Around the World With Granta
John Freeman is an award-winning writer and book critic who has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. Freeman won the 2007 James Patterson PageTurner Award. His first book, The Tyranny of E-Mail, was published in 2009. He is the editor-in-chief of Granta and lives in New York City.
Interview by Rachel Worrall
I’m sitting in a hammock on my deck. Where are you?
In a disused pub in Holland Park, looking out towards Westfield Mall.
What’s your current bedside table reading?
The stack has been there for a while because I don’t live here full time so... Saul Bellow’s Letters, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People and John Casey’s Compass Rose and Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged Everything Burned. I also just bought The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I started to read it but just couldn’t stay focused…
Who is your favorite contemporary poet?
That’s really hard. I go through phases. Selima Hill is a poet I discovered recently in an anthology that Don Paterson put together. She’s a British poet and has a new book coming out in about a year or so, all about her mother - she reads like Sylvia Plath but the sense of self is more sophisticated. Not sure she’s my favorite poet but she’s the one who’s on my brain.
The winner of the Orange Prize was announced last week. What you think about women’s-only writing prizes?
I think we still need them unfortunately. We need to compensate for the fact that the critical world and the publishing world are tilted towards men.
What’s your favorite issue of Granta?
From the whole history? I don’t know. There are issues I like a lot - ‘Dirty Realism’ because it identified a certain vein of story-telling that at the time was not current in England. I loved the ‘Pakistan’ issue that we put together - such a range of writers. And ‘Chicago’ because it was the first edition I worked on from start to finish. ‘Unbelievable’ was particularly good from a writing point of view.
Granta is the self-stated magazine of new writing. What does ‘new writing’ mean?
We’re different than say The New Yorker, Harper’s - not that they repeat themselves but they have certain categories. We want people who push the boundaries of form and have a new sound to their voice. Sometimes it’s slush pile stuff, sometimes it’s well-known writers, other times it’s writing on a subject that has not been voiced before. Sometimes all three are combined into one writer, which can be quite thrilling when you stumble upon it. The most important thing is that it’s the most exciting writing that’s out there. We’re not interested in false narratives about evolution of form as if we’re on some kind of linear trajectory from social realism through modernism. It is absolutely about narrative for us. If only a tiny percent of the world can fathom what you’re saying then what exactly are you doing?
Granta is quite the umbrella enterprise these days. What would you say is your number one goal?
To find the world’s best writing and to publish it well. To find writing that feels urgent and needs to be published, we’re not about having art for art’s sake. Which isn’t to say that writing should not be artful but we do live in a chaotic and interesting world and one of the biggest things in Granta’s history is bearing witness to that in narrative form.
What genres do you not publish in the magazine? In Granta Books?
Genre is a handy book selling form - a lot of genres are blending together. Our fall issue is ‘Ten Years Later’ and our next edition is ‘Horror’. We don’t publish romance but how would you define a romance?
I don’t really work on the books; the deputy editor does. They’re very strong on fiction, British history, travel writing. How much overlap exists between the two depends on the editors - there have been overlaps in the past. Sara Holloway is the editor-in chief of Granta Books.
How do you find your writers and poets? Do you get much general submission?
We’re starting to get more poetry since we started publishing poetry again in Issue 100. Sometimes it’s simply people we read and like, some poems just come in. As for the fiction and narrative non-fiction, it’s a mixture - some people I write to and ask for work, some people I find in the slush pile, sometimes agents send work to us. Sometimes I hear about people through their professors.
You say on your 'about' page, via the Observer that you publish photo essays. Do you have any advice for photojournalists wishing to get published in Granta?
Just to write to Michael Salu, our art editor. He also goes to gallery openings and has his finger very acutely on the pulse of what’s happening. He’s trying to look for a new kind of documentary photography - a mixture of art and documentation rather than just another pretty picture.
What about artists? How do you choose your covers and illustrations? How do those get selected?
Goes entirely through Michael - he does the cover typically himself, except for the ‘Pakistan’ cover which we had a truck artist do in Karachi whom Michael found through the British Council.
How do you choose your edition’s themes?
Sometimes there is a critical mass of new writing in one place, e.g. with ‘Pakistan’. Other times we buy the pieces we love and as we build up towards an issue common themes among these pieces become clear. Some we decide in advance and others seem to emerge from the submissions. I believe it’s good to do both; otherwise the magazine would become too much like an anthology.
Do you have a specific reading period?
No, we read all the time, even through our closings - I try to keep reading so I don’t miss anything.
How far in advance do you work?
Quite a ways - we have our themes for next year planned, all the way through the fall at least – but until it’s in the catalogue that goes out to publishers it’s a little fluid.
How many editors does Granta have?
There’s the publisher, myself, the deputy, the assistant editor and an assistant - about five.
