Granta magazine was founded in 1889 by students at Cambridge University. It underwent a rebirth in 1979, when it focused more on new writing from people beyond Cambridge. Every issue since 1979 is available in print. The magazine does not have a political or literary manifesto, but it has “a belief in the power and urgency of the story, both in fiction and non-fiction, and the story’s supreme ability to describe, illuminate and make real.” John Freeman was the head editor for the magazine from 2009 to 2013. It is open to submissions at varying times throughout the year. Granta has published many now-famous writers in the past such as A. A. Milne, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. FUSE interviews head editor of Granta, John Freeman.
Interview conducted by Christopher Liek (Susquehanna ’15)
How did you come to work with Granta?
Every ten years, Granta produces an issue called The Best of Young American Novelists, which features 20 writers under 40. It’s judged by six or seven prestigious judges and it’s part of a series Granta has been making since 1983, when they launched their first best of list….an issue that showcased all the best writers to come in Britain, from Salman Rushdie to Kazuo Ishiguro to Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Graham Swift, Martin Amis, and Rose Tremain. Amazing generation. Anyway, when I first moved to New York in 1996 the first Best of Young American list – which pulled out Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lorrie Moore, Edwidge Danticat and others – was just coming out. It taught me who to read, and, in a very basic way, that living writers could be exciting, too. I had just graduated from university and that notion of the living, working, engaging with contemporary times author was a somewhat novel concept to me. I had that stupid pride of only reading the classics.
Anyway, in a small way the writers Granta put on that 1996 list set a literary agenda. In the sense that they were the ones to watch, their style was assumed to be the dominant style, and it was the first list in America that said, hey, young novelists had something to say, too. We had a greatest generation thing here, with Updike, Roth, Mailer, Bellow, Doctorow, etc, and for a while novelists under 40, let alone under 50, didn’t have a lot of breathing room. So the list was a good thing for that reason, too, and it was, basically right. When Franzen leapt from a small, mid-list novelist to a huge success, it wasn’t that surprising to people who had read the Granta issue.
Sorry I’m digressing a bit here but it’s part of the story of why I felt connected to Granta. So I move to New York after college, the issue comes out, I read it, and some years go by. I became a book critic and arts journalist. As I began writing for newspapers I followed a lot of the writers on that list: interviewed them, reviewed their books. Some I grew tired of, some I loved, and others, in fact, never lived up the promise of their first book. (Some didn’t even write a second book!). So when 2007 rolled around, and the second best of young list was about to be launched, I was very curious who would be chosen. I wrote a piece for a newspaper about the list, after it was announced, and went to the party where the authors were to read. As it turned out, the new owner of the magazine was there and she was looking to hire an editor to replace the outgoing editor, Ian Jack, who had worked there for a dozen years. I interviewed for the job, didn’t get it, and went on with my life, wrote a book. A year later, weeks after I turned in the manuscript for my book, she called me again and offered me a job in New York, as the American editor. She felt the magazine had fallen out of touch with American writing and wanted me to work out of New York, looking for writers they should know about. It was great timing and I said yes. That was a little over four years ago.
How did Granta get started?
It started as a student literary magazine in Cambridge, England, in the 1880s. And it ran until the 1970s, publishing along the way A.A. Milne, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and others, all when they were students at Cambridge. Salman Rushdie even drew cartoons. Then in 1979 two Americans on Fulbright fellowships — Bill Buford and Jonathan Levi — took it and reinvented it as a literary magazine for general readers. They felt the British literary world was a bit staid, and not publishing the best Americans, so their first issue was themed to New American Writing. It was a bold thing to do, to take one of the oldest student lit mags in the country and relaunch it filled with Americans – Susan Sontag, etc – but it got attention and it’s been going ever since, all the issues themed, the contributors no longer just American, but anyone who is writing in or translated into English around the world. Buford was editor for fifteen years and he was a great editor.
Is Granta a non-profit organization or how is it funded?
It is for profit and it is underwritten by Sigrid Rausing, the owner, a philanthropist, human rights advocate, and writer.
What is it like working as editor for Granta?
