In 1979, when Bill Buford introduced his first issue of Granta, a penetrating, bravura survey of American fiction, he proclaimed his efforts to be ‘a kind of energetic failure’. Thirty years later, I know what he means. Gathering together a magazine of new writing requires a certain amount of energy, although of an almost entirely pleasurable kind; sifting through short stories and novels-in-progress to provide an entertaining and illuminating sample of today’s literary landscape is hardly work, by most people’s standards. The prospect of failure is a different matter. But failure to do what?
That first issue of 1979 – a blend of fiction, interview material and critical writing – set out its stall clearly enough; to challenge the cultural hegemony and shortcomings of the contemporary British novel (‘characterized by a succession of efforts the accomplishments of which are insistently, critically, and aesthetically negligible’) by introducing the magazine’s readership to writers from the United States who had, by and large, not yet garnered widespread attention. Buford’s tone was insistent, polemical, occasionally table-thumping; his line of argument at times academic, at times more impressionistic. His rather laudable demand – request, or suggestion, is too mild a word – was for British writing to notice the conversation that was going on in America, and to join in. Subsequent issues of Granta, most notably ‘The End of the English Novel’ (Granta 3), ‘Dirty Realism’ (Granta 8) and the once-a-decade ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ and ‘Best of Young American Novelists’ have attempted to encourage and to extend the dialogue by providing snapshots of particular moments and by isolating emergent trends and movements.
This particular conversation has, of course, developed, not least because our literary discourse now encompasses far more readily writing that originates beyond the twin poles of America and Britain. But it might also be the case that the grand statement about literature, its provenance, its direction, its nature and its aim, has begun to seem anachronistic. Have we given up the idea of defining and characterizing contemporary literature because it has itself given up on the idea of a fictional project?
The counter to this argument is that the New American Writers, the Dirty Realists and so on, probably didn’t see themselves as part of a group, and that writers – usually solitary, contemplative, dedicated to the expression of an individual sensibility – rarely do. Its reinforcement is that all writers work in a historical context, and their work will inevitably be inflected to a greater or lesser degree by the social, political and cultural climate of the time as well as by their personal circumstances or inclinations.
But labelling and categorizing have their perils as well as their undoubted uses. In the interview that Jhumpa Lahiri conducted with the great short-story writer Mavis Gallant for this issue, a portrait emerges of an artist determined to pursue her vocation at all costs, for whom the first step was to move continents and embark on a lifetime of what could be described as self-imposed exile. Her work subsequently draws heavily on the experience of emigration, isolation and cultural dislocation and disconnection; and on the specifics of French life and society following the Second World War. Gallant’s fiction, and the perspective she provides on it here, bubble with glimpses into the period (the hostility of the English, for example, the first taste of French butter, the portrayal of Parisian cafe society as a flight from freezing apartments), with intriguing nods towards the shifting tectonic plates that form a writer. A question, however, remains: what would Gallant have written had she never moved from Montreal to Paris?
It is unanswerable, of course, although one feels that the attentive intelligence and commitment to language that characterize her stories mean that a different setting would have produced different work, but not necessarily an unrecognizably different writer, or no writer at all. But what the encounter between Gallant and Lahiri reveals is the extent to which a writer must first establish their own corner of ground from which to speak.
The stories we’ve chosen for this issue do not define an era nor encapsulate a literary movement. We have included work by several established writers – Paul Auster, Helen Simpson, Amy Bloom, Ha Jin and Nicola Barker – but we also alighted on writing by those who will likely be less familiar to our readers, for example the New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, whose eerie story ‘Two Tides’ opens the issue, and William Pierce, who brings us a tale of mutual cultural incomprehension in the workplace in ‘American Subsidiary’. We also feature a short graphic piece by Chris Ware, and an extract from a forthcoming novel by Adam Thirlwell, one of the last crop of Best of Young British Novelists. Beyond a certain kind of antic humour in evidence in several of the pieces, I would be hard pushed to identify a connecting thread, but that itself does not seem to constitute failure. It may turn out that fiction succeeds best when it represents nothing but itself.