still under-valued in Britain, Walter Abish and John Barth.

But with the third issue the gauntlet was down. It boldly proclaimed "The End of the English Novel" and found plenty of British writers ready to perform the post-mortem. In serious fiction, America was in, Britain apparently out for the count. But, like a number of these literary wakes, this one apparently had the effect of making everything around spring into life.

As he soon realised, Buford had actually started his magazine at a time when a great transformation and revival was taking place in British fiction and prose-writing, encouraged by a new audience, a book-selling boom, and a burst of risk-taking in the publishing houses.

Like any wise editor, he was quick to see the point. Following issues picked up Raymond Carver and American "Dirty Realism" (Buford is credited with coining the crucial phrase). But newer "British" writers - Martin Amis, Lisa St Aubin de Teran, Salman Rushdie - were starting to find a place. By issue 7, in 1983, the gloomy mood had gone completely. Titled "The Best of Young British Novelists", and tied into a Book Marketing Council promotion, the issue printed a score of British authors running alphabetically from the realistic to the fantastic, extreme and experimental.

This issue and its successors informed a growing readership that the novel simply wasn't dead in Britain. In fact it was widening in aesthetic range, subject-matter, cultural sweep and identity, coming from new voices and places. So was the short story, another form that went through powerful revival in the early Eighties - a time, it would prove, of enormous literary vigour and the rapid, highly visible emergence of many powerful, eventually international reputations.

By now Granta had shifted to Penguin. It had grown stouter, more various and cosmopolitan, ever more book-like, its issues firmly themed. It took on a sharpened political edge (James Fenton on the fall of Saigon, for instance). With writers like Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Jonathan Raban and many more, the Eighties also saw a powerful revival of travel writing, social and political reportage, the higher journalism, matching the decline of British provincialism. It also saw a surge of interest in South American and Central European "Magic Realism"; all went into the magazine.

If one high point was Granta's quick and well-judged response to the radical new mood in fiction and prose-writing generally that brightened up the early part of the otherwise grim and Thatcherite early Eighties, another was its response to events at the end of the decade. There had already been much excellent reportage of the political world of Western and Eastern Europe - from Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Timothy Garton Ash, for instance. But a 1990 issue, "New Europe", captured the new condition of the world, and (as usual) alerted readers to the widening of the imagination it demanded.

There was one obvious loss - in the amount of new fiction Granta printed. Fresh writers appeared often, but the excitement of innovation began to diminish. It was nothing less than the Nineties mood. By 1993, when the magazine offered its new batch of the "Best of Young British Writers", sourness surrounded the whole enterprise. The second coming was not like the first. The climate of fiction - one of our key explorers and indicators of the forms and imaginative energies of a much-changed times - seemed almost as faded as our political leaders or our thinkers.

For those who see the Nineties as a weary, wasted time (there are plenty of them around), the pages of Granta frequently serve as the ultimate confirmation. And certainly the old, urgent magazine has changed in mood. Almost entirely devoted to non-fiction and strong reportage, held together by its thematic format, apt to reprint the same writers, it has grown much closer to a magazine New York Review of Books than to, say, Penguin New Writing or Horizon.

Wonderfully long-lived (the lives of literary magazines are famously brief), Granta is now positively institutional. Writers bemoaning their cultural fate are today inclined to complain that what once was a major outlet for a new short story, a trying-out place for a venturesome novel, isn't any longer, and that the magazine of news and novelty is, well, almost predictable. This is a serious issue. Decline in support for and confidence in the process for serious and experimental fiction is a worrying cultural and publishing phenomenon. Especially if you happen to be a brilliant young writer.

The admirable and burly Buford is soon leaving the magazine and these shores, to take the desirable post of literary editor of the New Yorker. He is to be replaced by Ian Jack, who has resigned from the editorship of the Independent on Sunday to take the job.

The task looks fascinating - and quite formidable. Some would say we need not so much a new Granta as the old one, a forcing ground for fresh energy in fiction (which, for all the epochal dismay, isn't absent from the scene). The fact remains that Granta is a fine achievement, and still the best we've got; life and writing would be much poorer without it. So would tomorrow's research students. When the literary-cultural accountancy of the last 15 years comes to be properly written, Granta, and Bill Buford, will have to take a big place in the record.