Monday, December 28, 2015

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson

Usually when a writer passes away, their reputation fades, but occasionally the opposite happens. It seems the more that we all find out about Tove Jannson, previously mainly known in the UK for The Moomins, the more that we want to know. I had been meaning to read "The Summer Book", the most revered of her 14 books for adults, after seeing an exhibition of her work and life in Helsinki last summer, (blogged about here) and finally have gotten around to. Re-published recently by A Sort of Books, its had several reprints since, unusually for a work of translated fiction. Written in the early 1970s after the death of her mother, its a somewhat unclassifiable work. Though ostensibly a novel, the short anecdotal chapters have the character of short stories, and the subject matter is fused with memoir and memory. Seen as a classic in Scandinavia it certainly deserves a much wider readership.

Sophia is a young girl being looked after her grandmother, whilst her father works, on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. The novel is in the third person but takes us into the perspective of both Sophia and her Grandmother, the one at the start of her conscious life, and having lost a mother, the other at the end of theirs. This unusual pairing, with the father always off the page, creates an idyll in the "summer" they spend on the island. In Sophia's world the island is vast, but in reality it has room for just one dwelling - theirs - and is isolated from even their neighbours, with weekly trips to the nearest proper island taking around two hours each way in a boat. On the island there are enough differences in the landscape to enable all sorts of adventures - so that even a six year old is safe left alone. This otherworldliness, like a personal Narnia - or more accurately the isolated landscape of the Moomin family - is as much a character in the novel as the two protagonists. Grandmother has forgotten what it was like to be young and Sophia helps her remember, but at the same time she is in loco parentis for the young girl and has to slip out of their fantasy world every now and then to provide the necessary life lesson.  The chapters are mostly short - some tiny - and cover everything from small discoveries in the natural landscape, to the games that the child and grandmother play, to those vivid periods when the idyll is interrupted: a friend who comes to stay and breaks up the perfect harmony between the two of them; the adoption of a feral cat; the visitors who their father goes off drinking with on their boat causing them resentment at not being invited to the party for being "too young and too old". There's also a climax of sorts with the great storm that could have drowned them all, had their father not managed to get them to safety in an attic room on higher ground.

Yet its not just a "what we did on our summer holidays" - but a story with a philosophy at the heart of it. The grandmother is old and fading but wants to continue as long as she can to pass on wisdom and guidance to her granddaughter. Her own memories are like from another life - yet she was responsible for allowing equal treatment for girls in the boy scout movement, enabling women to be allowed to go camping. At one point its said that she was born in the 19th century, and though history doesn't intrude, not in this isolated place away from the Finnish mainland, there's a sense here of how long lives are both part of the history that takes place around them, but also separate, on their own track. In this way, though there are some mentions of God (the Grandmother is too old to believe in the devil and in a rare rebuke of her granddaughter asks that she lets her have her conviction that there is a God, but no devil, for she needs the promise of a good hereafter) it feels more naturalistic and than that, with nature, and our response to nature being at the heart of this simple telling of a summer.

Seeing Jannson's work in Helsinki last year, her art seemed to find its necessary narrative in the strangeness of her imagined Moomins, a popular mythologising of the Finland she grew up in. Reading Esther Freud's introduction to this edition (I'd suggest you read it like I did at the end), we find that this novel was written partly about her own mother and her niece (also Sophia) and it reads like a memoir in large part. I'm reminded of Natalia Ginzburg's "The Things We Used to Say", another novel that defies classification but weaves its spell through small anecdotes, and remembered moments. Yet such a litany would not work on its own, it is the quiet authority of the author, who through grandmother and grandchild, finds a way to connect to universal truths.

A short poignant book, it felt the sort of quiet, steady novel I needed to read this Christmas, out of season perhaps, but at a time of year when family and stillness are on all our minds. Like her art, her life (recently the subject of an autobiography) and the Moomins, Tove Jansson's adult fiction is a great rediscovery from this much loved author. There's a photograph at the beginning of this edition with a little blonde Sophia, and the much older "grandmother" - Jansson's own parent - and the book brings to life the relationship in that small static image.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Write About Now

In my writing group everyone has a self-defined role. I'm the one who points out the anachronisms. I do it in contemporary fiction as well. What is truth anyway? Dave Haslam wrote a book about the 70s called "Not ABBA", so annoyed was he at the constant reduction of the seventies to a band that were, yes, very popular, but probably weren't played out that much at discos at the time - not when you had northern soul, disco, funk, power pop, glam etc. Picking up an old tape of singles I'd recorded in 1989, its noticeable that the Stone Roses appear stuck in between 80s remnants such as the Wonderstuff, and that the "baggy" records that are ubiquitous at retro discos are much outnumbered by obscure house and new jack swing tracks that we actually listened to at time. In Booker winning "The Line of Beauty" Alan Hollinghurst's "eighties" is a much praised confection, but how real is it really? The gay man dancing with Mrs. Thatcher, its centrepiece of historical rewriting, is actually not that surprising - she had a penchant for the gallant and flamboyant after all - less convincing is the absence of Hi-NRG music from the sountrack. Film versions of the eighties pull out the cliches, and modern actors and actresses often get their "eighties gear" from central casting as accurate as when the Two Ronnies dressed up as characters in the Regency court.

It is my conviction that fiction's veracity is perhaps one of its highest callings. I have read about the 1832 reform act in my history classes, but I visualise it through the lens of "Middlemarch" - even though that too was a historical novel at the time. It is why historians like looking through contemporary documents. But contemporary documents only tell a partial story - they can't tell you what its like to live through a time - what it feels like to be, say, 18 at Woodstock or at the Sex Pistols, or an 80s rave.

I've always written fiction in the moment. It's part of what I do. Its not a lazy option, as I find having a time and a place fixed can be endlessly helpful in making the story and characters - the made up bit - work for me. But nothing quite ages like the contemporary. At what point did we go from it being ostentatious to give a character a mobile phone, to being silly not to? Reading through old stories for a pamphlet I'm preparing, I found characters sitting at "the end of the non-smoking section" of the bar. I'd forgotten that before the indoor smoking ban, bars that had more than one space, frequently had a smoking and non-smoking section. Maybe such pedantic detail sounds awkward in a story, and a good editor would get rid of such hostages to fortune - but maybe not - maybe the period detail is the important thing.

So I'm being sparing with my editor's pen when going through these stories. I'd forgotten, as well, that the Arndale bus station wasn't a victim of the 1996 IRA bomb, but of the regeneration afterwards which shut off Cannon Street. I regret I wasn't taking photos of the world around me in the nineties, but at least I was writing about the world I lived in. There is a visuality in verbal pictures. I've been struck this year, more than any other, how distant my remembered Manchester is from the one that now exists - the plethora of bars and restaurants - the sense that we don't go out in hope that something will turn up, but use our smart phones as instant gratification machines. Also, I was younger then, I am older now. I am surprised at reading about a life that didn't care too much about when the last bus or train was, but instead went searching for another bar, another band, another something.

Write about now, and you will have something that is more than the story, more than a diary entry - but a version of yourself that you have long forgotten ever existed, and that's whether you're a protagonist in your own life story a la Caulfield or Copperfield, or whether you're the guiding hand. As I look around and find our newly gentrified world less interesting in some ways, I also realise that the stories are still there. I'm glad I've got this snapshot of Manchester, a city I've lived in longer than anywhere else, and which I used to regularly write about. I'll hopefully have a little selection of these old stories ready by the New Year. I hope that they are more than  just nostalgia, as once they were contemporary.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Year in Song - Best Records of 2015