You don’t have an editorial. Why is that?
I always feel as if the editorials tell you how to read the issue and I want to make the magazine open to different interpretations. I think we should get out of the way of the writers. ‘The Best of Young Spanish’ novelists had an editorial - but the Spanish editorial team wrote the introduction to that one. The next editorial I might possibly do is the introduction to ‘The Best of Young British Novelists in 2013.
What do you see your role as editor to be?
To have good taste - without that that you can’t start any kind of fire; to help the writers find the shape and voice of their pieces. (Some writers turn in their pieces fully formed, other writers need more back and forth which doesn’t mean they’re lesser writers, just that they like to work more collaboratively); to shout from the rooftops about them. We have to push the pieces constantly - get them out into the world and commented upon; help them become three-dimensional in a digital way.
An editor is a combination of good taste and good judgment - you do have a vision about a text that the author themselves can’t immediately see and often that requires tinkering with paragraphs or order. Done incorrectly it can lose the voice and that’s where judgment comes in -- you have to put on the worldview of that writer. Having good taste sounds elitist but I do think it’s important - good taste is not just aesthetics but a moral and philosophical view of what matters. These days we rely on each other and algorithms to tell us what we like. There is a point to expertise - some areas of expertise are greater than others. If you don’t believe in this you simply don’t believe in civilization.
What’s the process for selecting a piece for submission from the slush pile?
Either it’s good or it’s not. It is amazing to us that the slush pile pieces we end up putting in the magazine haven’t come in through an agent or any publishing apparatus at all. We have consistently found one writer per issue who’s new - there’s one in the issue we are finishing now who is practically unknown, has never published a story before. It’s so important for magazines because they can very easily become museums and it’s not the writers who helped create Granta who will keep it moving forward - it’s the new writers that we find. The process of selection itself is quite organic. The publisher reads a lot of the slush and she passes the things she likes to me and to the deputy and if we like them then we pass them to the other editors. Ultimately the decision lies with me.
How much do you work with a new writer?
Whether it’s a new or an older writer we try to edit and approach the pieces the same way. If required there’s a good amount of back and forth; if there’s something there then we work on it. Some people are incredible revisers and some people really don’t want to revise, but I don’t want anything in the issue that is just okay. There are no slots. There’s nothing that we feel we have to publish.
Granta famously has no commitment to produce ‘x’ amount of issues each year. How many issues on average do come out annually? How do you think this lack of commitment to its subscribers affects the magazine?
We say in our subscription letters that (for the last decades) there have been four issues a year. We did 5 last year because it was the 30th anniversary of the re-launch.
What’s the difference between what you publish as web only and what goes into the magazine?
That’s a good question because sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes it is to do with the form - very short pieces read better online. There’s a certain kind of syntax for online -- it’s a translation of the magazine into a digital form. We publish a lot more poetry online. Interviews go out online. Even if you’re a quarterly magazine I think readers expect to hear more from the magazine between issues these days. Given the traffic - we have more than a 100,000 people reading Granta every month - what we can publish on the web can’t be lesser in quality than what we put out in the magazine.
Do you pay your contributors to the magazine and website?
Yes, it’s not charity work; unless they really want to write for free and then we won’t argue. We’re fairly competitive with most journals that look like us. It’s comparable but not equal to The New Yorker.
Can you tell me a bit about Granta en español? Where it came from, where’s it’s going?
It started almost nine years ago when Valerie Miles who is the Spanish editor approached our publisher about setting up a Spanish Granta - now there’s a Brazilian one and an Italian one and we’re about to sign up Bulgaria. It’s about creating dialogues between the English language writing culture and the rest of the world. In some countries there’s space for a new literary magazine. Ideally in ten years I’d like to have ten of these going.
Has Granta changed over time?
It definitely has, in small ways and big ways. Fundamentally it hasn’t changed: we still care about first person point-of-view; refraction of history and personal life; need to witness the world. The contributors have changed. The website is new of course. Before the magazine was always imported out of England into the US and now we have over 100 events a year in the US. As Britain changes, the magazine also changes too.
Do you think you’re influenced by your location?
The transatlantic sound is different than a purely American sound. The quality of writing is different. There’s a vastness to storytelling in America that isn’t quite reflected here in England and certain issues of identity and longing are approached differently in America than in the UK. Americans to some degree believe, in spite of what the country’s demographics tell us, that immigration and becoming an American are by and large a good thing and I think the sense of dislocation is different. Someone once it explained it to me - you can live in London for thirty years and you’ll never be a Londoner but if you get an apartment in New York you’re a New Yorker. It’s akin to that.
Do you feel any guilt for starting the ‘Best of Young British/American/Spanish Novelists’ lists?
No, I think they’re a good thing. It’s good to highlight the work of writers in an age-bracket and try and get them out in the world. I don’t feel bad that other people have copied them either. The only one that’s really stuck is The New Yorker list.
How do you make the selections for your Best of lists?
The ‘Best in Spanish’ is the only one I’ve worked on so far. We put together a jury to decide on the requirements - such as the age limit, whether they’ve been published or not. Then we put the call out to agents and writing programs to make it clear if you qualify then you should submit - it’s just the way a prize comes down to a long list.
What would you most like people to know about Granta?
It’s hard to answer that question without sounding incredibly arrogant. I want it to be the best literary magazine in the world. I want it to be a journal that’s full of unexpected things, one that publishes people you already know you like next to exciting new writers. I also want it to combine the sense of real crusading worldliness with a ferocious attention to the use of language. And finally I guess I want people to think of it as a bulwark for certain forms – fiction, reporting, memoir, travel. I think a lot of the categories in which the magazine is strong have been slightly neutered by the advent of late capitalism - so much travel writing in glossy magazines. So much memoir that doesn’t manage to do that trick of reaching the universal through the needle-thread of an intensely singular story. It’s very easy to go to a newsstand and find that the world is very small whereas if you look at the world of a story from an individual’s point of view, it’s not that small.
How did you become an editor at Granta?
I was a book critic for ten years and I wrote a piece about the Best Young American Novelists issue in 2007. Granta was looking for an editor then. The publishers met me at the party for that issue and I interviewed but didn’t get the job. About a year later though they called me because they felt like they needed a greater reach into the American world. And so I became the American editor. Then the publisher wanted to make a change and I became acting editor. After issue 108 they seemed satisfied with my performance and I became editor.
Of what are you, personally, most proud at Granta?
The people who work here - I really love the people I work with and what they can do in their dedication to making a story as good as it can be. I have an incredible deputy who is one of the best editors I’ve ever seen. The art director has made some really beautiful covers. The assistant editor just has a knack for how stories need to be shaped and when they fall apart. Our assistant, who’s a terrific writer in her own right, is probably the sternest judge of quality I’ve come across in a long time. I love working together over the writers that we find. One other thing I feel really happy about is the ability to bring out new writers - there’s such a juggernaut in publishing about what’s good and what you should read. In some ways a really good literary journal should counter that - should draw you outside the juggernaut into more interesting fields.
Do you still do your own writing?
Yeah. I haven’t written very much though since I started this job. I used to write for a living [as a book critic] but I don’t anymore, maybe the occasional book review once or twice a month. This is sort of all consuming in a nice way. I think the kind of book I’m going to write next has been changed by working here.
Do you feel Granta has overcome any instability or lack of direction it may have suffered from since the departure of Ian Jack in 2007?
There’s a couple of answers to this. When Ian left, the magazine was also bought by a new publisher and this also coincided with the very rapid and radical rise of the internet and how people consume information. The magazine also needed a change at that point and I think it has now become something much more current and modern. The danger for any magazine is that it becomes an institution and institutions are easily ignored. In the beginning Granta was a little less afraid of being controversial with being global - under Ian Jack the magazine became very British while also looking, in a British way, I suppose, at the former empire, and that has its strengths. My feeling is that the magazine at its core is Anglo-American with its eyes turned out to the world. You see that in the early issues that Bill Buford put together. I wanted not a radical shift but a return to that core.
What differences do you see between the US and UK fiction and non fiction markets?
It’s very hard to generalize. You could say all the great American writers are in some way regional – it is something Americans do incredibly well. Twain, O’Connor, Roth, Faulkner, Welty, Updike at his best. But that cuts out fabulists like Vonnegut, Diaz, and Octavia Butler. The great crazy madmen and women like George Saunders, Barthelme, Pynchon and others. On the same hand there are many great writers who come from and write about a place in the UK: Colm Toibin. Ross Raisin, Sarah Hall. And then many globalists like Nadeem Aslam, Rana Dasgupta, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Aminatta Forna.
How are the publishing markets different? America is much bigger and diffuse, while England can feel quite small and the idea of a national conversation about a book – as is sort of happening now with say Alan Hollinghurst – feels a little less ridiculous.
I think the most important difference is in themes - the overarching imperial theme of the American dream definitely makes its presence felt. American writers tend to write about what it means to be an American whereas UK writers don’t write very often, in a self-conscious way, about being British. When I was a book critic I went through a period of interviewing a lot of English writers and when you look at that generation – McEwan, Barnes, Ishiguro, Rushdie, etc -- they’ve become these writerly stuffed heads - but they’re still all very different writers. They’re all far stranger than their centrality to the literary culture in London belies. The literary culture would like them to speak for England but the best thing they do is invent an alternative reality that is different from that which we experience in London.
Why do you think it is that the British don’t read short stories in the way Americans do?
