A world of difference

All the way from England, an international literary magazine is fortifying its base in Israel – in Hebrew – and draws new crowds.

November 17, 2016 16:56

Shoppers in the Sipur Pashut book store in the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood in Tel Aviv, where the Israeli adventure of ‘Granta’ began. (photo credit: SHIRA LEVY AND GRANTA)

After thousands of years of written culture, there’s little chance of being the ‘first’ anything – neither in Hebrew nor in general. And yet occasionally that opportunity does come along. About two-and-a-half years ago, the very first Israeli edition of an international literary magazine was founded, bringing in a breath of fresh (and rather chill) air all the way from the UK: Granta Israel.

It had high standards to uphold and it faced, since its inception, one of the biggest questions in literature and culture: how do you make something so foreign, so rooted elsewhere, your own?

IN 1889, a group of young, literary-minded Cambridge students decided to start their own periodical, The Granta. They named it after the Granta River, one of a few smaller streams – tributaries, actually – of the River Cam, which runs through the small university town.

Cambridge was indeed the right environment for that type of venture.

The famous and tradition-heavy institution, today more than 800 years old, has a history of fostering cultural influencers. Its list of former students includes Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sylvia Plath and Zadie Smith. It is the home of the Cambridge Footlights, an amateur theater club that was founded only a few years before the periodical and which since then has been a first step for names like Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry, David Mitchell and about half of the Monty Pythons. In short, it has literature and drama running through its veins and rivers (to say nothing of science and philosophy).

Not that Granta founding editor, R.C. Lehmann, knew that his literary magazine would still be discussed well into the 21st century – in fact, it is possible he didn’t even know he had founded a literary magazine.

A variety of issues from some of the international editions (photo credit: GRANTA)

Granta originally featured politics, humor, and yes – young literary efforts, which only later became its trademark and focus.

During its early years, still a student magazine, but gaining traction, it became known as a periodical that often published the greats right before they became great: not only the aforementioned Sylvia Plath but also Stevie Smith, A.A. Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle and more.

Then, in 1979, just a decade short of celebrating its centenary, it was reborn; no longer a student publication but a real, grown-up literary quarterly.

The big names kept popping up, though, from Doris Lessing to Ian McEwan, a short excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children a year before its publication, and more.

It was everything a name-dropper could hope for. Fittingly, the magazine’s credo is almost as grand as its contributor history: “a belief in the power and urgency of the story and its supreme ability to describe, illuminate and make real.”

Today, Granta combines familiar names with unfamiliar ones – after all, its subtitle is The Magazine of New Writing – always with the same purpose: to “find the world’s best writing and to publish it well,” as former editor John Freeman told The Review Review a few years ago.

THOUGH IT carries its innate Britishness in every nook of its own history, Granta is no longer strictly British at all.

The magazine currently has 11 international editions, each combining local and international writing, in Brazil, Japan, Finland, Turkey – and even Israel, since 2014. Yes, the hot and humid, short-tempered Israel has its very own Cambridge-born Granta.

Mazal tov.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” admits Granta Israel editor Mira Rashty, who runs the magazine alongside deputy editor Shira Levy and publisher Roni Kramer.

“The magazine is not inexpensive to produce. We’re a small team, and we try our best to do what we believe in, because we really feel something like this can strengthen the local literary scene.”

People in Israel don’t really know what a literary magazine is, explains Rashty.

“They imagine it as a thin fanzine, and then they see it – it’s a whole book!” (Granta Israel issues are about 250 pages each.) It’s certainly a concept that takes some time to catch on. According to Francisco Vilhena, assistant editor in charge of supervising Granta international editions, the magazine’s average global readership is around 37,000; in comparison, Rashty says Granta Israel has so far sold almost the entire edition – meaning 1,000 to 1,500 copies – of each of their four issues. The fifth is currently under way.

There are also some 200 local and international subscribers: an Israeli start-up development, she jokes.

“We came up with this idea of creating special subscriptions that include both Hebrew and English issues every year. We wanted to forge a community around the magazine. No other international Granta does this.” It worked: when they first started, the magazine caught the attention mostly of the local literary milieu, but the more recent issues reached a far more varied audience. People are becoming familiar with the name Granta, and sales are steadily growing in independent bookstores, in fashion and lifestyle concept stores, and of course, in the shop where it all started – Sipur Pashut in Neveh Tzedek, Tel Aviv.

Shoppers in the Sipur Pashut book store in the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood in Tel Aviv (photo credit: SHIRA LEVY AND GRANTA)

Why not you?

The invention of Granta Israel, locally called the Hebrew Granta, an important distinction, more on that soon, came naturally, according to Rashty, and was directly related to that shop.

Sipur Pashut, named after a short story by Shmuel Yosef Agnon, is a store crafted by book lovers for book lovers in its cozy design, intelligent catalogue choices and in the activities it provides.

The community that Rashty wanted to create around Granta already had roots in the independent bookstore, which has been operating in Neveh Tzedek since 2003 and in recent years has been offering workshops, reading events, exhibitions and more. Its managers and employees, Rashty among them, make a point of staying with the times, always looking for the next change in the local literary industry.

At one point they felt a shift towards English readership, noticing Israelis found the language easier and became interested in buying books in English – and not only because they are cheaper than their Hebrew translations.

“We set up an English department that was sort of a mini version of the store in terms of our collection. We also had several issues of the original Granta from the UK. One day, one of Granta’s editors came to visit, and she was just so impressed by our collection that she suggested we host one of their book launches, which is a tradition they hold around the world.” Naturally, Sipur Pashut was all in – and so was the crowd.