I love it. It’s like walking into a bookstore and having not just the books I love around me, but the books I wish were written there, too. I say this because I can write to virtually any novelist or reporter around the world and ask him or her to write for the magazine. They don’t always say yes, but if they’re a serious writer they will have heard of Granta, and think hard about whether they want to do something for the magazine. It’s very visible to a certain kind of reader and writer, and I like that it gives those types a platform for morally engaged writing, for witnessing the world, for new writing. To have that all between two covers is exciting to me. I like that art for art’s sake exists, but personally I’m moved more by something that *has to* exist.
I don’t spend all my time talking to writers, though. I do write back cover copy for the issue, or look at press releases, or talk to sales directors about our print numbers, or e-mail with agents to turn down submissions, and meet with our art director about ad campaigns we are running or a photo shoot he is setting up, or debate with our online editor about whether or not we should run a podcast on our website. I sign invoices and chase payments occasionally and meet people for lunch to explore whether they should write for the magazine and yes decide reprint numbers on our tote bags. There are a lot of moving parts to the magazine, and I’m lucky in that I really, really like the people I work with – I should, I guess, because I chose them! But seriously they work very hard and when you live and work that way it’s essential to respect and like — it seems a silly, not serious word, like but I mean it — it’s important to like the people you spend all that time with. And I do.
What other positions have you had, and what were they like?
I was an editorial assistant at three publishing houses. These jobs were a) degrading, b) inspiring, and c) poorly paid. It convinced me I wanted to be a writer and not a guy climbing up the slippery rungs of commercial (or even literary) publishing. So I quit my job, the last of these, which was at a house called Hyperion Press, and moved to New England and freelanced for a while, I temped, I worked at an investment bank and fantasized about stabbing myself in the face, I was an editor at a company that made newsletters for HMOs. Grim stuff. I was on the verge of giving up having anything to do with books or writing when the freelance book reviews I was writing on the side (at night, without sleep, irritating the hell out of my girlfriend, who wanted to sleep) began to get easier to write. I found I could write for a lot of places if I just asked. So I got what I thought would be my last ever full-time job, editing a guide to children’s books for Barnes & Noble. It was published once a year, and filled with 8,000 entries on which books to read at what age group. Again, grim work, but not that depressing I guess. By the end of that job I was writing for 35 or 40 newspapers and I decided to write full-time. I found I could do it. Syndicating the pieces I wrote I made a living. By the time I started to work at Granta I was writing for almost 200 newspapers around the world. Slightly surreal, but I was a paperboy growing up in California and it made me happy to be making a living in newsprint. At the very end of this period I was president of the National Book Critics Circle for two years, and we launched a campaign there to raise awareness about cutbacks in newspapers, and especially book review sections, which in the late 2000s were being shaved, reduced, or cut out altogether. It’s sad, what’s happened. You used to be able to open a newspaper in any big city in this country and there would be a book section on Sundays, sometimes reviews during the week, often written by people who worked at the paper. Smart people. They don’t all just live in New York. Now you see the same reviews wherever you go, because no one has a staff critic and very few of the papers have a book review editor. An intellectual life needs to be broadcast to people in some way, otherwise it becomes as strange, and secret as the occult, and book reviews were one entry point to this nation’s intellectual life. Yes there are sites and blogs all over the net about books, but you have to care about books to find them. A newspaper just fell in your lap.
What do you feel is the most important function of Granta in the literary world?
To witness the world, to showcase new writing. And to make it clear that good writing is morally engaged and beautiful — and to show how those two things are actually the same thing.
Do you enjoy your work at Granta? Why or why not?
I think I covered that above. The only downsides to the job – I live in London half of the year while my girlfriend is in New York – are not things inherent to the job, but rather what I bring to it.
Have you worked for any other small presses or literary journals?
Which one(s), and how does it differ from Granta? No. My second publishing job, described above, was at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a literary house which is mid-sized. It was the most inspiring and least degrading. I was a terrible assistant. I’m not organized and I didn’t like being a secretary. No one does, I suppose. But as I describe above, too, most of my working life was spent as a freelance writer. I have published in small presses and journals – The Believer, Zyzzyva, but I’ve never worked at one other than Granta.
