Thursday, January 03, 2008

Reinventing the literary journal

In truth, the first issue wasn't bad, with pieces from Joyce Carol Oates and Susan Sontag, and a superb foretaste of The Tunnel by William Gass. 'It was my way of discovering all these writers I hadn't read yet,' Buford says (he is American, and his first editorial wasted no time in dismissing all British writers in favour of his compatriots). 'I wrote to them all, basically promising them a whole issue of the magazine. My assumption was that no one would reply, and if anyone did I'd do anything, because we had nothing.'

Buford sounds calm and thoughtful, not at all the lunatic some writers had told me about. But the lunacy lay in the future. In the first weeks in which the two editors scrambled for material, others took to the streets in search of advertising. They got some: Woolworths, the Coffee Mill, Sweeney Todds restaurant, Laker Skytrain, Transalpino. One advert, from the Arts Cinema, listed film times: Picnic at Hanging Rock was playing on Sunday at 3pm.

The first issue had 208 pages, which was some improvement on the 32-page mimeographed journal that had previously been published sporadically and erratically by the University Society, and sold, in Buford's memory, 'to tourists by people wearing sandals'. Before its reinvention, Granta would often move as lazily as the river, but its 90-year history had been enriched by the thrusting young: Arthur Conan Doyle and AA Milne contributed, and in later years were joined by Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Michael Frayn and Stevie Smith. But the new Granta would not settle for juvenilia and the work of students; it wanted the best new writing in the English-speaking world.

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