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CRITIC AT LARGE

Revival Of A Literary Legend

September 10, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

CAMBRIDGE, England — It looks like a Henny Youngman joke: the room so small you have to go out in the hall to change your mind, the room so small the mice are hunchbacked, and so on.

But from this claustrophobic garret--table and desk piled high with review copies, manuscripts and miscellaneous objects not quite of art--Bill Buford, sometime football player and student-body president at Granada Hills (Calif.) High School, publishes and edits Granta, an ancient literary journal that he resurrected and has turned into an amazing and influential international success.

Buford, who is balding, black-bearded and jovially energetic, was a graduate student at Cambridge, studying Shakespearean syntax on a Marshall fellowship, when in 1978 he and an American pal, Peter de Bolla, decided (after a long liquid night at the Eagle Pub) to see what could be done with Granta.

The magazine had been affiliated with the university since 1889, had in better times published E. M. Forster, Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath but was now terminally ill. The last treasurer, facing un-payable bills, had taken the petty cash and tiptoed away to Paris.

In what is now a literary legend, Buford wrote to 25 American authors beseeching manuscripts. "I hoped for two or three; we got 19," he says. The first issue, dated Spring 1979 and devoted to new American writing, "was modeled on the telephone book--nothing but words on paper."

But it contained a story by Donald Barthelme, a long excerpt from a new novel by William Gass, other pieces by William Gaddis and Susan Sontag. It received a major review in The Guardian and sold out three printings, to a total of 800 copies--enough to persuade Buford to keep at it.

The second issue, which featured "The Portage to San Cristobal by A. H. (for Adolph Hitler)" by George Steiner, a startling publishing coup, was edited in a spare bedroom in a flat near the railroad tracks, overlooking back gardens where outdoor privies still stood. It sold out in a week.

Since 1983, in a crucial breakthrough, Granta has been distributed by Penguin Books and sells more than 80,000 copies an issue, about 50,000 in the United States, 30,000 in Britain. Having begun as a quarterly, it is going bimonthly. The staff, now a dozen strong, has overwhelmed the garret rooms and Granta is dislodging a graphics design firm from the floor below. (The ground floor is occupied by a hairdressing salon.) Buford hopes to add a book club in the new year.

With heavy financial backing from Rea Hederman, publisher of the New York Review of Books, Granta is launching a saturation direct-mail campaign in the United States.

The copy is characteristically unorthodox. "In England, more people have Granta stolen from their homes than any other magazine," it warns. It also says that Granta is read by more people than any literary magazine in English history. Why? "Because its editors don't like literature."

That line is kidding on the square. Buford's passion, and the magazine's forte, is what he calls "narrative journalism"--the superior writing of reportage, including travel writing, to which Granta devoted a special issue. Even now Graham Greene is traveling in the Soviet Union with the backing of Granta, which will publish his commentaries. (A previous issue of the magazine ran some tantalizing excerpts, called "Waiting for a War," from a diary and commonplace book Greene kept in 1937-38.)

Granta has also run a massive piece by the poet James Fenton on "The Fall of Saigon," and in general its list of contributors by now is a Who's Who of international writing, from Saul Bellow and John Updike to Martin Amis and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"In the early days," Buford remembers, "we used to have a bailiff at the door every week. The Penguin deal certified us; we weren't another literary endeavor publishing to a literary ghetto. We are also a sound and prudent business venture.

"We were never interested in doing a literary magazine--I mean playing to a sybaritic coterie of friends and relatives and printing abortions from student writing programs."

The literary models Buford admired were the soft-cover Penguin New Writing anthologies that flourished in wartime and faded in peacetime, and Ted Zolotareff's New American Review, which lasted one brave decade.

"We had a birth by fire. We were completely mad to have done it, but there's a pleasurable obsession in doing something you know you shouldn't be doing."

His aim, Buford says, is "the kind of literary writing that matters, that has influence." Granta publishes fiction and reportage side by side, all to the end of "portraying our contemporary experience. . . . We are close equally to art and politics."

Granta does not appear to be overly ideological, although most of the attacks upon it, Buford says, have come from the left. There was a strongly negative piece in The Nation. Buford has just hired away the magazine's circulation director, Chris Calhoun. "That's my revenge," Buford says cheerfully.

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