Each year there seems to be more "end of year" best of charts than the last. "Album of the year" has gone to Sufjan Stevens, Kendrick Lamar, Julia Holter, Grimes, Tame Impala and Bjork on this side of the Atlantic. Holter managing to top the usually esoteric Piccadilly Records poll as well as the Uncut best of. High places for New Order, Jamie XX, Father John Misty and Courtney Barnett. Close observers will notice how few of these artists are British, which may be why the obscure Benjamin Clementine topped the Mercury Prize. Also, a quick check across the pond and the top 4 on Pitchfork are all on the list of albums above, with Tame Impala number one. We can honestly say that the Pitchfork-isation of British music is now complete. I suspect this is the inheritance of a generation who voted for "Automatic for the People" and "OK Computer" as the best albums of all time.

How tasteful they all are! I've yet to hear the Bjork album, but wonder if it can ever be as good as "Post" or "Homogenic", respectively her angriest and best records, whilst I picked up Holter based on these recommendations and its not really forced its way on to my record player as much as a true classic surely would. This is also the year I didn't get the Fall album when it was released. "Sub Lingual Tablet" having some great tracks but also some throwaways.

Although I've probably spent more time listening to catalogue music than ever before there's been a clutch of new albums that I've liked for various reasons.

Great name, great band. I'm frankly amazed this album wasn't in everyone's top ten. It's lively, loud, fun and in its own way, pop. Short stabs of guitar led energy, with enough sonic difference to make this much more than just another indie album. I saw them live in a tiny venue at the ever reliable Sounds from the Other City and they were a highlight of the day.

My friend Julie Campbell's second album "Hinterland" was a revelation - literally so, as she'd kept these songs from us until they started filtering out last Christmas. The album is a near perfect selection, with the "singles" "Bunkerpop" and "Groove it Out", complemented by the immense title track - but not a single filler to be found. She's been able to tour the album to ever bigger crowds during the year  and the songs just keep sounding better. It made a fair showing in a number of best of the year lists, and got great reviews, but the fact that it didn't get the ubiquity of Jamie XX and others, probably indicates how little attached to any prevalent zeitgeist it is - sounding perilously modern and quirkily retro.

I saw these ex-Egyptian Hip-hoppers last year at SFTOC but the album slipped out to indifference earlier this year. No idea why, as it seems to fuse that Cocteau Twins/shoegaze classic sound to an inventive electronica far better than most. Maybe the album's a little lightweight in parts, but I keep coming back to it, and its best songs are superb.

Whilst their debut album "Girls Like Us" had a killer title track and managed to translate their just formed live energy into a frenetic suite of pop-punk, "Wild Nights" is a more considered and accomplished affair - but whereas girl bands in the past have sometimes brushed up, added a musical lipgloss and lost some of their brio as they hit the charts, the route Manchester's PINS have taken was a different one. Garage band turned surf-pop, whilst the fun and exuberance remains. In a more sensible world "Wild Nights" would have soundtracked the summer (it soundtracked mine) but of course our summer was one of those touch-and-go ones where you were lucky to manage more than one al fresco drink before the rain came down. Another SFTOC alumni (a pattern emerging here) they are still playing a wide mix of venues, and were a great support for Wire earlier in the year. Still emerging, but still fantastic.

Their 3rd "proper" album, I saw them live in the autumn playing to much larger crowds and teetering on the edge of possible parody as the students and beer boys swelled the audience - yet they were still pretty mesmerising, and the reason is that the songs on this album were as good as the ones we know and love. The tumult of lyrics matches Mark E. Smith at his finest, whilst the taut beats, just a backing tape on stage, fizz out of the speakers in the living room. Despite the contemporary nature of their lyrics in Cameron's Britain, its the oddball tracks like "Tarantula Deadly Cargo" which set them apart. John Lennon once said he wanted his albums to be like newspapers, before coming up with his weakest album, "Some Time in New York City" - Sleaford Mods are like newspapers, but as likely to be the sports pages or the Fortean Times as a Daily Mirror op ed.

