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The Age of Outrage

Outrageous Britain: Granta and the Rebellion Against the English Novel

Granta, l'outrage et la rébellion contre le roman anglais
Cécile Beaufils


Le magazine littéraire contemporain britannique Granta a entamé sa seconde existence en 1979 en se séparant de l'université de Cambridge dont il dépendait, émergeant alors comme un acteur essentiel de la « nouvelle écriture » en langue anglaise. C'est en tant que voix outrée par la persistance du modèle victorien dans le roman anglais que Granta se positionne consciemment. Dès ses premiers numéros, le magazine utilise l'outrage comme un outil paradoxal qui lui permet d'attaquer les tendances existantes. Cette position permet également à Granta de prendre position et donc de s'insérer dans le paysage littéraire. L'outrage, en tant qu'expression d'une colère et remise en question de limites esthétiques, devient alors une posture ancrée dans une stratégie marketing visant à établir l'autorité culturelle du magazine. Cet article part ainsi de l'annonce de la « mort du roman anglais » faite par Granta en 1980 pour se pencher sur le nouveau modèle du roman britannique qu'il propose.

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  • 1 The poem starts thus: ‘Let God get up. He snores in bed/ With a dirty old stocking wrapped round hi (...)

1The literary magazine Granta is nowadays considered as part of the global literary landscape, and has become part of the English-language literary establishment, especially with its ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ series which helped build its posture of authority. Paradoxically, this positioning was born from an initial cry of outrage from the editors in chief, Bill Buford and Pete de Bolla, who decided to radically alter the magazine in 1979. Before then, Granta was a student magazine emanating from the University of Cambridge and founded in 1889. The older Granta had made itself known for challenging authority with parodies and even direct attacks on Cambridge figures of power (for instance, the ‘make your own Proctor’ cut-out figure published in the February 8th, 1939 issue was especially popular). But it was only in 1952 that the magazine was suspended and its editor, Mark Boxer, was rusticated for a term after the publication of a poem by Anthony de Hoghton, ‘God is cranking up his Bentley in the garage’.1 The affair reached the national press, a petition was circulated and signed by figures such as E. M. Forster, and the magazine went on being published under the name The Gadfly for a year.

2The foreword to the third issue of The Gadfly (October 31st, 1953), ironically published in the middle of the issue, states the goal of the magazine as follows:

The Gadfly banned in 1888 after one issue for lovely scurrility and the Grantas that succeeded it had roughly that aim. One of the immaturities of undergraduate society now is the way it swims in separate channels: the Footlights are funny and the little magazines corrugate their brows, the scientist’s spectroscope and the art student’s apple lie on different shelves. We should like then to effect a small union.

3When they assert that the English novel is dead and that there is a definite need for the publication of new international writers, the editors thus act in accordance with the tone set by their forebears. However, the rejuvenation of the magazine in 1979 was the true rupture both in shape and content: the first issue of the new series, ‘New American Writing’, was meant as a protest against the state of contemporary British fiction. The first sentence of the editorial, itself closer in its form to an aesthetic manifesto than a mere introduction to the issue, is ‘It is increasingly a discomforting commonplace that today’s British novel is neither remarkable nor remarkably interesting’ (Granta 1, 3). As a literary quarterly produced within the city walls of Cambridge by two postgraduate students, the issue garnered considerable attention and had to be reprinted soon after the first run of 800 copies.

4This rebellion against the state of the national literary production is by no means an isolated phenomenon. However, considering Granta’s cultural impact, it seems necessary to observe the position it adopted over the years, from the blunt declarations of the first issue to the equally blunt analyses of the third issue and, more recently, to the outrage of ‘What Happened to Us?’ issue 56 (Winter 1996), and to the representation in 2012 of Britain and its literature as a cracked teacup on the cover of the ‘Britain’ issue (Spring 2012, 119). The attitude displayed by the magazine over the years has thus often been characterised by outrage. Outrage, in its OED definition, is essentially dependent on violence, but the dictionary also stresses the origin of the word, which stems from transgression and the existence of a threshold which, when crossed, causes the outrage. The outrage displayed by Granta goes beyond mere dissatisfaction or subversion, being an anger aiming at crossing boundaries. Outrage then seems, in this particular case, to become the core of a paradox as it is used, from the beginnings of the magazine, as a marketing and editorial tool. Anger becomes a selling point. I therefore propose to consider the way in which Granta has used outrage to challenge the boundaries of the English novel as an aesthetic and national model, the better to map out the landscape of contemporary British writing.