One of the reasons is that it’s actually market-driven. In the early twentieth century the US had a lot of magazines that paid good rates for short stories. The UK had the same in the 19th Century with serialized novels. So the short story and the serialized novel became, respectively, an assumed part of entertainment; they became part of what you turned to for information, amusement and pleasure. That never happened with short stories in England.
The US still has many, many magazines and literary journals and that creates its own ecology - in England you have a very limited number of magazines. So narrative nonfiction has lots of different homes in America whereas England has more of a newspaper culture. One thing I loved when I came here is that you can open up the Sunday paper and see pages of literary criticism by Zadie Smith or Martin Amis, who is a great critic. There’s something quite exciting about it all being in the papers but the downside is that newspaper magazines are not publishing great long investigative reporting pieces. Plus there’s a huge network of writing programs in the US. Biographers in the UK are incredible. But the narrative non-fiction scene in the UK seems to occur in spite of itself.
In recent years Granta seems to have been replaced on US MFA campuses by other literary magazines such as Ploughshares and Tin House. Does Granta feel any pressure in terms of declining sales/falling market share?
I don’t worry about falling market share because the market as it stands for writing programs is very small -- the students are much more interested in being in journals than in reading them. I did think a gap developed for a while because Granta became more British. When I started this job I visited over 100 writing program campuses – to get them to submit, and also to subscribe -- and the biggest thing I noticed on campus was the prevalence of The Believer, Tin House, McSweeneys. The trip was more about submissions though. The creative writing market, if you can call it such, has never really been a big part of Granta’s world. I like the fact that it’s not just writing students who read us – it means we’re out in the world.
If there has been any decline, how do you intend to address it?
I’m pretty sure that there hasn’t been a huge decline in market share but that the market itself has declined. There were times in Granta’s hey-day when its circulation was 100,000 – I’ve seen the print-run orders -- now it’s more around 50,000. I think we can turn that round but we’ve got a ways to go. All literary journals are struggling.
The way we deal with it is to have events, have great covers, have a website with new things up every day, have a Twitter feed, but most of all, great writing. Part of this is the break-down of traditional publishing. The whole arterial system through which enthusiasm pumped has changed and no one knows now how to operate it, how to make the blood flow.
In England everyone goes to festivals now -- there’s this sort of Book Festival circuit. But if you go to these things as a journal you could lose your shirt in just the fees to rent a table and get your authors up there. So we have to invent and improvise, which is a nice place to be because it keeps things interesting. We’re trying to continue as if the most important thing in the world is the writing but publish as if we can’t take that for granted.
Do you see an age when Granta will become a wholly online magazine?
I don’t think so. I think there will be a point when the print readers and online readers approach each other in numbers but I think there will always be a certain group of people who want to read something in print. And there’s something beautiful about creating an object.
What’s the relationship between Granta and Portobello Books?
Oh they’re like sister companies - like the difference Pantheon and Knopf.
You quote the Observer on your about page saying you publish ‘contemporary realist fiction’. As you’ve published Salman Rushdie, I assume that also includes contemporary magical realism. Who do you think best epitomizes that phrase ‘contemporary realist fiction?’
I’m not sure why that’s on our website as we’ve published Angela Carter and David Mitchell who are very wide-ranging in terms of the genres on which they draw. The definition of reality is so elastic it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that means. To paraphrase Junot Díaz... if you described the practice of slavery to an alien who had just landed from Mars they would think it surreal, yet to us it was a reality.
The problem with mystical realism is when it becomes a tic. I think every storytelling method has to justify itself otherwise you end up with sloppy writing. And mystical realism can be used as shorthand for marking difference and otherness and that’s when it becomes culturally problematic.
Whom do you wish you’d discovered?
Haruki Murakami - he’s really fantastic. I wish we’d published Téa Obreht first.
What influence - for good or bad - do you see MFAs exerting in today’s literary world?
The good thing is that it forces students to produce work. The bad thing is that it may give them the belief that they will be able to work and publish afterwards and make a living. I think programs should focus as much on reading as they do on writing. There are more and more people who want to write and fewer and fewer who want to read. All writers should be constantly reading.
What’s your favorite part of the magazine?
Right now…the last week of putting together an issue. It’s exciting because we know who’s going to be in an issue - the pieces are in proofs and you’ve seen them evolve the whole time and the whole thing is coming together and it’s fun because all of us are here until late at night and it is close to becoming an actual thing that’s out there. When it’s out there and the horse race is on, that’s another exciting period.
If you had to change any one thing about the magazine what would it be?
I wish it could be cheaper. I wish more people could read it. I sometimes think if it were slightly cheaper it would help - I do think that there are some readers out there who don’t know we exist. That’s the part I want to change.
Rachel Worrall is a writer and model from the UK. She is crazy about reading and equally crazy about writing. She is currently working on her second novel 'Amen'.