Thursday, August 24, 2006

Writing for Granta

Granta: Best of Young British NovelistsNo. 7 Granta Publications, 1983.
Granta: HistoryNo. 32 Granta Publications, 1990.
Granta: LosersNo. 47 Granta Publications, 1994.
Granta: Fifty!No. 50 Granta Publications, 19.
Granta: London -- The Lives of the CityNo. 65 Granta Publications, 1999.


In 1983, the British literary magazine Granta published a special issue titled "Best of Young British Novelists". Edited by Bill Buford, the volume often has been cited as the launching pad for several of today's best British writers, including Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Julian Barnes. Barnes disputes this notion, however. In an interview with Salon.com, Carl Swanson discusses the issue with Barnes, stating, "You and other people -- part of a circle which developed with Granta -- sort of rose with [Bill Buford]." To this Barnes replies,

    "Yes, though what happens is -- it's the same with writing schools and magazines -- the editor or the professor always claims more credit than is due. Bill now says that he launched me, which is complete bullshit. . . . Whereas in fact he published me once, and he behaved so badly toward the copy that I swore I'd never write for him again. And he only published me then because I was in some sort of collection, some promotion of young British authors. He decided to do them all, so he did them all. But then when I became successful later on, he decided he'd launched me. So they over-claim for you and you in return are graceless about their help to you."

The "copy" Buford "behaved so badly toward" was Barnes's "Emma Bovary Eyes", a chapter from his then upcoming Flaubert's Parrot. There are many texual differences between the Granta text and the final published version, but many of those changes were initiated by Barnes between UK proof and final UK hardback. Decifering which were Buford's contribution without direct guidance from either Barnes or Buford would be too difficult. The truth, as it were, is not recorded.

Barnes published with Granta seven years later in issue 32. Buford was still editor, but he did not handle Barnes's contribution, a short story titled "Dragons" that would later be included in Cross Channel. The Granta version is introduced by an image of Louis XIV (le Roi Soleil) as a hooded figure with the face of a sun. The image is both flattering and menacing. Louis is credited as a great patron of the arts and literature in France, a ruler who enlightened a country with classical ideals. Notice the torch clenched in the king's hand, however. The fire looms as a reminder of Louis's persecution of Protestants and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. (The Edict of Nantes originated in 1598 with Henry IV of France and granted freedom of worship to French Protestants.)

Barnes's next Granta contribution dealt with kings, as well. "Trap. Dominate. Fuck." traces the events of The Times World Chess Championship between Gary Kasparov and Nigel Short. While skillfully describing the buzz surrounding the events within the match, Barnes also comments on the buzz that surrounded the event of the match itself. Barnes's discussion of chess as a marketable sport is particularly interesting.

In Granta's 50th issue, Barnes contributed another short story that he would later gather in Cross Channel. "Gnossienne" is a curious tale of a British writer's trip to a "literary conference" in France. Many readers of Barnes will assume the story is based on some factual event. There are several indicators, such as the line, "My replies are sent on postcards free of my own address." Barnes is known to send postcards as a means of answering mail from readers and inquiries by scholars. A profile of Barnes written for Independent Magazine describes his study and desk and notes, "There is evidence that he is both polite and organised enough to reply to even tedious letters. Propped on the desk is a postcard ready for dispatch to a student in Honolulu: '. . . Staring at the Sun was not inspired by Vidal's Julian, because I have not read the latter book. However, I wish you luck . . .'" Another seemingly biographical inclusion is that both Barnes and the narrator of "Gnossienne" took family holidays in France as children. The tone of the excursions in the story mirror comments made by Barnes about his own family in various interviews. The problem with such theories, however, is that their supporting facts lack uniqueness. Many people send postcards, and the majority of them don't include a return address. Many young Brits travel with their families to France, and the majority of them are likely nervous about the foreign country. Like the narrator of "Gnossienne", we are asked to question the truth of the events that are presented. Things and people are not always what they appear to be.

Barnes's most recent contribution to Granta is a short entry on London, one of many such contributions by authors gathered under the uniform title of "A London View". In it, Barnes discusses his youthful travels into the city by tube to attend school and the frequent sight of the entrance to the former Blackfriars mainline station. Destinations, such as Berlin and Dresden, were etched into the stone archway as an indication of the world's expanse. Though short in length, the sentiment of this piece has its foundation in Barnes's "Out of Place" article for Architectural Digest (v.54, no. 5, April 1997, p.36,38). Barnes claims he does not have a sense of "Place", particularly with regards to his writing, despite having lived in the same part of London for several decades. In "A London View", he explains that his daily travels to school within the city made him feel like he was traveling "from family dullsville to the centre of the world." As time passed, the names on the station entrance helped him realize that London was not where the tracks ended. "I realized that I did not travel each morning to the centre of the world. Northwood was to London as London was to Europe. . . . I enjoy the city; but I have always felt it as a place on the way to somewhere else." "Place" is defined by boundaries. With a constant reminder that there are tracks leading in every direction to new and interesting locations, it is easy to understand Barnes's earlier claim that he is "out of place".

-- Ryan Roberts, October/November 2000



Lawson, Mark. "A Short History of Julian Barnes." Independent Magazine, July 13, 1991, p. 34-36.

Swanson, Carl. "Old fartery & literary dish." Salon.com 13 May 1996. 22 October 2000.

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