  • 2 For instance, critics like David Leon Higdon and Patrick Swinden draw a bleak portrayal of the stat (...)

5The editorials of the first and third issues display an outraged tone directed at the state of the English novel: outrage is first and foremost used as a rhetorical tool for rebellion and can be located in the texts as well as in the paratext, both authorial and editorial. For instance, a casual glance at the titles of the essays published in the ‘Symposium on the British novel’ section of the latter is already informative: ‘Invasion from the outsiders’, by Lorna Sage; ‘The Uneasy Middleground of British Fiction’, by Chris Bigsby; ‘An Irrelevant Parochialism’, by Frederick Bowers; ‘Taking Risks’, by James Gindin and ‘Where Do We Go from Here?’ by Christine Brooke-Rose. Such an accumulation of depreciative terms, in conjunction with the recurring insistence on the sense of an ending which had dominated the post-war academic discourse on the English novel,2 targets the literary production as well as the publishing industry.

  • 3 This attitude is exemplified in the 1960s by Rubin Rabinovitz’s polemical The Reaction Against Expe (...)

6The violent reaction which is to be observed in the paratextual material showcases the intentions of the two editors, Pete de Bolla and Bill Buford (it is to be noted that the latter is American). They both externalise their anger at the state of literature and aim to stir outrage in their readers despite a position that was part of the cultural discourse of the late 1970s. By framing the texts (the essays, the non-fiction narratives and the fictional material) with such a strong horizon of expectation, the editors assert their cultural authority and define the English novel as a fallen gold standard, thus positioning themselves within a broader content. The repetition of impersonal sentences in the editorials, such as ‘It is increasingly a discomforting commonplace that today’s British novel is neither remarkable nor remarkably interesting’ (Granta 1, 3), which opens the first issue, is used to enforce such a critical positioning. The rhetoric of decline displayed in this first sentence underlines the anchoring of the editors within the academic background of the editors (the adjective ‘commonplace’ needs to be understood, for the 1979 reader, within the context of the multiplication of academic texts arguing that experimentation in the English novel has been dead since the 1950s)3 and is used to justify the judgement of taste they develop in the editorial. Such an attitude regarding the British cultural production is characteristic of the period: Granta published several issues presenting the country as a fractured entity and its artistic production as a field in torment.

7These later issues focus both on national identity, presented as a broken teacup on the Sir Paul Smith-designed cover of the ‘Britain’ issue (119, Spring 2012), or on internal fractures: the back cover of issue 56 (Winter 1996), entitled ‘What happened to us? Britain’s Valedictory Realism’, asks ‘Is this a nation, a way of life, saying farewell to itself?’ The issue itself opens on a controversial text written in the first person, ‘The Enemy Within’, by John Banville, focusing on a British spy during the Cold War. Such an enduring cultural discourse has also prevailed in other periodicals, such as the Times Literary Supplement, publishing in 1997 an issue entitled ‘The End of Britain?’ (quoted in Legge 11) in which art and politics are closely linked (the cover advertises an article by George Walden, a former Tory minister, entitled ‘Damien Hirst and Democracy’, in which the author violently derides the Young British Artists as a derivative, parochial movement).

8Granta distinguishes itself from the ambient discourse of the cultural decline of the country through the use of outrage to manifest its rejection of a model perceived as outdated since it uses a template inherited from the Victorian era. According to the editorial of the first issue, the British novel should not be based on its forebears: ‘there are few new voices in British writing today, mostly just echoes: the nineteenth century persists nowhere as it does in the contemporary English novel’ (Granta 1, 3). The superimposition which occurs between the national space and the novel is, according to the editors, related to ‘sameness, a predictable, even if articulate prattling of predictable predicaments’ (Granta 1, 3). This first editorial thus outlines the reproaches made to the English novel, but also delineates why the editors’ outrage extends to the necessity of an opening to the American novel which is described as the opposite of the English novel. The rest of the editorial develops an argumentation closer to that of an academic paper as it dwells on the state of contemporary American fiction. Unlike the English novel, it is praised for its diversity, its experimentations on the model of Donald Barthelme or Thomas Pynchon but also for its attention to the non-fiction novel (and therefore in experimentations with the narration in the form of a novel of actual events) and narration. It is thus opposed to its British counterpart which ‘[rushes] into the senseless and then [refuses] to go further, [locating] the incoherent and the mutable and the predominance of its impersonal media only to refuse to rise above it’ (Granta 1, 9). Furthering this perspective, the end of the editorial defines what the new Granta is, ‘a kind of energetic failure’ (Granta 1, 10) meant to encourage discussion.

