19th Jul 2010
Granta 1 to 111 & Launch of Online Archive
The launch of Granta’s online archive at the British Library last Monday was an odd experience. In attendance were contributors Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo, Elizabeth McCracken and A.L. Kennedy along with Granta’s new editor, John Freeman. So what was odd about it? Well, the last time I saw A.L Kennedy on stage I was beside her, covered in blue sequins and yellow feathers. Years ago, Alison was one of an earnest bunch bringing community theatre to kids in my culture-deprived post-industrial hometown. Her two favourite words when corralling us weans into some kind of order were Shut and Up, often adjuncted at full volume with what my wee granny calls blue language. Although considering how much we ran riot, I’m surprised there wasn’t actual physical violence.
So there on Monday night was our Alison all grown up and a big fancy writer reading with other big fancy writers. After witnessing her dramatic skills at ear-splitting levels all those years ago, I wasn’t surprised at her brilliant delivery, but for the first time I could see why she had taken a sojourn into stand up. Her descriptions of sex, love and a couple’s seemingly innocuous trip to buy a lamp were hilarious and inspired me to give her novels another go after finding them a little too dark for my tastes.
American guests, Richard Russo, author of eight novels, and Elizabeth McCracken, author of short stories, novels and memoir, also rose to the occasion. Pulitzer-prize winner, Russo, read a shiver-inducing piece of non-fiction about his cousin who worked in a tannery. The cousin didn’t wear rubber gloves and his skin soon sheered away from his hands, leaving nothing but raw flesh. Yet this piece wasn’t just about sloppy health and safety in blue-collar professions. It dealt with the guilt that comes from escaping a small-town fate that others can’t escape. And it was wonderful.
Sir Salman, complaining that as a veteran of Granta’s third issue he felt as old as Methuselah, read a contribution about the deadly sin of sloth. Later at the reception, I discovered that Granta’s first female editor, Alex Clark, rejected this piece only for new editor, John Freeman to reinstate it. Clark’s row with Rushdie has been seen by some as key to her departure after just nine months on the job. It’s a shame that Rushdie’s take on sloth has been the source of so much fuss because it was not only as erudite as you’d expect, but also surprisingly funny.
As Sir Salman discussed feeling insignificant at literary parties and the depression that comes when people don’t like his work, I mentally rapped myself on the knuckles for having been unduly influenced by the great British press. Rather than the ungrateful, self-pitying grouch so often portrayed, he came across as self-deprecating, warm and filled with wry humour. He told us what had forced him to sit down and write about the fatwa years was the need to finally address the ‘bullshit’ in the media. One story was that Bono had sheltered him during the worst of the crisis. Another that Ian McEwan had provided sanctuary. Yet in reality, Bono had no need to check under his couch for would-be martyrs because Rushdie never stayed with him in Dublin and was at the McEwan gaff for dinner just the once.
So despite the lack of blue sequins and yellow feathers, it was an entertaining and insightful evening. The only downer was the low turn out. It’s difficult to determine whether this was due to poor publicity or the fact that London’s bookish types were all pooped out by Southbank’s literature festival. The facts are that quality print publications like Granta are an endangered species, so demonstrate your support for all things literary and subscribe. You get free access to the online archive and if you can’t deal with dead trees, you can also access the latest edition online. But you wouldn’t want to miss that satisfying thump of a just-delivered package four times a year, now would you?
Guest post by Kerry Ryan