Three months ago, I did a thing that, for a long time, I had regarded as inconceivable: I resigned from Granta. Even now, the logic implicit in that ordinary, adult statement – I, an employee of a publishing company, resigned from my position in it – seems to me inadmissible, if only because I find it impossible to think of Granta as a place of work. No one edits a literary magazine because it’s a good job. And, as a rule, no one leaves. The editor stays with the ship until – well, until it goes down (which, finally, it always seems to do).
Why edit a literary magazine in the first place? The question was one of the first ones put to me by our first accountant, who – our dark balance sheet spread across the table of the pub – patiently explained why businesses exist: ‘So that,’ he said, ‘the people who own them can make money from them. This clearly is not the reason you started Granta. Why, then, do you believe Granta is a business? Do you have any idea?’
I had none. But does any editor? The wall of my sitting room at home is taken up almost exclusively with literary magazines. And while I have only skimmed through most, they are, all of them, a reassuring sight. My wall represents ten years in the life of John Lehmann (when he made Penguin’s New Writing), Cyril Connolly (Horizon), Ted Solotaroff (New American Review), Charles Newman (TriQuarterly) and Ben Sonnenberg’s noble Grand Street (a neat decade being the conventional life, it would seem, of the successful literary magazine); as well as three years when Saul Bellow wasn’t writing a novel (The Noble Savage), the fifteen years when T.S. Eliot wasn’t writing a poem (the Criterion), the twenty-five years when Daniel Halpern wasn’t writing enough (Antaeus) and the eighteen months when Craig Raine was not writing anything at all (Quarto); and, as profound, the months of anguish suffered silently by the other editors whose labours were not allowed to endure past the first, crushing consequences of the first printer’s invoice. For me, the comfort in this sight is in knowing that we all know what we’ve been through. Only the editors of literary magazines understand that it’s a preposterous thing to edit a literary magazine. They know the labour that goes into making one – I still don’t know why it should be so much work; what can be so difficult? My wall represents late nights and spilt ashtrays and bottles of drink that shouldn’t have been drunk, not then and not in such quantity; and other editors know how much time is spent on everything except editing: on worrying about money, usually, and invariably on the subject of its insistent absence. And they also appreciate the exquisite, even philosophical arbitrariness with which a magazine comes into existence: the transition from nothing, that terrifying condition of no pages, to something, a physical object that exists in the world, in a bookshop, in a parcel delivered by the Royal Mail, in someone’s hands on the Underground on the way to work, on a shelf in my sitting room.
But, in anticipation of the business at hand, filling up the empty pages of this fiftieth issue of Granta, my last, I’ve also been reading through the final issues of my collection – the goodbye editorials – and find that most don’t match my experience now. In a crucial respect, of course, this is simply because Granta is different: it has been publishing not for ten years, or three years, or eighteen months, or two weeks, but for nearly sixteen years; and, more importantly, this issue is not the last one; Granta will continue; and anything I write is not therefore a requiem – the gardens of the West are not closing – but a leave-taking. But I also feel that the inevitable defensiveness that characterizes most of these final editorials – chronicles of what has been achieved, or apologies, or expressions of exhaustion, or twitchy, nervous laments arising out of being unable to pay the salaries – misses something essential.
I can’t think of Granta as employment, as a job that I’m leaving, because Granta has been my life, my ‘me’, a thing inseparable from what I am: the normal boundaries between labour (what you do during weekdays so that something regularly enters your bank account) and self (what you are during the rest of the time) don’t exist. And for some time I thought this confusion arose out of my particular circumstances. I became involved in Granta when I was twenty-four, a student, an American who had been in Britain all of fourteen months. I became an adult in the magazine I created, and formed the most important relationships in my life – and with my newly adopted country – through the work that I then did. It was inevitable – was it not? – that I should become confused with the magazine I made, if only because the magazine had done so much in making me. But this week I came to realize that I am not exceptional.
This week, I returned to Granta’s original offices. Granta now occupies an elegant building in north London, with space and windows and plenty of light. It has heating. But for ten years, Granta was published out of an attic above a Cambridge hairdresser’s – the powerful smells of shampoos and peroxides and all kinds of pastel-coloured goos still permeate the original space, still empty and unrented since Granta moved from it five years ago. The space has no heating – it was where I learned how to type wearing gloves – and one small window that opens only by removing the frame, which became essential during English summers, however brief. There was no insulation in the roof – during windy periods dust cascaded from it, covering everything, manuscripts, your telephone, your hair, with a fine layer of dark grit – and, thus, when it was hot, it became very hot: oven hot, insufferably hot, impossible-to-work-in hot. And yet we worked there. Me alone for a time. Then me and an assistant, part-time. And then three people, five, six, eventually as many as twelve, putting in impossible hours under impossible conditions, regularly staying up until dawn to finish an issue. Why?
Because it was fun. And it was fun because it was a privilege.
There was a time when I felt there could be nothing more alienating or dispiriting than editing a literary magazine. I was a student in the United States, bewildered by the more than five hundred American literary magazines produced mainly by universities and English faculties, printed in small, heavily subsidized print runs and read by very few people. Why put such effort into something with so few consequences? But the converse is also true: what could be more satisfying than a literary magazine that was read?
Cyril Connolly, in his last editorial, described the vocation of Horizon as feeling ‘its way to what is, in the best sense of the word, contemporary’, and endeavouring to ‘print what many years hence will be recognized as alive and original’. A modest vocation, and yet it is everything. To be in the position of making a magazine that, having felt its way to representing the contemporary, prints the most alive and original writing of the culture and finds readers for it, not just in this country but all over the world – the world’s smartest and most literate strangers; to know that you are publishing what is probably the most widely read literary magazine in the world: to be in such a position is unique; it is a monumental privilege. It is not a job; it is never simply work; and it has never simply been me.
Granta exists because it has had the fortune of enjoying fifteen years of people who, like me, have been so confused that, at one time or another, they have been unable to separate themselves from the work they do: people for whom making a magazine of the best writing in the English language was an endeavour as serious as any endeavour could possibly be.
This issue is dedicated to all the people who have worked at Granta with me. For most, working at Granta was a first job, and it is gratifying to know that many have gone on to be writers or journalists or publishers: that the experience, I would like to think, has somehow never left them. Many were at Granta for years. I can’t think of one who wasn’t essential to what the magazine has become.
‘Editorial’, by Bill Buford. © Bill Buford, 1995.
Photographs © Don McCullin