Ian Jack took over the editorship of Granta from Bill Buford in 1995 with issue 51 ‘Big Men (and LA women)’ and left in 2007, with ‘The Deep End’.
‘I wish I could say exactly why I am leaving’, he wrote in his last introduction. I didn’t know either and wished he would stay, but he felt he had done enough: twelve years and 48 issues. Bill Buford, he pointed out, had done 16 years and 50 issues, but then he had had other things on his mind (raising funds), which Ian was spared.
Ian’s tastes – and Bill’s – shaped my own. Granta was the single most important influence on my reading and writing as a young adult. I liked its staunch, if quiet, opposition to art for art’s sake, and excessive complexity or artificial simplicity. Granta’s play with experimentation lay in mixing genres, and particularly in the notion that travel writing and memoir can look and feel like fiction. Bill, in his last introduction, quoted Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon, on his hope to have published pieces that endure, still recognised as original and alive many years later. ‘A modest vocation, and yet it is everything’, Bill wrote.
Ian – a newspaper journalist and editor – carried on what had become the Granta vocation, or voice, or tradition – a history of privileging story over literary art and truth over story. Looking outwards, not inwards. A particular mix of global writing in English (America meeting the Commonwealth) with some pieces in translation, too.
But twelve years is a long time. ‘You can do a thing too long – inflict your taste and judgement too often in the process of commissioning, selecting, rejecting and editing’, he wrote in his last introduction. ‘You begin to worry that you are missing things. Granta is, after all, “the magazine of new writing” and as such needs perpetual enthusiasm for what “new writing” may bring. All you can do – all I have done – is to obey my instincts for the original, the interesting and the true.’
The original, the interesting and the true: his benchmarks were Chekhov and Orwell, ‘alert to, and inquisitive of the world they lived in.’ That was the point, for Ian – not the hybrid form, not literary value for its own sake, but sending writers out to report on interesting things happening in the real world.
In real life, our intimate world taking place somewhere beyond the ‘real world’, Ian had a knack for conversation and cosy gossip. He was genuinely interested in people, and his stories were funny and unexpected. We shared a deep distrust of excessive bureaucracy. Sitting on a train from Paris he described in detail – and even showed me on his phone – the form he had been asked to fill in for a literary event which included an undertaking not to cause offence to any other guest or member of the audience. That notion struck us both as funny – but Ian didn’t really take a strong stance in the culture wars. He was more interested in the enduring shapes of the Victorian and Edwardian industrial landscapes, in chimneystacks and slag heaps, in trains and ferries and canals. The world around Glasgow and the world of the Clyde. And, of course, India.
Rea Hederman, publisher of the New York Review of Books and Granta’s former publisher, wrote to me yesterday about his shock and sadness. A ‘devastating loss, not only to those of us who loved him’, he wrote, and went on to describe his own train journey with Ian from New York to Rhode Island. ‘He marvelled at everything during the journey – so typical of Ian. Curious about everything.’
I echo his words. Ian was a gifted journalist and editor of immense common sense, and an insatiable curiosity about the world around him. We will miss him.