Publish and be damned

The literary journal <em>Granta</em> started as an act of rebellion, and ended up as the Establishme

Granta 100, edited by William Boyd, Granta Publications, 256pp, £12.99

Reading the 100th issue of Granta is like bumping into a brilliant, yet somehow forgotten, old friend. It feels a bit like the best of Granta, or even the "chums of William Boyd" issue. That's not as strange as it may seem. Boyd, a long-time contributor to the magazine, is guest editor for the issue, and the list of contributors he has assembled reminds us of past editions. Many of them are names that brought the journal literary prominence in the 1980s: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, Julian Barnes, Hanif Kureishi.

But why a guest editor for such a landmark issue? Particularly when there is so much energy flying around Granta at the moment, what with its new owner, Sigrid Rausing, and the new staff and west London offices and all that came along with her. (Full disclosure: I was invited to an interview for the editor's job but was passed over in favour of Jason Cowley.) But, most bewildering of all: why, oh why, aren't more - or any - of the pieces in it original commissions?

In his introductory letter, Boyd says that he wanted "to ask a selection of writers associated with the magazine to provide something as yet unpublished for this milestone issue". For the 100th issue? With a backlist like that? Why not just do a "best of" from the past 30 years?

I know the easy answer. When I edited Zembla, a literary magazine that ran from 2003 to 2005, I often asked writers if they had any unpublished gems in their desk drawers - but our backer was the antiquarian bookseller Simon Finch, not the richest man in the world. A big (and fun) part of the challenge was seeing what I could get them to work for instead of money. Will Self was given a first-edition William Burroughs. J T Leroy asked for a pair of Manolo Blahnik heels (I should have realised there was something going on with the chap at that point). Robert Macfarlane settled for a UK first edition of Lolita, which I think we still owe him (sorry about that, Robert; you will get it).

But by far the best stuff I published was writing I commissioned from scratch - asking David Mitchell to interview Samuel Johnson (sure, Johnson had been dead for hundreds of years, but what of it?); having Patrick Neate review his own book; asking Siri Hustvedt, during an in-depth interview, to initiate her own interview with her partner, Paul Auster.

Nothing as interesting happens in the 100th issue of Granta. Instead we get a haphazard collection of leftovers. So, what is it like to read? The lack of a thematic focus, in this case, breeds tedium. James Fenton's "On Buying a Clavichord" is charming, and I was interested to learn that "the clavichord player can actually feel the tension in the strings . . . and can manipulate the sound", unlike with the piano, this instrument's musical nemesis. But the story lacks the force that a random subject requires to make its inclusion here necessary. We might have our own ideas as to why it was formerly "as yet unpublished". Ian McEwan's piece is so smug and bourgeois-ey that I had to drink three cups of coffee to get through it, though perhaps that's the point. A poem by Craig Raine is lyrical but on second reading weak, although it's good to see poetry in Granta for a change.

Yet there are some moments of brilliance. Harold Pinter's short "Poem (To A)" is really quite staggering, and thumps you in the chest with its stark simplicity. A M Homes's short story "May We Be Forgiven" reminds us that she is a master storyteller with an amazing ability to render voices and allow the reader to see what she is describing. Hanif Kureishi's story "Something to Tell You" is strong, as his writing normally is, but it's an extract from his new novel, out in March, so no extra points there - it's an exercise in public relations.

The advantage small journals have over bigger institutions is that they run on enthusiasm, a limitless tank of zeal that tops up every time there is the slightest step forward. A bookshop in south London will stock the magazine? Superb!

But Granta, a literary institution with a billionaire publisher and 100 issues under its belt, needs to identify itself. Is it still a small and scrappy journal that can succeed on Zembla-like terms, or is it part of the literary Establishment? Where is it going to shine? What will be its trademark over the next decade? If it has the money to buy new good writing - and it does - then let us have it. What is the point of buying Granta to read something that you can find extracted in the summer fiction specials of the broadsheet magazines?

With the deaths of George Plimpton, founder of the Paris Review, and Barbara Epstein, a founding editor of the New York Review of Books, and the change of ownership at Granta, this is a critical time not just for Granta but also for the future of the literary journal as an art form. It is no longer enough for a literary magazine to publish "good writing", or even "new writing". We've got the internet now. When Plimpton founded the Paris Review it was an act of rebellion; similarly for Bill Buford when he relaunched Granta in the 1970s. They wanted to shake things up a bit. With the new owner in place, it is time for another shake-up. Granta must loosen up; it must rock and roll. It must not only seek to publish good writing, but it must seek to become original again - original and broad-minded in the ways it communicates with its readers.

The new editor, Jason Cowley, talks of stepping up publication to five or six issues a year, including special editions. He speaks of being more international, embracing writing from Japan, India and Africa. "I don't want Granta to be a literary magazine in the pejorative sense - small, marginal, self-important, pompous. I want it to play a large part in the culture, and it has to be more exciting," he said. But if Cowley is going to walk in the footsteps of Buford and Ian Jack, he had better get the new offices a bit messy and ruffle some feathers. The centenary issue feels like homework he had to read to get the Granta job. But maybe this is his tombstone to the end of the staid literary journal. Let's hope so.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism