‘Media predictions of the death of long-form journalism, the novel, or God, come to nothing in the end’
Granta at 40: Writer Rana Dasgupta will guest-edit a forthcoming issueUpdated: Sep 07, 2019 13:22 IST
Editors don’t always sit down to a great meal. You may want a brioche; but it is lumpy and the cook has scrimped on the butter. A finished article, likewise, may not be equal to the pitch. But bread can always be worked on and made to rise. Sigrid Rausing, publisher and editor, Granta magazine, which observes its 40th year of publication this year, helms the magazine, it seems, with this principle in mind.
Granta, now a byword for first-rate narrative journalism, a form it literally helped found, has come a long way since it started as a student initiative in 1889. Started by students at Cambridge University as The Granta, a periodical of student politics and literary enterprise, it was in 1979, that along with a name change, Granta moved from being a student publication to the literary quarterly it remains today. When Rausing took over as publisher in 2006, she was content to ride the “great Granta tradition” – a literary boutique for both Nobel Laureates and debut novelists, international translations to investigative journalism. “The best feeling for me is having a conversation with a writer about what she wants to do, thinking with her about how the piece might develop, and then seeing what comes in a few months later,” she says.
Granta issues have introduced the world’s best known writers of today. It published Salman Rushdie in its third issue; in the ninth, John Berger and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In 2013, under Rausing’s tenure, Granta Books (a division of the magazine) won the Man Booker Prize for the first time, for The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, whose short story, Two Tides, was published in its 106th issue, in 2009. Poetry is now a big presence in the magazine as is history, says Rausing, who has a strong interest in uncovering political repression. A conversation:
Every magazine has an idea of itself – what it is and isn’t; or whether it wants to be one thing or many different things. What are the challenges in self definition would you say Granta has had to face?
That is a good question – going back in time, the challenge has been getting booksellers to understand this hybrid publication, somewhere in between Paris Review and Harpers and Queen, with touches of the New Yorker. I would say we have a broader remit than any other literary magazine –in terms of non-fiction we publish mainly travel writing, essays, and memoir, almost always with a strong autobiographical element, or at least an authorial presence in the text. We commission ambitious travel pieces, sending people recently, for example, to the British Virgin Gordas (a piece on tax havens), the Russian Sakhalin islands (on exile) and the Great Rift Valley (on black rhinos- forthcoming). Granta writing is never just about place – it’s about what happens in a particular place: the war in Ukraine, the death of a young woman in a Parisian banlieue, a mass grave in Minsk (forthcoming)... The writing has to be as good as the best fiction, suspenseful, driven, and with strong characters.
We mix these commissioned pieces with short stories and excerpts from novels, photo-essays, and poetry. Granta is a hybrid publication, and we relish hybrid writing, pieces that are interesting, profound, and unexpected. Perhaps in terms of the challenges of self-definition it’s that hybrid nature which it’s hard to communicate – to begin with, where do you place Granta in a book shop?
It’s a literary magazine, but it looks like a book. Why is it so?
That was Bill Buford’s contribution – Granta was a student magazine, published as a small news paper, when he made it a literary quarterly in 1979, with a mission to publish American fiction in Britain. It’s actually a great size for a quarterly – a collectible item, a book on the book shelf, and easy to bring on the bus, too.
When you took over as editor and publisher in 2006, what new editorial direction did you give to its content?
In 2006 we were content to just carry on the great Granta tradition. I was very adamant about two things – one, that we take the slushpile seriously, and keep the door open, treating new writers with respect, and two, that we only publish exceptionally interesting and good things, no matter who the author was.
In what sense was your Granta a different one or a continuity of the earlier Grantas led editorially by Bill Buford, Ian Jack or and Alex Clark?
When I took over as editor in 2013 I made poetry a bigger part of what we do. That has been a tremendous success, and we are now starting a poetry imprint for Granta Books too, run by our poetry editor Rachael Allen. As for my own interests, I have a strong interest in exposing political repression. I am also very interested in history – my PhD was about the question of history and memory in post-Soviet rural Estonia. I have published a few pieces, notably Sana Valiulina’s piece on the Gulag and her father, Oliver Bullough and Peter Pomerantsev on Ukraine, and Will Atkins on Sakhalin (forthcoming). I probably have a stronger interest than previous editors in psychoanalysis and anthropology. I am drawn to the dark issues in the world, I realise, reading this again. But I also like guest edited issues – I love new thinking, new ideas, new writers, and guest editors bring all of those.
