These days, we expect news to travel nearly as fast as it happens. But if, as Ezra Pound said, “literature is news that stays news,” where does the old-fashioned literary quarterly fit in with our fast-paced world, where even literature is expected to keep up (think of online publications like DailyLit and PoetryDaily, which deliver a new immortal text each day)?
One answer can be found in the pages—both Web and print—of the U.K.-based international quarterly Granta, with its first female editor, Alex Clark, at the helm. Clark established herself as a high-profile presence in the U.K. book world through years of work as a cultural reporter, columnist and editor for the book and culture pages of U.K. newspapers, including, most recently, the Observer. She was also a judge for the 2008 Booker Prize.
Clark began her association with Granta when she was on the panel of judges for the 2003 “Best of Young British Novelists” issue. She was appointed editor in May 2007, succeeding Jason Cowley (who now edits the New Statesman), and has since been expanding the reach of the magazine. Granta was founded in 1889 as a student magazine at Cambridge University and remained thay way until the 1970s, when lack of funding and interest threatened to halt publication for good. In fact, this was the opportunity for an important rebirth: Bill Buford resurrected the magazine, turning it into a literary review for a general audience. Granta has become one of the most well-known quarterlies in the world, publishing not only an English-language edition in the U.K. and the U.S., but also translated versions in Spain and Brazil, with one in the works for Italy. Currently published by philanthropist Sigrid Rausing, Granta has a circulation of 50,000 copies worldwide.
Clark recently revamped the magazine's Web site, through which she is bringing together the traditional functions of a literary quarterly and an up-to-the-minute news publication. For Clark, a contemporary literary journal needs to be able to keep abreast of the changing world, and also provide something a news publication can't: “As a quarterly, our ability to react is not the same as a newspaper. We don't sit here and want people to write snappy pieces, but it's important that we are here, and in a way I think that's why Granta specializes in taking a sort of a longer view.” But a constantly updated Web site allows Clark to train her literary editor's eye on current events: “We have been working on our Web site, and we're adding to that all the time,” she said. “We published a suite of pieces around the time of the American election. They're not things that we would necessarily publish in the magazine, because they are so much more immediate and topical, but I'm pleased that we can do that now.”
Clark also hired former NBCC president John Freeman as Granta's American editor, making Granta the very rare literary magazine with highly active bureaus in both the U.S. and the U.K. Freeman is responsible for organizing Granta events in the U.S., finding American writers and generally strengthening the magazine's presence here.
For an author, publication in Granta assures powerful publishing industry buzz and can be career-making. Granta's first “Best of Young American Novelists” issue, published in 1996, featured then-rising stars Sherman Alexie, Edwidge Danticat, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore, all of whom are now among America's top writers. The 2007 edition included Jonathan Safran Foer, Yiyun Li, Karen Russell and Gary Shteyngart. “The lifeblood of the magazine is finding new writers and catching them before they are particularly well-known.” Clark said. “As it happens, I think we also fulfill a side function of alerting publishers to writers' work.”
At Granta, Clark is in the unique position of be able to put literature in front of an international audience, which, especially since the rise of the Internet, has become deeply interested in and knowledgeable about world events. Clark is helping Granta take the next step. “It's been a very important part of Granta's history to publish writing from all around the world,” she said. “We need to continue to do that, and obviously that's a real challenge. You don't just want to be finding those writers by listening to what agents tell you.”