John Grant's "Queen of Denmark" became an unexpected pleasure and the songs were strong enough to dominate his excellent live album with the  BBC Phil last year. Second solo album "Pale Green Ghosts" ditched the alt country stylings of Midlake for some more electronica, and was enjoyable, well regarded, but didn't grab me as much. His third album is the most out of kilter record from a semi-major artist all year. No surprise, really, as he's moved to Iceland, announced to the world that he's HIV positive, and is the wonderful sound of a great artist doing whatever he wants. It's strange, unsettling, beautiful, and sonically the year's most fascinating record.

This album came out with every cover a "unique" one. Marketing gimmicks sometimes indicate something to hide, and perhaps this didn't quite have the success of their previous records, but I loved it. Probably my favourite electronic-inclined album of the year with just a great feel all the way through, and full of good songs.

At over 70  minutes its too long, but Janet Jackson's return is also a return to form, working with Jam and Lewis again, it sounds as immaculate as you'd expect - her voice is fantastic and seems such a different instrument than so many of the soul divas we hear nowadays. My favourite Jackson track was always the pillow whispering of "Let's Wait Awhile" and there's still a sense that she understands the dynamics (and the dynamics of the love song) better than most. If it tails off towards the end, there's enough to like in the first three quarters of the album to make it a genuine contender. With her brother gone, and neither Madonna or Prince at their best on recent albums, its good to see one eighties superstar still making a great record.

I don't remember Sleater Kinney being such a darling of mainstream critics when they were around first time, being definitely a cult band even when their mesmerising final album "The Woods" came out. This return perhaps lacked the strangeness of that album but brought the energy of their earlier work to the fore, in a powerful blast of playful, energetic noise. They even got a place on Jools Holland, the UK's own music heritage programme, but like Sleaford Mods, sounded too good for that haven of the middlebrow. Its a great rock record, which in 2015, where such beasts were rare, was reason enough for it to be lauded. 

"Uptown Funk" dominated the year (alongside Taylor Swift - both came out last year however), so perhaps the album was never going to be quite as big a success. Any doubts that Ronson is a magpie rather than originator probably went out the window with "Uptown Funk" itself, but the album is a veritable jukebox. Its also a great fun party record, with that track still likely to be on rotate as long as their are cocktail bars and hen parties. I like the album alot - in a year that mainstream pop became ever more in the model of Max Martin etc. and where a certain timorously thin pop-soul a la Ed Sheeran/Justin Beiber dominated the charts - it was a record that even old duffers like me could get behind.

So that's 10 for now - with some time over Xmas I'm sure I'll maybe add a couple of others I haven't yet got round to listening to or remember one I bought but had forgotten.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Have an Indie Christmas

I missed last week's "Independent's day" shopping, but there's still time to get some interesting Xmas presents. Yes, you can get that John Lewis coffee maker, that Surface Pro, that True Detective boxset, that hardback cookbook, but lets be honest, they'll all be half price from 26th December and all your friends will also have them. So here are a few "indie" solutions that can make any stocking bulge happily....

Confingo Magazine is now 4 issues into its life, and has a mix of photography, stories and poetry, as well as an artist/author interview, in a lovely perfect bound A5 format. Available from HOME and Magma in Manchester and online, a 2 issue subscription is now only £9.  Order issue 4 before Christmas and it will be specially wrapped.

Anyone who saw Lonelady on tour earlier this year might have remembered Julie Campbell's fetching "BEAT" t-shirt which she wore at a number of gigs, including the Manchester one. Now you can own your own, in various sizes for just £20. There are also some limited edition posters available. A great present for someone as you've surely already got the album (out on Warp) which has featured in most of the year-end "best of" charts.

I attended the last of the year's Other Room events on Wednesday and picked up the very hefty "Out of Everywhere 2" - an anthology of innovative poetry by women which is surely one of the year's most important releases. A follow up to a previous anthology, this one, edited by Emily Critchley features a large number of British innovative women poets, puncturing a scene that has sometimes been too hermetic for its own good. Reality Street have done us great a service with this one.

