Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Quality Control: Rosalind Porter on Granta

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Quality Control: Rosalind Porter on Granta

By Nathan Whitlock

Rosalind Porter is the senior editor of Granta magazine, the esteemed British (and now also American) literary quarterly perhaps best known for its “Best of Young British Novelists” issues, the first of which, in 1983, featured such up-and-comers as Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Pat Barker and Ian McEwan. Though Porter lives in London, she grew up in Toronto, and got her first job at Key Porter Books. After relocating to England for grad school, she worked as an editor at Random House UK. In 2008, she co-edited, with Joshua Knelman, an anthology of fictional love letters entitled Four Letter Words. On the strength of that book, she was offered a job at Granta.

To mark the 30th anniversary since the magazine’s rebirth in 1979 – it was founded in 1889, but sputtered out in the 1970s – Granta, in association with House of Anansi Press, recently published a special issue filled almost entirely with original fiction, plus an interview with Mavis Gallant. The issue had a special launch at Toronto’s Type Books, which Porter flew in to attend.

I met up with Porter at T Café in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood a few days before the launch to talk about Granta, the state of little magazines, the realities of short fiction, and the unexpected pleasures of book-reviewing.

On Granta’s theme issues:

“There’s the editor of the magazine, there’s me and there’s about three other people working there, and we come up with the themes. And we commission according to the themes. I’d say about 80% of what goes into the magazine is commissioned by us. And the rest of it just comes in and works with the theme. [...] The danger in commissioning is that you have an idea in your mind of the piece you want from the writer, and you articulate that. And sometimes the piece comes back that’s not exactly what you expected. It’s tricky: our themes are either very, very particular, or they’re very, very transcendental. [...] The specific themes are very simple to commission; the more open themes allow more flexibility and different kinds of writing. Because basically, Granta is all about the writing.”

On Granta’s reputation:

“There is a responsibility to – one hesitates to call it the ‘brand,’ but Granta is a brand, in some ways. But people really want to write for Granta. Big names, new writers. I think it’s very important that we continue to find new people, and showcase them. We are publishing, in our next issue, a story by a Canadian named Tamas Dobozy. I had never heard of him – he literally filed something to the editor, on spec, which is quite brave, because the editor doesn’t always look at them. And it was a great story.... He’s right up there with all the other big names, in terms of the quality.”

On the role of literary quarterlies:

“When something comes out four times a year, the assumption is that there’s been a lot of thought put into what’s in that particular issue. We have enough material at all times to publish once a week, but since we only come quarterly, there’s a sense – I don’t want to say ‘quality control,’ but you can be sure you’re getting exactly what you want.”

On short fiction:

“I love short fiction. I think that it’s a difficult forum. It asks a lot of the reader. Reading a collection of short stories is kind of like having ten little love affairs, rather than a relationship, which is what a novel is. You go into [a story], and it’s very short and very intense, and it demands all your attention, and I think that’s why people find it difficult. With a novel, you can pick it up, put it down. You can spend 20 pages getting to know the characters. In a short story, you can’t. You expend the same amount of concentration, in a way, but you don’t have the same satisfaction that you can get from a novel’s plot outcomes and things like that. Which is not to say that some short stories can’t do that – some can.... A lot of people talk about how there’s a new resurgence of the short story, and we’re going to have new ways to sell short stories and get people reading them, but I think they will always remain slightly outside, the way poetry has.... I think they occupy a very special, rarefied place, and I don’t think that’s going to change. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

On the risks of putting out a (nearly) all-fiction issue:

“There are those readers who skip the fiction, and read the other stuff in the magazine,and that’s fine. I wonder what would happen if we left out fiction in an issue of Granta, if there’d be the same readerly response.... [This new issue] is a fiction issue, but it’s also an issue about the art of writing fiction, of being a writer.”

On poetry:

“We now do one poem per issue. Granta used to have two rules, starting from the Bill Buford days, which were: no writing about writing, and no poetry. I brought the poetry in – we still don’t have any writing about writing.”

On her future book-related plans:

“I really enjoyed doing Four Letter Word. It’s slightly too close to what I do at Granta, that kind of book, but I do have other ideas, still in their formative stages. One of the great things about working at Granta is that kind of thing is encouraged – extracurricular writing activities, it all kind of blends into what you are doing as an editor. Even with book publishers, [writing] is slightly separate. In literary journalism, you are expected to have a few different hats.”

On writing reviews:

“One of the reasons why I love writing book reviews is because being a critic and being an editor are such different things. I take a lot of pleasure from reading something that’s finished, and thinking about it critically and knowing that I don’t have to fix anything, that I’m not responsible.”

On Canadian writing:

“I feel very strongly about Canada, and have been gunning for a Canadian issue for a while.... I do keep an eye out, but I’m also interested in quality writing, regardless of where it comes from. And I sometimes think these national categories that we put writing in – most of the time they are very useful, but sometimes they are not. With Canadian literature I think it has been very useful, because there is an understanding. When you talk about CanLit abroad, people have a sense of what that is.... I think the same thing is starting to happen in Australia. There’s a lot of Australian writers coming out, and they’re not all doing the same thing, but there’s a kind of vocabulary that you can use to explain that. Sometimes that can be dangerous and limiting, but sometimes it can be really liberating.”

For more information about Granta 106: New Fiction Special, visit the House of Anansi’s website at www.anansi.ca.

Nathan Whitlock is the author of A Week of This: a novel in seven days, published by ECW Press. He is the Books for Young People and Last Word editor at Quill & Quire magazine.

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