O Ye Laurels

The Best of Young American Novelists'Granta 54,' Summer 1996

edited by Ian Jack
320 pp., $11.95

First, a little cultural archaeology, for the story behind this publication is almost as interesting as its contents.

It begins in England in the late 1970s, when a young American expat called Bill Buford purchased the title of a languishing Cambridge University magazine, Granta, and relaunched it as a literary periodical of extramural ambition and scope.* Buford was a man with a mission. He thought British fiction was moribund—“critically and aesthetically negligible”—and he aimed to revivify it by introducing the Brits to the work of their American contemporaries, “some of the most challenging, diversified, and adventurous writing today,…a literary renaissance.” These quotations are taken from Buford’s feisty introduction to his first issue, Spring 1979. In it, and the next one, he published the work of, among others, John Hawkes, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, James Purdy, Ronald Sukenick, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, Leonard Michaels, William Gass, Walter Abish, and Robert Coover.

As it happened, British fiction, invigorated partly by new immigrant cultural influences, was on the threshold of a renaissance of its own, and Buford was quick to recognize and encourage the new wave. In his third issue he showcased a long extract from the forthcoming second novel of a writer whose first attempt had sunk without trace—Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Beside it he printed a piece by Angela Carter, who, though better known than Rushdie, was a long way from being what she is (posthumously, alas) now, the modern author most widely studied in British universities and colleges. Granta became the place to look for up-and-coming literary talent. It prospered, and deserved to. It grew thicker and glossier, resembling a paperback book rather than a magazine, with themed issues, and in due course was taken under Penguin’s prestigious wing for distribution purposes.

There were two other developments in publishing in the early 1980s with which the fortunes of Granta became entwined. The Booker Prize, which had been trundling along for a decade without making much impact on the reading public, suddenly became the focus of intense media interest, and a powerful engine for generating book sales. Before 1980 the shortlist was announced, and the winner secretly chosen, at the same time. Under new rules, the meeting to decide the winner was held some weeks after the shortlist meeting—on the very day of the banquet at which the result was announced. This meant that bookmakers would accept bets on the outcome, and turned the banquet into an occasion of high drama and genuine suspense, a kind of literary Oscar night, broadcast live on network television. In 1981 the prize went to Rushdie for Midnight’s Children, making him famous and confirming Buford’s skill as a talent-spotter.

At around the same time a body called the British Book Marketing Council was formed. It was, as Buford recalled later, a typically Eighties phenomenon, an application of “enterprise culture” methods to a notoriously stuffy and conservative area of retail trade. Under the direction of Desmond Clarke, the council instigated a series of…

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