And a great bookend to this would be "Boooook" a biography of legendary concrete poet Bob Cobbing which came out earlier this year from Occasional Papers.  

Short story collections are great gifts to give as they can be dipped into whereas a novel can be more "Marmite" - two recent ones by Manchester writers are highly recommended. Elizabeth Baines' second collection from Salt, "Used to Be" and H.P. Tinker's "The Girl Who Ate New York" will both be popular gifts (if you can bear to part with them).  Some great anthologies and other books are available from Manchester's Comma Press as well in their Xmas Sale.  As for stocking fillers, Nicholas Royle's Nightjar Press has had a resurgence this year, and loose change will get you single stories in a handy format to keep you out of harm's way whilst the Queen's Speech is on.

Music fans who still have access to a cassette machine could do worse than investigate Sacred Tapes - which releases a fascinating number of "noise" and related releases, again for little more than the price of a latte.

I didn't have too much published myself this year but was pleased to see my poem "In Search of Dubnium" in the lovely "My Dear Watson: the very elements in poetry" which remarkably sees poets tackling science, with one poem for each element in the Periodic Table. Available online from Beautiful Dragons. 
And finally a limited edition that is perfect for those cold spooky nights in. Curious Tales are a collective of writers who like doing something different at this time of year and their latest book (limited edition, natch, once it's gone, it's gone!) is called "Congregaton of Innocents" and channels Shirley Jackson. 

Hopefully that will keep you - and Santa - busy until the New Year. 

Sunday, December 06, 2015

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Miranda July has written award winning short fiction, and is an actor, performer, director, artist and "The First Bad Man" is her debut novel. In this strange fable, our narrator is Cheryl Glickman, a 43 year old woman who has worked for years at "Open Palm" a not-for-profit that develops self-defence courses for women. She appears to be that member of staff who has been there forever, who appears to run the place, but has been overlooked for management or other senior roles - yet nobody can imagine the place without her. Yet at 43, she lives alone in a spartan apartment where she cuts down on washing up by only ever having one cup, one plate.

When Clee, the difficult teenage daughter of the owners of "Open Palm", the vile Carl and Suzanne, comes to stay with Cheryl it creates a rupture in the ordered, insular, self-obsessed life she has created for herself. Cheryl's narration is highly unreliable, and we never quite get under her skin. She has a fantasy about the ageing lothario on the company board, Phillip, and wherever she goes she is looking for phantom children, who she names as Kubelko Bondy. Even through her own narration she comes across as lonely, caring, vindictive, and envious of the world - someone who has let life pass her by without knowing quite how or why. Clee original stays with another staff member but then moves in with Cheryl. She accepts it, as she accepts everything that her bosses put her way, but she also resents this imposition on her life, in her one bedroom apartment.

Clee is as archetypal a teenager as Zappa's "Valley Girl" and has a shadowy life she keeps from Cheryl. At some point their non-verbal communication ends up with them playing out the scenarios from old VHS tapes created by the women's self defence programme that is "Open Palm's" main "product." These scenes of unexpected violence are described in detail but without much commentary. This odd, abnormal world is always played deadpan. "The First Bad Man" of the title is one of these scenarios. I'm not sure it works as the novel's title, too loaded, perhaps.

At some point we find that Clee is pregnant and the novel steps up a gear, with the difficult pregnancy, birth and aftermath, with a poorly baby, bringing Cheryl and Clee closer together and briefly in love with each other. As she says later in the book, she moves from guardian figure, to mother figure, to lover. Yet never are they genuinely friends - rather these are two lost women who are brought together by that most unexpected thing, a baby that one of them was going to give up for adoption. This sense of loneliness, followed by hope, followed by the conflicting thoughts of what a baby means - how the "mother" is the person who looks after him day in, day out, whatever the absurdity of the family situation. Cheryl is open to love - with Clee, with the ageing Phillip, with baby Jack - but holds it back, is uncertain when it arrives, thinks it is about to be withdrawn. In many ways her character doesn't change - even though she's only 43, she seems much older, stuck in a tiny tableau within the big city.

The novel starts with her going to see a psychiatrist, and these scenes turn out to be pivotal to the little bit of plot there is. The strange psychiatrist's waiting room, where the receptionist - for 3 days a year - is the psychiatrist the rest of the time is an absurdity, I'm reminded of the quack doctor in "30 Rock" for instance. Yet in this waiting room of the trusted psychiatrist the various trysts in the novel are played out, like a contemporary village square.

There are some profound moments in "The First Bad Man", and the book is more absurd than laugh out loud funny, yet I struggled with it. It did feel overlong for the source material, a series of episodes to keep the momentum going, with the insularity of this small group of absurdist characters more like the screenplay for an indie movie than anything else. It certainly feels very zeitgeist-y, and there's even a quote from Lena Dunham on the cover, but whereas it might seem to be in the same territory as A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" it's canvas is more miniaturist, to that book's weaving of an equally small cast into a much larger scenario. Part of the problem for me was that despite being pretty grounded in its world, everything is done ironically. This doesn't feel like a real company, or a real flat, or even a real psychiatrist, and its not just Cheryl's filtered vision. The book was highly recommended to me, and I can see that its strangeness and absurdist vision could be compelling, but I got bored a little too often, found the writing elegant but flat, and the humour was of a very droll kind. Having not read her short stories I can't compare, but it did feel that the material was stretched out, that this kind of world works better in shorter form. Its far from being a bad book, and the central conceit - that love can be unexpected and appear anywhere - is neither sentimentalised or laughed away. A short epilogue - a mistake I think - leaves you with the knowledge that things turn out okay, but it reminded me of a lesser Coen Brothers movie, absurd for absurd's sake, nothing much existing beyond the screen (or in this case the page.) As someone who enjoys surface, (and enjoyed the equally self-contained "Leaving the Atocha Station" for instance), it surprised me how much effort this book took me to read - I think something about the prose style just made me weary. Maybe just one of those "not for me" books.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Today's British Novel is Not Remarkable or Interesting

I had a bit of a find the other day in Oxfam - a whole shelf of old Grantas, including some very early numbers, including the very first issue (albeit a reprint) from 1979.

"It is increasingly a discomforting commonplace that today's British novel is neither remarkable nor remarkably interesting..." begins a strident editorial by Bill Buford (I assume), to introduce an issue entitled "New American Writing." Granta is still with us though Buford has long ago stopped being its editor. An American in England (isn't that always the case?) his energy could be seen to coincide with the energising of the English - British - world novel in English over the next few years. 1979 wasn't perhaps seen at the time as a golden year for fiction. The obscure Odysseus Elytis won the Nobel; Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker with "Offshore". In retrospect there were some important books published: Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveller", Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" and Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy" and Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" amongst them. It was also the year of Jeffrey Archer's "Kane and Abel" and Barbara Taylor Bradford's "A Woman of Substance", mega-bestsellers which would perhaps herald the book trade of the next decade as much as "Star Wars" from 1977 had altered the film business.

That first line is written in a kind of literary English that was not uncommon in the books of the time, but feels old fashioned now, too clever by half. The rest of the article shies away from the controversial opening, to become more of an academic essay on the reluctance of British (English) fiction to take on board experimental or international influences.

Granta gives us Joyce Carol Oates, William Gass and Donald Barthelme amongst others in that first issue. The third issue of the magazine is provocatively titled "The End of the English Novel" but then does something quite impressive: it extracts from "Midnight's Children" and "Riddley Walker" and also features Christine Brooke-Rose and Angela Carter. By 1983 and issue 8, "Dirty Realism", we have what might be Granta's finest hour: "Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Tallent, Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frederic Barthelme, Carolyn Forché and others."