9This call for energy against exhaustion, be it synonymous with chaos, becomes a staple of the artistic discourse of the time. As the critic Elizabeth Legge reminds her reader in her article devoted to the Young British Artists, ‘Reinventing Derivation: Roles, Stereotypes, and “Young British Art”’, readers of the American art magazine Artforum witness the ‘crude energy’ of the Young British Artists (Corris, quoted by Legge 8), the art movement emerging in the late 1980s. The editorial thus moves from an initial outrage at the perpetuation of a Victorian literary model in England which has become stilted and sterile, to outrage at the refusal to move beyond the original experimentation of early postmodernism. The editorial, from an outraged piece, becomes an appeal to outrage, to rebellion, and thus an artistic manifesto, hence the definition of the editors who acknowledge the diversity of the magazine in this first issue.

10The editors criticise the lack of intercultural dialogue they perceive in the English novel which follows this earlier model—even mimicking this isolation in their text: ‘Insulated. Enclosed. Consider the resistance to other influences, foreign influences’ (Granta 1, 3). Outrage is then used as an encouragement to dialogue, to go beyond a mere rebellion against isolation: the structure of the issues themselves is based on a dialogic intent, initially between academic discourse and narrative texts, and in later issues, between different genres and between fiction and non-fiction. The first issue opens with an interview of Theodore Solotaroff, and features both narrative material from authors (for instance a preliminary piece from William Gass’s The Tunnel, ‘The First Winter of My Married Life’, as well as an academic piece by a Cambridge graduate student, Don Guttenplan, ‘The Wor(l)ds of William Gass’). In the third issue, whose title, ‘The End of The English Novel’, is programmatic, the primary and the secondary sources are separated in two sections, the first one being comprised of narrative texts by international writers like Salman Rushdie (the issue features the first published extract of Midnight's Children, published without the author’s consent), Alan Sillitoe or Angela Carter, and the second one, ‘A Symposium on the British novel’, containing essays on the definitive end of the Victorian model of fiction, the English novel, and on the necessity of the rebuilding of the British novel. This issue furthers the arguments of the first editorial, asserting both the need for dialogue (as the chosen term ‘symposium’ suggests) and the lack of commitment in British fiction: the outrage of the first issue leads to a rebellion specifically targeted at the English novel, a position announced with humour by the cover. The cover illustration is a photograph of a weeping figure resting its head on a tombstone on which is engraved ‘In Loving Memory of—’, but the black frame of the cover hides the name; it is therefore possible to read the inscription as ‘In Loving Memory of—The End of The English Novel’. The issue thus proposes both an analysis of the reasons behind what is perceived as the demise of the English novel as described in the first issue and several texts used as examples of the new model of British fiction.

  • 4 Chris Bigsby, whose biography appears in the ‘Notes on contributors’ section of the issue (Granta 3 (...)

11The rebellion against the English novel therefore unravels progressively, with an initial outcry presented in the first issue, which pushed it aside altogether, while the third issue leads to a dialogical structure and the proposition of a second stage: outrage is seen as a position which is only valid if it leads to dialogue and commitment. The essays published in the second part of the issue, as well as Bill Buford’s editorial, focus on the reasons for the failure of the English novel, which is both related to its aesthetics and to the general publishing industry. Chris Bigsby’s article,4 ‘The Uneasy Middleground of British Fiction’, analyses the reasons behind the gradual dwindling of the English novel but calls for a new aesthetic embodied by authors like John Fowles or Doris Lessing, which he describes as ‘negociating a territory where it is possible to sustain a commitment neither neutralized by irony nor rendered inoperative by relativism’ (Granta 3, 149). To him, the English novel is caught between excessive postmodernist irony and a lack of experimentation. The new authors he brings to the fore are the ones breaking free from those two extremes, thus transforming the unease of the title into a dynamic negotiation. The end of Bill Buford’s editorial in the third issue then clarifies the distinction between the English novel and the successor he calls for, the British novel. He writes:

the old divisions and the old generalizations are no longer usable. The fiction of today is, as Lorna Sage points out in her symposium essay, testimony to an invasion of outsiders, using a language much larger than the culture. . . . Today, however, the imagination resides along the peripheries. . . . It is, at last, the end of the English novel and the beginning of the British one. (Granta 3, 16)

12In this conclusion, Bill Buford calls for a rupture from a paradigm inherited from the nineteenth century and from an insular model: outrage becomes directed essentially at the need for a discourse emanating from the margins of cultural authority. The editors’ insistence on the role of the peripheries, the margins, corresponds to the desire to externalise their refusal to perpetuate a literary model they saw as limited by its own generic and national boundaries.

13The editors thus expressed their outrage at the state of the novel in Britain, but did not limit their rebellion to the aesthetics of the novel, expanding it to the literary field as a whole. Granta therefore aimed at echoing a rebellion which expanded from the realm of fiction: the third issue already displayed a shift in the target of outrage and the magazine explicitly meant to create a debate. Bill Buford later expressed this absence of dialogue and lack of external stimulation as one of the main motivations behind his change in the magazine; he recalls, during an interview, a conversation with Martin Amis during which the novelist expressed similar views to the editor’s:

Buford recalls a later conversation with [Martin] Amis in which the novelist said: ‘If you were a literary fiction writer and you were a kid, your horizon was empty, there was really nothing else going on. People weren't writing fiction or talking about it—everyone wanted to work for the BBC.’ (Garfield)

14Not only is the novel accused of being isolated from its readers, it is also described as separated from the broader cultural context: the field of literary production is described as essentially monological and therefore failing. The editorial of the third issue, or ‘introduction’, rebels more against the publishing industry than it attacks the writers themselves: the terms ‘Great Crisis in Publishing’ appear in bold letters throughout the entire text. They broaden the debate, leading it the topic of the state of culture and the relationship between the demands of the market and the novels produced by the British publishing industry. Bill Buford then describes the English novel as having several flaws which he proposes to remedy through the publication of Granta: he sees the contemporary literary production as a phenomenon caught in a paradoxical situation, a type of fiction characterised by a lack of a clear aesthetic direction (‘unlike most other historical periods, the problem is not simply one of number but of kind: today’s interesting fiction had until recently exhibited little sense of unity’ [Granta 3, 8]) and, a recurring argument in the early Granta issues, a lack of dialogue (he describes the English novel as ‘that postwar, premodern variety of the middle class monologue, with C. P. Snow on one side and perhaps Margaret Drabble and Melvyn Bragg on the other’ [Granta 3, 9]). The paradox the editor points at lies in the publishing houses: they are accused of transforming the access to books into a luxury when the novels are distinctly, according to Bill Buford, marketed as highbrow products, as he asserts bluntly in the same editorial: ‘Faced with many English novels, I confess I’d rather watch television. Faced recently by their price, I see I have no choice.’
(Granta 3, 8)

15The editor’s attack grows more brutal in his depiction of the exaggerated figure of the ‘Great British Public’:

Of course, it is commonplace that what is published in the end is decided by the Great British Public. A mythic beast of extraordinary proportions—with puffy white arms, sustained by McVities chocolate biscuits and books about the Queen Mother—this Great Public has been elevated to virtually incontestable authority. (Granta 3, 11)

16This portrait, based on a list of national clichés, enables him to combine images taken from popular culture and an indirect attack on the figure of the ‘common reader’, a well-publicised figure since Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay ‘The Common Reader’, in which she insists on the notion of pleasure but also on the existence of a precarious, in-between cultural positioning. What emerges in these editorials is, indirectly, a challenge to the boundaries of cultural authority. The figure of the ‘Great British Public’, a recurring expression in the issue, is used as a negative form of the instability of the ‘middlebrow’, a cultural authority with no justification, and therefore ridiculed by the editors. The true outrage at work here, beyond the criticism of the English novel, seems to be a challenge to the borders of national cultural authority. The irony of the term ‘Great British Public’, underlined in the opening page of the third issue, becomes a scathing attack against the rules defining both literary taste and its relationship to the marketing of literature.

  • 5 The recurrence of the term ‘middleground’, both in the primary sources and the critical material su (...)

17The third issue is indeed opened by two pages. The first one, presented as a warning, is framed in black and written in bold letters and revolves around the figure of the ‘Great British Public’, abbreviated on occasion as ‘the Great B.P.’ Written as a succession of imperatives addressed to a reader wishing to be distinguished from the ‘Great B.P.’: ‘It is quite likely you may know it all and in consequence feel enormously sorry for the Great B.P. For not having enjoyed all your advantages’ (Granta 3, 3). This preliminary warning thus indirectly builds a ‘middleground’:5 the complex irony is directed at a mass audience and at a highbrow audience expecting an elitist stance (the page concludes: ‘don’t, for your successor’s sake, come the superior highbrow over it’ [Granta 3, 3]). The provocation which characterises this page lies in the indirect portrayal of the ideal reader of the magazine, who is aware of the distinction between the demands of the mass market and of the rhetoric of highbrow publications but still maintains distance. Outrage, in this page, is used to reject categorisation and boundaries—and the same stance is reflected in the last page of the issue. The call for subscriptions synthesises the manifesto of the first issue, comparing most literary magazines to ‘your favorite arm chair [sic]’ (Granta 3, 207): ‘They have continuity and a house style and a voice’ (Granta 3, 207), while ‘we intend to be anything but the same’ (Granta 3, 207).

  • 6 Little magazines were firmly anchored within Cambridge culture. Defined by T. Peterson as works ‘ed (...)

18Bill Buford’s text also delves into questions of permanence and turns to the gradual acceleration of pace in the publishing industry—an echo to the creation of the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ instigated by the magazine from 1983 onwards. In calling the current production ‘a truncated fiction chronicle or current ‘hit’ list [which] merely caters to the industry’s mindless pace, generating mini-ideas which, like the books they’re about, exist only to be pulped’ (Granta 3, 14), Bill Buford internalises a rhetoric which is closer to that of a little magazine6 than to that of a publication designed to appeal to the general public, while, paradoxically, being part of a logic of creation of a ‘cultural brand’ in its own right.

  • 7 Such use of the ‘cultural capital’ pertaining to renowned academics can lead us to consider the soc (...)
  • 8 The editorials, in particular in the case of the first issue, rely on critical theory. The essays o (...)

19The magazine, with these initial outcries, based the creation of a cultural status on outrage, on an outcry placing it on the margins of the publishing industry while giving it an aura of its own. Such an intent is underlined by the constant provocation underlying the editorial paratexts and in some of the texts. The editors also lay emphasis on the notion of cultural peripheries as well as on the contradictions inherent in the dominance of the middlebrow they see in British fiction. The role of authority which is created in the first issues is based on the entire magazine as an object: the publication of authors recognised as parts of an ‘institutionalized cultural capital’,7 the use of argumentation based on renowned academics,8 but also its format, anchored both in the field of periodicals and in that of mass market books, and in its use of publicity. The prestigious reviews were subsequently printed on the back cover of the issues when they were reprinted (in particular, David Lodge’s review of the first issue for The Guardian was, and is still used).

20This display of strategies aims at creating a specific aura for the magazine to separate it from its original reputation as a student publication, thus displacing its influence from the boundaries of Cambridge and the academic world into a broader, international cultural space. The editors’ attacks against the British literary production and the publishing industry can then be considered both as an attempt to be located outside of the specific field of the British literary production, and, with its construction of a specific aura of cultural authority, as a new landmark, a new ‘Greenwich Meridian of Literature’ (Casanova xi). As Pascale Casanova postulates in her introduction to The World Republic of Letters, the space of literature, partly independent from national borders, determines its own frontiers. Every part of the literary space, like national entities, still follows the same time standard according to a particular reference, the Greenwich Meridian. Granta, from the periphery of the literary map, aims at becoming a reference, a landmark, while maintaining a posture of rebellion and of refusal.

