Granta: A new chapter at the original literary journal

It brought novelists celebrity status and made it cool to be bookish. But can Granta stay ahead of the pack? Ian Jack, its outgoing editor, talks to Jane Thynne
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The Independent Online

No matter how few novels you read, you probably know all about Ian McEwan's "plagiarism" and Martin Amis's teeth and Peter Carey's divorce. We take it for granted now that the daily lives of our major literary figures are fodder for the national press. Saturated with publicity, successful writers are celebrities.

It's strange that this could in part be down to Granta, the most serious and highbrow of literary magazines. Yet that is the contention of Ian Jack, Granta editor for 12 years, whose forthcoming departure was announced last week.

Jack must have expected at least a ripple of interest to greet the news. Although the upper echelons of the literary world rarely feature anything so vulgar as blood on the boardroom carpet, speculation has surrounded the magazine since it was sold in 2005 by its long-term proprietor Rea Hederman to Sigrid Rausing, the Swedish philanthropist and heiress to the Tetra Pak fortune.

This year, Rausing has instituted a management shake-up, bringing in David Graham, managing director of Canongate Books, to oversee Granta magazine and its book-publishing arm and signalling her own intention to get hands-on in editorial.

"When I heard about Sigrid, I did feel for Ian," said one friend. "Hederman was a pretty much perfect boss in that he was laissez-faire and enlightened. It can be awkward to have a proprietor who wants editorial influence."

But the 61-year-old Jack, a softly spoken Scotsman and one-time editor of The Independent on Sunday, sounds unruffled. "I'm not sure why I'm going," he mused. "I haven't been fired or anything. In truth, there comes a time with something called a magazine of new writing when there's a need to open it up for new enthusiasm."

Jack will leave in June, after an issue listing the best of young American writers. So far, there is no indication who might replace him. Rausing, with her PhD in Estonian anthropology and her interest in environmental causes and "activist non-fiction", is advertising for someone "innovative, with a passion for world literature". Judging by Rausing's appraisal of Bill Buford as "shockingly masculine", the smart money may be on someone young and female.

Granta's illustrious history stretches back to 1889. It was started as a political and literary magazine by Cambridge students, and published early work by Michael Frayn, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Stevie Smith, among others. In 1979, the title was rescued by a group of postgraduates led by Buford, who edited it for 16 years.

Buford's Granta was wildly fashionable. It became a leading platform for reportage, new fiction and documentary photography, and a key arbiter in what would be regarded as "important writing".

In 1983, this influence reached its apogee when Buford had the idea of compiling a list of promising writers. While everyone else was debating the death of the British novel, Granta issued its Best of Young British Novelists and Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro and Graham Swift swaggered on to the scene. Suddenly writing was sexy. Writers were rock stars and everything about them, from their swimming pools to their dental bills, was fascinating.

"When I began to buy books in the 1960s I didn't know what a writer looked like, apart from Betjeman and Kingsley Amis, let alone what their views were on current affairs," said Jack, who worked on the list with Buford. "But with that list and the emergence of Waterstone's, books and authors became marketable, fashionable objects for the first time since the war. Rushdie and Amis became minor public figures. Much more fuss is made of writers now, with festivals, seminars and creative writing courses. Publishing has become rock'n'roll and a lot of people want to become this thing called a writer; youthful and glamorous, rather than the old sort of writer, which was a man with a pipe who sat in the Garrick."

Louis de Bernières, who was on that BOYBN list, concurs. "Granta did an awful lot of good for me. It was like having a rocket put under me. It raised my profile, it got me invited to festivals and on British Council trips."

Despite this, Jack fears now for the future of literary fiction. "In the last few years advances have gone rapidly down and unless a novel wins a prize, or has an audience that already exists, merely getting good reviews won't mean a thing. Writers want a style of living that is at least no worse than a journalist. They want to live in a £200,000 flat in Stoke Newington, but literary fiction won't bring this."

The cultural landscape has shifted, and the arbiters of "important writing" have changed. Today, it is Richard and Judy who like to pronounce on the best of young British novelists. Reading groups proliferate and blogs pontificate. There has been an explosion of literary journals, such as the London Review of Books, the London Magazine and Slightly Foxed, as well as McSweeney's, the magazine established by the American novelist Dave Eggers. Though Granta's circulation is steady at almost 50,000 worldwide, it has been suggested that its influence has declined greatly.

Derek Johns, managing director of the magazine from 1990 to 1992, says: "I think the height of Granta's importance was the mid-1980s after the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 and through the Dirty Realism phase, which brought American writers like Ray Carver, Richard Ford and Jayne Anne Phillips to British attention.

"The space given to books in newspapers then was a fraction of what it is now, in terms of reviews and features. Now, there's far more information about books. Publishers are getting on to reading groups, and there's the internet. Ian is a journalist, and the magazine has seen a drift towards reportage. Granta still has an important place in the culture, but I think people now have more sources of authority about what is important to read."

Yet, says Nicholas Clee, literary commentator and a former editor of The Bookseller: "Granta is still important, because although there's a profusion of literary journals, there aren't that many outlets for serious new writing. Being arbiters of new talent is not a role publishers can easily fill, especially now they're subject to such commercial pressures. They're having to think, 'Will this book make the Waterstone's 3 for 2?' and, 'Will Richard and Judy like it?' whereas Granta's mission statement is simply to publish the best new writing."

Jack doesn't agree that Granta is no longer a valuable platform for new writing. "It was never the typical literary magazine, which might last five years and have a bit of poetry and short stories and some abstract etchings by the editor's sister. It never even had a manifesto. It stands for the narrative, realistic tradition, the firmly conventional in literary form. If we'd had Finnegans Wake through our letterbox, for better or worse, we'd probably not have published it.

"I think the biggest thing Granta has done is to expand the idea of what literature is by including memoirs, reportage and narrative history. Britain is particularly good at narrative writing, and Granta has played a major part in the rise of non-fiction amid what is perceived as literature."