I used to pick up, and occasionally buy Granta, but over the year's it seemed to lose some if not all interest in fiction - often having themed issues which non-fiction or reportage or memoir. Looking at the steadily growing strip of Granta's on my shelf, I see its width has increased as the years went on. There have been other signature issues - particularly its Best British Novelists selections every ten years, which have slowly seemed last canon-forming as time has gone on; and a willingness to use that "brand" to showcase Best American or Best Brazilian novelists as well. 

Fiction of course, is ever in crisis, as magazines like N+1 and the White Review have talked about more recently.  In an ever more fragile media age, we've become less adept at tracking those writers that matter, and, indeed, there seem some "big books" that have proven near impossible for their authors to write beyond (e.g. Yann Martel or Arundhati Roy, to name two Booker winners.) Every year another crop of debutantes, and yet it seems some of those themes of that first editorial - that the British novel can be parochial and uninteresting; that we lack an interest in novels from other cultures, or writers who are more experimental; or that we show little appetite for the more inventive American fictions, continues. A literary magazine can only be a snapshot of course, and Granta also became an imprint. The "Best novelists" issues suffer from being extracts, however apt the choices, and there's always been something very partial about Granta's approach to literature (no poetry for instance, little interest in drama), whilst at the same time, its aesthetic and familiarity makes me joyful every time I pick up a second hand issue that I've not already got. I have to say most of the 2ndhand copies seem relatively unread - but that's the fate of the successful literary magazine - as soon as its got a subscriber base, it becomes less able to take risks, and less of an impulse purchase (and at its current bookshelf prize - almost that of a hardback of a trade paperback, it probably never will be.)

However, we're not so keen on literary magazines in the UK as elsewhere in the world, and Granta's longevity and international standing have to be applauded. The row of books isn't quite a history of contemporary literature, but its a useful version of it. Its also a magazine that rarely looks back - so the late nineties, for instance, that rich period that in a few years gave us "American Pastoral", "Fugitive Pieces", "Underworld", "The Poisonwood Bible", "Enduring Love" "Disgrace", "Independence Day", "The God of Small Things," "Girlfriend in a Coma", "Atomised",, "Infinite Jest" and "The Rings of Saturn" amongst others, saw Granta publishing very few of these authors,  and seeming happy with familiar names, and the kind of "serious" subjects that made it less of a fiction magazine, and more of a current affairs one. 

The fatter Granta of the 21st century seemed far more open to new writers, and fiction in general, though as the grand old dame of magazines by this stage, McSweeney's would seem sexier, and other newcomers, most recently The White Review, seem more immediate.  

For the casual punter its always quite hard to get a sensible take on the current state of the letters - looking back at that late 90s list now, I probably didn't realise what a golden age it was at the time - though because I had taken two years off to do a creative writing degree I at least had the time to read these great books as they came out. I wrote an essay for PROP magazine at the tail end of the century which was entitled "As if Ulysses had never been written" and predicted that the big books of the next few years wouldn't be experimental novels, but baggy, societal tales, like Dickens, and with Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen and others I was proven pretty prescient.

The 21st century has seen a lot of interesting writers who maybe haven't necessarily wrote their defining book yet - Nicola Barker, David Mitchell, David Peace, A.L. Kennedy etc. - and indeed, it is one of those midlist writers who perhaps defines the age more than any, with "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies" Hilary Mantel made historical fiction the most vital writing of the day.  Going back to that Granta debut editorial the focus on "New American Writing" is as a contrast to the unremarkable British variety, yet it has to be said that the more esoteric strand - Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, Coover - would be a false one, withering on the vine, at least until Foster Wallace took it some place else; whilst the "making" of Granta's reputation - Rushdie in London, "Dirty Realism" stateside,don't yet get a mention.

If you see a pile of old Grantas gathering dust in the spare bedroom or your local charity shop, do let me know, the more I get, the more interesting the story becomes.