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Granta, John Freeman

 

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.

 

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 a