About 90 people showed up (quite a lot for a literary event in Israel). The papers wrote about it. Its was a big success.

That event got the ball rolling. Sipur Pashut, which hosts popular writing workshops on a regular basis, offered to send Granta some of the materials produced in these workshops. After all, Granta is all about new and international voices. Maybe some of those stories would be to their liking? Granta didn’t say yes; they said something even better. “The editors said, look, we do have international editions, and we have been thinking for a while now that there should be one in Hebrew, so why don’t you give it a shot? I mean, why not you?”

The lunch of the first ‘Hebrew Granta,’ in Tel Aviv in 2014 (photo credit: GRANTA)

One foot out the door

Back to the present. Four issues are plenty of time to start learning the market’s needs – and Granta’s own.

“For us, this is an amazing opportunity to be Israel’s very first international literary magazine,” says Rashty, “and being an international player cooperating with worldwide Granta, our goal is to find and present to the world what Israeli literature is – not only canonical names like Amos Oz and Etgar Keret, but to find new voices and the truly wide and varied writing that exists in our region.”

Region is the operative word here.

Though it goes by Granta Israel for English readers, the local magazine sees itself as Granta in Hebrew. “We’re not ashamed of where we come from,” Rashty clarifies. “We do use the word Israel, despite some of the reactions.

For instance, once we joined the international Granta family, some people canceled their UK subscription in protest. We also know some writers won’t allow us to translate them because it’s an Israeli edition.”

But that’s the outside world; the inward-looking magazine’s name is a whole other question. “We knew that within the country we would have trouble calling it Granta Israel, because we wanted a mix of different voices, and that includes Arabic ones. We’re trying to offer a wide outlook that is literary, yet also cultural and societal. We had long discussions about it and ended up adopting Spain’s approach.”

Spain, Rashty explains, had a name problem too. There’s Spain, but then there are voices from Latin America, minorities, neighboring countries and so on, so they decided to refer to it as the Spanish edition, not the Spain edition.

The Israeli team did the same thing.

Rashty says they care deeply about language and the linguistic level of it all, and see it as a better prism with which to consider local and foreign literature.

For her, the idea is to draw many varied writers, to find what’s new and fresh.

Having strong international backing has its advantages, in that sense: “It draws us outwards, allows us to not be chained to the familiar local milieu, instead creating a fascinating dialogue.

That’s very important to us, not just as Granta, but also for Sipur Pashut. We want to be at the same time inside, a part of the existing literary community, and also have one foot out the door so we can keep our originality and find our own distinction.”

Keeping each country’s own distinction is key for Granta’s international HQ, too.

“Each international edition of Granta has its own vision in terms of aims, content, identity, etc.,” explains Vilhena.

“The idea of having so many international editions is to create a conversation between many different languages and cultures. For that matter, we have published stories in translation that were first published by Granta Sweden, Granta Portugal, Granta Israel and Granta Spain.. It often happens that some international editions pick stories from other international editions to run in their issues.”

A worldwide literary web

Granta, in general, is a fantastic case study for what the concept of international literature is. As mentioned above, each international edition is required to combine local texts and writers with texts from other countries, usually from the Granta database. That means constant cooperation, and in the Internet age, the age of the so-called global village, it raises many questions about literature and culture. Aren’t we all influenced by one another anyway? Does local writing even exist anymore? “Granta UK has become an empire,” explains Rashty. “It can afford to publish voices from all over the world. It used to publish mostly British writers, but now it has the power needed to search out the most niche, innovative literature wherever it is created.”

But international editions have something else going on. Rashty says she was happy to learn that other editors feel the same way about having that big name behind them: it gives them the power to go deep within their own country, to find the unique and rare voices that don’t necessarily manage to find a home in the major publishing houses, to showcase what they see as their local flavor.

She gives as an example the Japanese edition, parts of which are available in English, too. “Reading the Japanese edition really lets you feel Japanese culture very strongly. You can learn a lot about it, in a very deep and interesting way, and experience it through storytelling.”

But that’s about half of each issue; what about the other half, dedicated to selecting texts from other Granta editions in other countries? Apparently that half is just as telling.

“The choice of international texts emphasizes local tastes, too. For instance, the Japanese editor really fell for Etgar Keret, who appeared in our first issue of Granta Israel. He loved that it was so different from his own culture.

He wanted to publish Israeli writers because he sees our literary scene, and our culture in general, as really the opposite of Japanese culture.”

GRANTA IS a vehicle for exploring those cultural and literary differences.

“Granta has a very strong identity, defined by decades of bringing out the best new writing,” says Vilhena.

“What makes the magazine so appealing to so many different types of readers across the globe is that it not only brings out new voices from English-speaking writers, but it also has a strong translated component. This way, it works like a conversation, where different literary cultures bring out different ways of writing and reading the world.”

And yes, of course there is such a thing as Israeli writing, and not only in story location or subject matter. Hebrew writing is far better in long form, says Rashty, for instance in novels, memoirs, reflective writing. When it comes to the short story, she feels that the majority of literature being written here is still tied too strongly to the traditional, canonical conventions. When Granta Israel’s editors try to find new forms, they search among young, yet unpublished authors.

“There is a certain gap, in that sense, between local and international writing. It’s not necessarily better or worse,” she clarifies.

“It’s just not what I’m looking for,” representing Granta and that freshness.

The aim is to create a fun and high-quality magazine for people to enjoy. To that end, Granta combines young voices with more familiar ones.

Readers buy it for the big names, and get to experience something new in the same volume, something there’s a good chance they would not have been able to find otherwise. If any of those new names turn out to be the next greats, all the better.

Meanwhile, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Onwards and upwards, as the original Granta creators might have said.

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