What do you think the general audience is for Granta?
Smart curious readers.
What do you feel is the future, and or, goals of Granta?
It is to become more easily accessible digitally, and to expand globally. We have 11 foreign language editions now – in China, Brazil, in Bulgaria, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and soon Israel. Reading markets are growing faster outside of the U.S. and the UK than within it, and literary journals in some of these places is a new, political, exciting thing. I’d like us to have 25 editions in all the major languages of the world. They would help us find the best writers, wherever they are and in whatever language. The foreign editions do this because we’re not just translating Granta into these languages. It’s sort of a hybrid magazine. The editors in Norway, Finland and etc chose pieces from our archive, translate them into their language, and then commission original pieces in their languages. So for example, the Granta Brazil issues are taken half from what we publish (or have published) in English, which they then translate into Portuguese. They then fill the other half with Brazilian writers writing new pieces for that Granta specifically. In this way these issues become like scouts for us in countries where we don’t read the languages.
Do you have any general advice for undergraduate/ beginning editors?
Be relentless. It’s very difficult to become an editor. There aren’t that many jobs and you have to really want to do it, and love working with writers. This last part is important. The primary role of an editor is to be an advocate for the writers he or she publishes. For their work, for their livelihood…and you have to, I think, be sort of selfless about it. Because the real star of the show is the writer. You exist, as an editor, to make their life easier, to make their work clearer, to help them achieve whatever it is they are trying to achieve in a story, a book, a poem. I became an editor slightly by accident, as you see above. I never wanted a full-time job after I was a book critic, but when it came, because it was Granta, I thought, yeah, this would be fun. That sounds flip, but as you see from above to I did my time in the trenches. I probably wrote a thousand book reviews in seven years, and worked at some crummy jobs before I could support myself with that kind of writing. This is why I also say be relentless. Because I think sometimes you have to create your own position rather than wait for it to open up.
In regards to the production of the magazine, could you explain briefly the submission process, reading board processes? Are there any areas that are more or less difficult than others? How far do you read into a piece before giving up on it?
Very simple. We get pieces directly from writers, from agents, and from publishers, who often want Granta to excerpt a book prior to publication. I read everything that is sent to me as it comes in, and all the slush – unsolicited manuscripts — eventually. I have a bit of a backlog at the moment of the unsolicited material. But I will read it. Other editors on staff – Ellah Allfrey, Patrick Ryan, Ted Hodgkinson, Yuka Igarashi – get their own submissions, and if they want to publish something they bring it to me. I make the final call. I don’t believe in consensus decisions when it comes to editorial taste. I think that’s how things get murky. We have editorial meetings once a week.
What is it like living and working in London rather than the U.S?
It’s fabulous, I get to swear and be crass and people think I’m that way because I am American.
What are some of your specific duties within the magazine?
Ultimately, as editor, everything becomes my responsibility. So if there is a typo on the website, or our press release has the wrong tone, or a writer doesn’t have a hotel room, or a writer hasn’t been paid, ultimately it all falls on me. I have to figure out how to fix things or find the right person at the magazine to do it. So much of work, I think, is knowing how to fix what appears to be broken. So all these things are important. But the most important, obviously, is to through my editorial choices pull out the freshest, most compelling, most urgent writing in the world. It’s an endless search and for that reason both challenging and a lot of fun.
This is a second interview, conducted after Freeman stepped down from the role of head editor of Granta.
How are you? The last time we spoke you said you were going to Japan. How was that?
Yes, I’m just back from Tokyo. How am I? Japanese jetlag is better than drugs. Or at least as disorienting. I had a great time. Some friends and I helped to start a festival there, and it’s grown into a Japanese Granta, which launched for the first time this year. The English edition of Granta is publishing an issue on Japan at the same time. It’s become a kind of dialogue between Japanese writing and writing from around the world. At the festival the events mirror this — you’ll have Junot Diaz on stage with a Japanese novelist, talking about, say, the idea of arrival. Outside the events I did a lot of walking and subway riding this time. And I eat everything — including cod sperm, who knew?! It’s strange when you discover a kind of second home which is so different than where you’re from.
