Jerusalem's world of words

The Jerusalem International Book fair is in full swing, and it offers insight into the local and global trends in the literary world.

People purchase books at the annual book fair in Jerusalem (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
People purchase books at the annual book fair in Jerusalem
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
The Jerusalem International Book Fair, which is taking place this year June 7 to 17, is an event that is eagerly anticipated by local literature fans of all stripes. It offers us an opportunity to get a close-quarters handle on a wide range of tomes being produced here and from abroad, but it also gives us the chance of hearing a spread of opinions and ideas from well-known professionals, first hand.
One such event is scheduled for Tuesday, June 13, when a daylong program takes place at the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center, at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, under the aegis of Granta, an international literary magazine founded by a bunch of enterprising Cambridge University students in 1889 and has branches all over the world. Over the years it helped publicize the works of such promising scribes as Ted Hughes, A. A. Milne, Sylvia Plath and others. However, by the 1970s the magazine had slumped into dire financial straits and was rescued in 1979 by Cambridge-based American writer Bill Buford, who served as the reincarnated literary vehicle’s editor for the next 16 years.
These days Granta’s welcome output is overseen by Swedish-born editor and publisher Sigrid Rausing, who is also a writer herself. Rausing will be very much in evidence at Mishkenot Sha’ananim on Tuesday, as she takes part in such slots as Granta: From Cambridge to Jerusalem, alongside Marcela Sulak from the Department of English literature at Bar-Ilan University, and Valerie Miles, the American-born editor of Granta Spain. Granta has several offshoots across the globe, publishing in a dozen languages, including Hebrew.
It promotes the work of numerous gifted writers, including the likes of Jen George and Greg Jackson, who feature in its latest issue titled “Best of Young American Novelists,” the Hebrew edition of which will be marked on Tuesday, inter alia, with a festive theatrical reading mosaic with actors from the Ruth Kanner Theatre Group and the magazine’s contributors.
Rausing took over the reins at Granta 12 years ago when she was approached by then-owner Rea Hederman, who also ran The New York Review of Books.
“My husband and I, together with Philip Gwyn-Jones, had started a small independent publishing house called Portobello Books earlier that year, and Rea wanted to know if we were interested in acquiring Granta,” says Rausing.
It was a perfect fit for her. “I had read the magazine all my adult life, and was profoundly shaped by it, both as a reader and a writer, so of course I was interested.” Then again there were significant obstacles to be negotiated.
“It wasn’t entirely obvious that Granta would survive at that time,” Rausing continues. “Some publishers were talking about acquiring the company to carry on with the books, closing the magazine. We thought there was value in carrying on.”
A dozen years on, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and reading.
The new Granta chiefs had to look carefully into why the enterprise was not exactly in the pink, and some tweaking went on.
“We went through a few changes, but we have come back full circle on most of them in terms of aesthetic, length and paper quality,” Rausing notes. Then again, on a purely literary level, the publisher says Granta is still very much Granta.
“In terms of content, I think we are what we always were, since Bill Buford transformed Granta from a student magazine to a literary quarterly. We still publish a mix of fiction, reportage, and memoir, alongside photography.
One change is that we now also publish poetry, and that we have a lively website and social media presence.”
In a day and age when concentration spans are becoming increasingly brittle, and social media bytes are often the order of the day, Rausing still firmly believes that books, and the promoting thereof, have a robust presence in our lives.
“I think this is a great era for literary magazines – the need for curation is stronger than ever, and the digital model is settling down. I think Granta matters to readers in terms of finding new names and reading old favorites. I think it matters as much to writers in terms of reaching a substantial readership and notice. New writers are more likely to get a book deal if they have had a piece in Granta or the Paris Review, so it really does matter. We have always published unknown writers alongside known names, and there is an egalitarian aspect to that which appeals to me.”
Rausing’s biography is replete with earnest professional endeavors, and includes a PhD in social anthropology from University College London, in which she focused on post-Soviet anthropology.
She did her fieldwork on a collective farm in Estonia in the early 1990s, when the socioeconomic situation was pretty dire. That stint eventually spawned 2014 tome Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia.
The Swede says her own academic and literary backdrop also informs her take on the work of other writers.
“Publishing is like psychoanalysis: it’s useful to have done all kinds of other things, and to know about subjects and discourses beyond the narrow frame of textual analysis. Anthropology has made me more interested in translation, and perhaps generally more aware of the social context of writing and writers.”
In addition to her sterling work in the literary field, Rausing is also highly active in a range of global human rights issues. Here, too, she feels writers have done their bit across the years.
“Think of Solzhenitsyn, or Primo Levi; think of Esther Hautzig’s memoirs, or Eugenia Ginzburg, or Anne Frank’s diaries. Think of Alan Paton or Toni Morrison or even Charles Dickens – they all drew attention to issues of human rights and social justice, and there are so many others, too.”
Of course, the world is now a very different place compared with when Buford rescued Granta almost 40 years ago.
One of the major changes has been the developments of the Internet and the virtual world. In a talk Rausing recently gave in Ireland at an event organized by the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders organization, which looks out for human rights activists around the world, she lauded the fact that the Irish body still focuses on individuals.
“I think we always were in danger of losing sight of the individual,” she says.
“The European colonial project lost sight of individuals, dealing with tribes and communities instead, and allowing dangerous racist stereotypes, such as the purported differences between the Hutus and the Tutsis, to flourish.” These were the tribes involved in the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The Internet carries its own identity threats. “Social media has affirmed the idea of the individual – albeit no longer the atomized individual of the Enlightenment. People’s voices are being heard, but perhaps paradoxically, it turns out most of them are more or less the same, attaching themselves to whatever tired old cultural memes are making the round.”
So, does the world of virtual reality, blogging and instant access impact on the art of writing literature? Can one point to differences between literature crafted in the pre-Internet era, and today? “I think there’s a risk of much more extraneous material – Wikipedia knowledge – that doesn’t help fiction. There’s less discipline, perhaps, but one always ends up comparing the great writers of yesterday to young writers of today, so the comparison becomes a little skewed.
Frankly, I think it has made less difference than we think.”
With the Hebrew edition of the “Best of Young American Novelists” issue just out, non-English readers here now have a chance to come to grips with some of the best efforts of the current crop of emerging US-based writers.
Rausing says there is plenty to get into.
“I think there is a very interesting mix of realism and experimentalism [among young American authors]. Some of the writers on the list – Jesse Ball, Jen George, Halle Butler, Mark Doten and Joshua Cohen, for instance – are deeply experimental, while others, like Greg Jackson, Emma Cline, Garth Risk Hallberg are more traditional storytellers. I say more in my introduction, but broadly and briefly, I ended up feeling cautiously optimistic about the American literary scene, but perhaps not more so than I did 10 years ago.”
Rausing also keeps tabs on the Israeli literary scene, and is a fan of Edgar Keret, whom Granta publishes. She is also keenly aware of the possible pitfalls of writing in a part of the world beset with security issues.
“I think one of the dangers of living with conflict, particularly in a small country, is that writers feel obliged to comment, to take sides, usually to do the decent liberal thing. The country itself becomes a character, in a way that perhaps limits creativity. I felt the same, interestingly, about Ireland when we did our Irish issue.”
There is a whole slew of fascinating sessions lined up for Tuesday’s program, including the New Fiction – Translation and Transformation session when Miles will be joined by Granta Hebrew contributors and well-known literary figures in Israel – Tal Nitzan, Moshe Ron, Yoni Mendel and Yiftach Aloni. The panel discussion will be accompanied by readings in both the original and the translation.