A literary journey

A launch event for the newest edition of ‘Granta,’ ‘Exit Strategies,’ in Tel Aviv next week, underlines the magazine’s international outlook.

Granta's John Freeman and Ellah Allfrey 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Granta)
Granta's John Freeman and Ellah Allfrey 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Granta)
The literary world is often accused – not without cause – of being resistant to the lure of the new. Yet no one would argue that even the most venerable of institutions could benefit from a bit of a spruce-up from time to time. Take Granta, for instance. The “magazine of new writing” has been a stately literary presence for the past 30 years – stately, but with time beginning to look a little staid, to say the least.
Over the last couple of years, however, the magazine has undergone something of a transformation. John Freeman, editor for the last two years, has done much to reestablish the magazine’s credentials. His decision to feature recent issues – an entire volume dedicated entirely to Pakistan, for instance – showed remarkable prescience in the choice of subject matter as well as highlighting the contribution that good writing makes to our understanding of contemporary affairs. Granta has also taken on an increasingly global aspect, with a recent edition devoted to the best new Spanish language writing. Next week’s literary event organized by Granta at Tel Aviv’s Sipur Pashut bookshop – one of a number of launch events around the world for the magazine’s newest edition, “Exit Strategies,” underlines the new global dispensation.
But Freeman proposes that this is not so much a new strategy for the magazine as a return to its original principles.
“There’s a lot of writing out there. A lot of proficiency,” he observes in an e-mail sent from the magazine’s London base. “It’s easy to forget that prose can be a vessel for something which is broken; that a story can be the only thing you survive with. I wanted Granta to get back to publishing writing which came from this kind of intensity. Pieces that devastate and make you think. The kind of piece a writer writes once in their lifetime.” This is no modest aspiration. But, to be fair, Granta has always been one of the best literary journals around.
Granta was founded at Cambridge University in 1889, its first incarnation featuring the early work of many undergraduates who subsequently become famous, such as playwright Michael Frayn and poet Ted Hughes.
After falling moribund, it was rescued and relaunched in the late 1970s by a group of Cambridge postgraduates, with Bill Buford – a former fiction editor of The New Yorker – as its first editor. The new Granta had a distinctly British grounding; but as Freeman observes, with a varied and international outlook.
“A Colombian (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), a transplanted South African (Doris Lessing), and a Polish reporter (Ryszard Kapuscinski) contributed early on and often,” he points out.
After a long period of editorial stability – Buford was editor for 16 years, his successor Ian Jack for 12 – the magazine experienced something of an upheaval in the late 1990s with a change of ownership and two editors arriving and leaving in the space of two years.
More significantly though, was the significant evolution of the literary landscape over the years. New York and London remained the centers of the English-language publishing world but new writing from the Indian sub-continent, Africa, the Middle East and South America took on an importance of their own. And with the advent of the literary blogging culture of the Internet, magazines like Granta were no longer the default gatekeepers to the literary world.
Freeman argues that the magazine has always looked outward.
“[It] published great reporting by people like James Fenton and Marquez and Isabel Hilton,” he says. “I think that commitment, combined with the belief in the first person, is what distinguishes Granta today. It’s about witnessing the world, about the power of memory, about the refraction of history in personal life – as told in poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction.”
Freeman lists the different ways in which the magazine continues to keep its finger on the pulse: several foreign editions incorporating locally commissioned work; a determination to find new voices from the “slush pile” of unsolicited submissions. “In the last year, we’ve published half a dozen writers who came in without an agent... two of them had never been published before.”
And then there’s the increased international profile, of which the Tel Aviv launch event is a part. “We need to have events where there are serious readers,” Freeman emphasizes.
Israel, despite its size, is far from the periphery as far as he is concerned. “Every Israeli I’ve met comes alive when they talk about books.”
There is also something else, something that regular readers would recognize; Granta has a tradition of publishing writing that is sometimes highly subjective yet always wholly honest; writing that crosses borders – geographical, emotional, metaphorical – and takes the reader to the heart of places that they otherwise would not have the chance to visit.
The new issue of Granta, “Exit Strategies,” features a poignant, lyrical reflection on life in otherwise closed and cloistered communities of the Mississippi. “Summer” is a reflection on the challenges of coming out of the closet but not quite managing to stay out.
Jacob Newberry, its author, is presently in Israel on a Fulbright Scholarship. When we meet, he explains that this isn’t the piece that he initially intended to write. “I had wanted to write a short meditative piece post-Katrina [hurricane], but it morphed into something else,” he explains.
Two things distinguish Newberry’s prose piece: the elegant style with which he interpolates fictional narrative technique into a non-fiction piece and the revealing detail that he incorporates in the story. Evangelical Christian faith, “straight camps” to ease young men away from homosexual inclinations – he makes these very real without having to up their exotic value.
Newberry, a poet, is carrying out research into the experience of Evangelical Christians from the United States who come on pilgrimage to Israel. “I’m trying to document the motivations for pilgrimage,” he explains.
He describes how Israel has taken on such an emotional significance for Evangelical Christians.
“In Sunday School, we had the map of Israel on the wall. When we learned about the life of Jesus, it was tied intimately to geography and place.”
As Newberry talks about everything from homosexual life to Evangelical Christianity, one begins to appreciate something about Granta. What the magazine has preserved – or what its writers have helped it preserve – over the years is a fundamental curiosity about humanity in general. In a sense, everything else is gravy.
Freeman seems to be correct; what matters more than anything else is getting the story right.
The Israel launch event for Granta 118: “Exit Strategies” will take place at Sipur Pashut Bookshop, 36 Shabazi Street, Tel Aviv ,on February 9 at 7 p.m. with readings by Jacob Newberry and novelist Matt Beynon Rees.