Granta, a magazine that has created a sensation in Britain's literary circles in recent years with its rejection of academic criticism and its emphasis on political essays and stories, will be distributed by Penguin in this country next month.
The magazine, which will almost certainly become a major player in the American literary game, looks more like a trade edition paperback. It regularly publishes the essays and fiction of authors as renowned as Saul Bellow, Mario Vargas Llosa, Nadine Gordimer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and has printed 35,000 copies of the new issue, an extraordinary number for a "little magazine," as such literary enterprises are known.
Bill Buford, its editor, is an American graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, who went to England to study at Cambridge in 1977 and quickly took over the magazine when it was still a student-run publication.
Buford, who is 30, continues to run Granta out of an attic office near the Cambridge campus, but he is in New York this week to plan with Penguin distribution of the magazine in the United States this summer.
"It will be on the docks this Friday if all goes well," Buford said. "We're praying that it will go over as big here as it has in England.
"What we're trying to do is create a magazine that doesn't just speak to a literary ghetto. We want to get away from that postmodernist, academic style of work that's been dominant in recent years and publish things that are political and literary at the same time."
The first issue that will appear in the United States features poet James Fenton's account of the fall of Saigon.
"I haven't seen the new incarnation but when I was at Cambridge I remember Granta as very distinguished undergraduate review," Paris Review editor George Plimpton said. Indeed it was, publishing work by E.M. Forster, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and A.A. Milne when they were students at the university. Granta was founded in 1899 as a reaction to the Cambridge Review, a dusty piece of work that published the weekly university sermons. Granta is named for the Granta River, which runs into Cambridge.
Buford was bored with his studies -- "I went to two lectures in two years" -- and spent much of his time trying to revive and run Granta, which had been floundering. An issue on French structuralist theory in 1970 was an expensive disaster and one of the staffers, who decided there was no way to pay the costs, took the proceeds and his girlfriend to Paris.
"It had gotten to the point where the magazine was an embarrassing heap," Buford said. "One drunken night in a pub a friend and I made plans."
Blessed with equal measures of intelligence and chutzpah, Buford wrote to 25 distinguished American authors, including William Gass and Susan Sontag, and asked for contributions. To Buford's astonishment, nearly every author sent Buford material for an edition titled "New American Writing."
"Those first issues were amazing," Buford said. "The bindings were awful. When you opened them they fell apart on the floor like a loose deck of cards."
Sometimes it took six months to produce an issue, sometimes a year, and the production quality was uneven, but Granta published powerful work from George Steiner, Russell Hoban and Salman Rushdie that attracted favorable reviews in the British papers.
Granta still runs on the cheap. Buford pays about $60 for a 1,000-word piece and about $2,000 for something of "War and Peace" magnitude. Buford pays himself a salary of "well below $10,000." Although such an enterprise will never make a fortune, the partnership with Penguin, begun in 1983, has stabilized the project. The magazine is now published quarterly. Penguin has the sort of relationship with Granta that it might have with one of its authors, paying the magazine a royalty of 7 percent.
Over 15 issues, the magazine has published an astonishing amount of first-rate work. A recent compilation of original travel writing featured Bellow on "old" Paris, Paul Theroux on the New York subway, Jan Morris on Route 281 in Texas, Fenton on Cambodia, Martha Gellhorn on Haiti and Marquez on Spain.
The Times of London credited Buford with Granta's "phoenix act" and Graham Greene called it "a courageous literary magazine."
Edmund Wilson once said that the average literary magazine has a lifetime of about a decade and then dies a natural death or lingers sadly on. And indeed some once-vital publications, such as Partisan Review, have declined severely in influence. Among the ascendant magazines are Granta, Threepenny Review, which is published in Berkeley, and Grand Street, which is run by Ben Sonnenberg in New York.
"But we at Granta get a little nervous when people call us a 'literary magazine' or a 'quarterly,' " Buford said. "We're both of those things but we also want to be different. We want to be something entirely new."