Travel Writing, Heartbreak and Granta’s 100th Issue
Travel Blog • Frank Bures • 01.16.08 | 11:27 AM ET
Granta‘s 100th issue is out now, and for the occasion Simon Garfield has written a fascinating account of its history in the Guardian. This is the magazine that was my first travel-writing love, and also the first to break my heart.
The plucky literary magazine has always defined the best kind of travel literature: complicated personal narratives about moving through a messy world. When I read old issues, I feel like I owe a huge debt to Bill Buford, the flamboyant editor who, early on, published Bruce Chatwin, Bill Bryson, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Jonathan Raban, James Fenton and others. Buford showed what travel writing could do, and how to elevate it to an art on par with fiction and other narrative nonfiction.
It all started in 1979, when Buford took over the magazine while studying at Cambridge. He made a big splash publishing Salman Rushdie, and the Best of Young British Novelists. A few issues later, according to Garfield, Buford had an even bigger coup: He published Granta’s first Travel Writing issue. “Buford regards this edition as the culmination of all he was striving for in the first three years,” writes Garfield, “Or as he puts it: ‘Finally I fucking did it.’” Garfield also observes that “The influence of the travel writing issue far exceeded its sales.” Buford kept editing the magazine until 1995, when he handed it off to Ian Jack. According to the article, Jack’s focus didn’t really change. I can’t say whether it did or not, though my favorite issues are still from the Buford years.
One passage in the story did strike me in the gut. After admitting that he turned down Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated because he thought it was “undergraduate nonsense,” Jack goes on to say that, “The worst thing is to commission a piece…and for it to come in after the writer has spent months on it, for it to be a long way short of the full shilling, so it goes back to the writer, and comes in again, and it’s still not right, so it goes back for more work, and finally I have to say to the writer, ‘I’m really sorry, this doesn’t work’. It’s absolutely defensible, but it’s a soul-destroying thing for the writer.”
This is true. I know. I’m one of those writers.
Several years ago, I got a dream assignment for Granta to do a story about a disappeared environmental activist in Borneo. I traveled there and spent months working on the story, then turned in a 12,000 word monster narrative, only to have it come up (though not in these terms) short of the shilling. I sent in a revision, but never heard back. And that was it. At the time, all I wanted was to have my story in there where all the people who had made me want to write had been published. It was a failure that loomed over everything I wrote for a long time. Some days, it felt like a nail in the coffin of my writing career.
But I kept going, eventually recovered, and tried to take what I could from it. Looking back, I realize that Jack was probably right. I was probably too young, the story was probably too big, and I probably wanted it to work too badly. Whatever the case, I learned a lot from experience. Now, he’s retiring, bringing another Granta era to a close.
Jack is handing the reigns off to Jason Cowley, and we’ll have to wait and see what he does with the beloved magazine. If that doesn’t work out, we can always dip into the “vast archive” that is supposed to appear online soon.
Related on World Hum:
* 1,000 Places to Not go Before You Die
* Granta 94: ‘On the Road Again. Where Travel Writing Went Next.’