On Granta

(The Nation, June 15, 2011)

In a valediction written in 2007, Ian Jack, the outgoing editor of Granta, suggested that the ballyhoo that greeted the magazine’s occasional “Best Young Novelists” issues had effectively upstaged its nonfiction. “The media loves judgments and lists,” Jack grumbled. Not long after, in an interview with the Observer, he discussed the challenges of commissioning long-form nonfiction: “The style should be like a book, and reasonably timeless, but it’s hard to find people who can do that at 10,000 words.”

Jack, who had edited Granta since 1995, and his predecessor, Bill Buford, who had revived the magazine in 1979, met the challenge with verve. Old issues are thick with nonfiction gems—not just celebrated treatises like James Fenton’s eyewitness account of the fall of Saigon but lesser-known pieces of memoir, travel writing and reportage noteworthy for the care taken with words. There’s Stanley Booth on the Rolling Stones; Martha Gellhorn on the US invasion of Panama; Ian Parker on London’s traffic; Diana Athill on her editorial relationship with the cantankerous “Vidia” Naipaul; and Amit Chaudhuri on a Gujarati tailor who, after surviving an anti-Muslim pogrom, was granted asylum in communist-run Calcutta. The list goes on.

Granta’s fate looked uncertain in 2005, when its owner, Rea Hederman, sold it to the philanthropist Sigrid Rausing. Turbulence ensued: the estimable Jack exited with a cryptic remark—“I wish I could say exactly why I am leaving”—and was followed by two editors who left in quick succession. Then, in 2009, John Freeman, who had been Granta’s American editor, ascended to the top job. Freeman had recently published a lackluster manifesto about literary magazines in the Independent, and as an editor he was unseasoned, so one thought it best to hold the applause.

Two years on, there is nothing lackluster about the Granta edited by Freeman and his deputy, Ellah Allfrey; one of our essential literary quarterlies is in robust health. Fiction has always been an essential ingredient of Granta, and in that realm the editors have for the most part exhibited sound judgment. Recent issues have featured stories by luminaries (Kenzaburo Oe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) as well as relative newcomers (Leila Aboulela and Julie Otsuka), and all these selections are appealingly fresh and entirely worthy of a publication that bills itself as “The Magazine of New Writing.” But some baffling choices have crept in: for example, Nadeem Aslam’s story “Leila in the Wilderness,” the lead piece in Issue 112, is a lemon.

In its edginess and originality, Granta’s nonfiction continues to inspire. Three recent pieces are indicative of the magazine’s determination to cover the world in a way that transcends an Anglo-American perspective. In Issue 107, Rana Dasgupta offers a bleak and riveting portrait of New Delhi in an era of exploding capitalism and “frenzied accumulation.” Dasgupta shows Delhi through the eyes of three people: a cigar-chomping psychotherapist who views the place as “a city of traumas”; a young, filthy-rich businessman who boasts that he has leased, for seventy-five years, 700,000 acres of land in Ethiopia for his commercial use; and a disenchanted left-wing muckraker who observes that “no one is interested in what’s really going on. We don’t even have a vocabulary to talk about it.”

In Granta 109, Daniel Alarcón investigates the subterranean universe of literary piracy in Lima, a city where new books are quickly smothered by unauthorized editions, sometimes even before their publication. The culprits are pirates who stash “overworked, antique presses” in “nondescript houses in slums all over the city,” and hard-bitten vendors who sell their wares in sprawling outdoor markets and on smog-choked street corners. Written in a gritty style reminiscent of early Vargas Llosa, and streaked with love and vexation for a city Alarcón knows intimately, the essay has a rich narrative conceit: Alarcón decides to hunt for his own books in the bazaars. The results are droll and unsurprising.

Perhaps no recent piece of Granta nonfiction is more affecting than Mark Gevisser’s “Edenvale,” from Issue 114, the story of two elderly black men, “Phil” and “Edgar,” and the clandestine gay life they led in Johannesburg for more than half a century. Gevisser explores the dark crevices of apartheid and emerges with a tender and unsentimental account of gay urban history. A friend of Phil and Edgar’s, an older white man named Roger, describes the interracial parties he hosted in his bungalow on the northern edge of the city, where he endeavored to create a “welcoming atmosphere, a place where our black friends could meet us and each other safely and feel secure in the white part of town, particularly if it was after curfew.” Roger enforced certain “rules”: “The bath was always full…so that you could wash off someone else’s bodily fluids if there was a raid.” A remark of Phil’s rang in my ears long after I had read Gevisser’s final sentence: “To be black and gay, uh, uh, uh! It was double trouble.”

For many years Granta has produced themed issues—“India,” “News,” “London” and “Shrinks,” to name a few. Freeman and Allfrey have sustained the tradition with a clutch of well-executed issues: “Chicago,” “Work,” “Pakistan” and, just published, “The F Word,” on feminism. Despite its hazy theme, the issue “Going Back” is lively. There is a poem by Adrienne Rich; letters from Iris Murdoch to Raymond Queneau; Richard Russo’s memoir of his decaying hometown, Gloversville, New York (which in its heyday produced 90 percent of the dress gloves made in the United States); and, not to be missed, a jeremiad on digital culture by Hal Crowther, whose barbs might have impressed Twain and Mencken, and whose painstaking attention to writing befits the magazine that published it.