Who are the new writers that Granta is proud to have introduced in the last 5 years? And if you could share from what you published of their work, why you chose to publish those pieces and why you felt those were Granta pieces.
We were early publishers of Katherine Faw Morris, Claire Vaye Watkins, Sam Coll, Callan Wink, Miranda July, Ottessa Moshfegh, Jesse Ball, Patrick DeWitt, Greg Jackson, Alan Rossi, Marc Bojanowski, George Makana Clark, Sally Rooney, Sara Baume, John Connell, Steven Dunn, Emily Berry, Adam Marek, Ben Lasman, Leni Zumas, Julia Armfield, Jem Calder and others.
We also published the relatively unknown Norwegian writer Jon Fosse in translation, alongside Sayaka Murata, Yukiko Motoya, Han Kang, Ho Sok Fong, and many others. I am proud to have published all of them.
Do unknown writers, or writers without agents, stand much of a chance? Who or how many mans the Granta slushpile? Who are the writers who have emerged from that pile?
This is always a challenge. Before I was editor I took responsibility for our slush pile, which was still paper, and running at about 200 submissions a week. When we made the system digital, submissions increased to several thousand a week. We created a readers’ circle, and everything gets read – but few writers (other than poets, which is a different world) make it to print via the slushpile. Over the years we have only found a handful of good pieces that way, not because we neglect submissions, but because nearly all good writers now go for smaller magazines first, where agents pick them up: there is an established path for new writers, which wasn’t quite the case a few decades ago.
New Yorker, The Atlantic, Guernica, and of course, Granta, all promote good writing, reportage, literary but not too literary a material – how do you distinguish yourself in this market, or convince a writer to write for you than elsewhere?
We don’t operate with staff writers like the New Yorker, and rarely have to openly compete with other publications. Of course it’s nice to publish well-known writers - I was happy to have published Andre Aciman’s memoir of an important sexual feeling on a bus in Rome, for example, or Ken Follett on growing up in a cult, or Anne Carson’s extraordinary pieces, or AM Homes and Ben Lerner. But the best feeling for me is having a conversation with a writer about what they want to do, thinking with them about how the piece might develop, and then seeing what comes in a few months later.
Are you planning an India series by any chance? Are there any Indian writers that Granta, under you, has published?
We have published many Indian writers along the way, and Ian Jack guest-edited an Indian issue in 2015. What issue has satisfied me the most? I loved putting together our 40th anniversary issue, reading through the entire backlist of issues. I really liked our issue States of Mind, and particularly Rana Dasgupta’s extraordinary piece, Notes on a suicide
40 years is hitting middle age. Any new direction that Granta is planning to take or is it better for an established brand not to surprise the reader?
We are planning three exciting guest-edited issues: Isabella Tree on nature writing, Rana Dasgupta on ‘Membranes’, and Will Atkins on travel writing. [In Membranes, writers and artists will reflect on today’s very charged relationship to barriers and exclusion, says Dasgupta.]I’m excited to see what those issues will bring. Our autumn issue is dedicated to Europe, but with a particular subtitle: Stranger in the Land. We have pieces by Tash Aw, Elif Shafak, Katherine Angel, Joseph Koerner, Andrew Miller, Mazen Maarouf, Antonio Munoz Molina and others – I look forward to finishing that in the next month.
The media industry all over the world is eager to appeal to the millennial reader who we are told does not read long pieces. How does Granta deal with this challenge and what is the future of ‘long reads’ in this scenario?
We invest in various forms of digital media, mostly through our website. But long-form journalism is the thing now: even the Guardian and the Economist do it now. Media predictions of the death of the novel/God/the media/ travel writing/ life as we know it usually come to nothing in the end. I feel quite optimistic about we do – both its cultural importance and its viability.