Since leaving Granta, what have you been up to?
Aside from eating sushi? I had a book out last fall, and have been teaching at Columbia University and the New School. I’ve started working on a few new books, too, one on American poetry, the other an anthology of writing about New York. I’m reviewing books again, which is fun, because I don’t fully know what I think until I have to write it down….and sleeping. Granta‘s a quarterly but we wanted to expand it and had a scheduling hole to work our way out of it…so I had a lot of travel and late nights and it’s a novelty to think, oh, I can go to sleep now.
How To Read a Novelist just came out not too long ago. Do you want to talk a little about the process of writing that book as compared to your last book, The Tyranny of Email?
It was an entirely different experience. I wrote Tyranny of E-mail after two years of intensive research, and then composed it quickly, in under a year, because I wanted it to feel like a long essay. For me, to give a piece of writing the feel of one long thought….I need to write it all at once. So I can keep all the parts of it in my head. How to Read a Novelist was written over 13 years. I probably wrote 300 or so interviews during that period, mostly for newspapers, and I chose 40 or 45 of the best of them, and then reedited those and wrote a bunch of new ones — with Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides — as well as introductions to each writer in the book. It sounds easier, and in many ways, it was, to order and collect previously published work…still, I think because I was returning to material, expanding on it, and rewriting, it felt like doing the work twice. I’m glad I did, though. The whole point of writing an interview is to draw people to the writer and the work, to share one’s fascination with a writer with other readers. Now in a book they can keep doing that necessary work.
4. You also said that you’re teaching at Columbia University and The New School. What are you teaching and what have been your experiences there so far?
At Columbia I’m teaching a literature seminar in the MFA program called Mother Tongue. It’s a class studying novels by writers who started life in one language, then switched into english — everyone from Joseph Conrad and Aleksandar Hemon, to Xialou Guo and Yiyun Li. I’m also teaching a nonfiction workshop at the New School. I love teaching. It feels like doing something useful, and it’s rewarding watching young writers make breakthroughs, which they almost always do, big and small.
What do you think the benefit is of living and working in New York as compared to London when you were with Granta? What are some of the things you love most about New York City?
Granta is a British literary magazine, so it felt important to be in Britain for as much as the year as possible when I was editing it. When I worked there I actually spent more of the year in London, going in to the office every day, than in New York. At least six months of every year. My girlfriend lives in NYC, so there were some big sacrifices to that life. But it was unavoidable, I felt. All the staff but one were in London, and I think it’s not possible to make something collaborative and ongoing, like a journal, at a high level without being together. That was the major benefit of being in London — being around them, and I miss them today. They were the best people I’ve worked with in my career. There’s an idea that we don’t need to really be anywhere anymore. That you can simply dial in, and we can remotely make these imagined communities of workers necessary to creating things — like magazines, say — that are collaborative enterprises. I never found that to be the case. We need to see people to work with them, and not just on skype. And more important, in anything creative, we are where our senses are, and London is markedly different place than New York. The light is different, the smells, the way people speak, the colors, the postures, the sacred pieties, the people who are moving there. I missed New York when I was there, of course — its energy and noise. But there was a benefit to that state of constant homesickness. It meant everything was constantly alien, and outlined by its alienness, its over-there-ness. I realized in moving back and forth a lot that New Yorkers are friendly but not polite, where as Londoners are polite but not friendly.
What are you reading right now?
Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, Boy, Snow, Girl, which is a great rewriting of Alice in Wonderland.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
So many I can name but a few — Haruki Murakami, Edward St. Aubyn, Aminatta Forna, Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Naguib Mahfouz, Ralph Ellison, Kamila Shamsie, Peter Carey, Aleksandar Hemon, Rabih Alameddine, Dinaw Mengestu, Lorrie Moore, Balzac, Anne Carson, Jack Gilbert, Louise Gluck….I could go on forever