  • 9 The refusal of ‘exhaustion’ in 1979 mimics the intellectual climate of the time, moving from the or (...)

21The essays published in the early issues are thus largely based on studies of the evolutions of postmodernism. For instance, the novelist Christine Brooke-Rose, in her essay ‘Where Do We Go from Here?’, prolongs the spatial metaphor which pervades the third issue. She provides the reader with a detailed analysis on different trends in the study of postmodernism, from Ihan Hassan to Susan Sontag (herself published in the first issue of Granta) and a mapping of what she considers to be postmodernist writers, selected along the criteria of their relationship with the world: ‘they dramatize . . . the theme of the world’s non-interpretability’ (Granta 3, 162). She thus includes authors from various nationalities, from John Fowles to Thomas Pynchon and William Gass, some of whom were published in the first issue of Granta. She also refuses, like Peter de Bolla and Bill Buford, the possibility that literature may be exhausted and argues for an anchoring of literature in the world, against what she calls ‘brainstuff’ (Granta 3, 186).9 Christine Brooke-Rose’s position thus contributes to the positioning of Granta being part of an international dynamic: its emphasis on rebellion, on outrage, includes it in a larger literary community.

22Such intent is part of the general aesthetics of the magazine and its advertising portion reflects it. The call for subscriptions, when it reminds the reader that the magazine cannot be restricted to a single editorial line, corresponds to the texts published in the third issue (and, with a few evolutions, in the subsequent issues). The issue indeed features both authors who were already published and had reached a certain notoriety and as-yet unpublished authors: Angela Carter’s short story ‘Cousins’ recalls, both in style and content, her then-recently published short story collection The Bloody Chamber and follows ‘Midnight’s Children’, by Salman Rushdie, a fragment from his novel in the form of a long short story, before its publication.

23Granta thus showcases a keen interest in limits, how they might be crossed and how they can be shifted: in its refusal to be limited to a single position, the magazine publishes texts from various genres, from the magical realism prevailing in Salman Rushdie’s text to the more experimental interior monologue ‘Riddley Walker’ by Russell Hoban which concludes the first part of the third issue. It also reworks the nuances of the opposition between texts produced in different countries: if the first issue lays emphasis on the dynamism of the contemporary American novel, by the third issue, the texts are published with no mention of the author’s country of origin save for the ‘Notes on Contributors’ which concludes each issue. The third issue also insists on the distinction between the ‘English novel’ and the 'British novel’: beyond the refusal to conform to a literary model, this addresses a desire to change a label which seems to exclusively link the English language to Victorian fiction. Thus, in the third issue, the two adjectives are used as antagonistic figures. Lorna Sage, in her ‘Invasion from Outsiders’ essay, then insists on the essential role of what she calls ‘invasion’ in contemporary fiction (Granta 3, 134) and she writes: ‘much of what’s significant in English fiction is written with “elsewhere” very much in mind’. This ‘end of empire’ analysis of the literary production was by 1980 well publicised in the academic world, and is shown here as related to the renewal of British fiction—the presence of the ‘other’ is here presented as a key element in the inclusion of the novel within a broader dialogical structure.

24The experience of limits is present throughout the early issues but reappears in recent publications in a different form. The original experimentation with the limits of the national model of literature as out-rage is now expressed through the observation of fractures within the nation. In more recent issues, like issue 56 (Winter 1996), entitled ‘What Happened to Us? Britain’s Valedictory Realism’, the outrage which characterised the early issues is described by the editor, Ian Jack, as ‘the last fling of Britishness’ (Granta 56, 7): he mirrors the ‘end of empire’ rhetoric which was present in the 1980s, but observes the internal fractures displayed by British writing as well as the writers’ apparent preoccupation with the past. Outrage, seen as the trespassing of collective borders, has evolved into the observation of fragmentation, accounted for in the editorial through the use of binary oppositions between the inside and the outside. It opposes national borders (the juxtaposition between the ‘us’ and the question ‘For how much longer will the United Kingdom—as opposed to England, Wales, Scotland and the six counties that now form Northern Ireland—exist?’ [Granta 56, 7–8]) and considers the more general conflict between appearances and reality (‘The surface shone; the rot was underneath’ [Granta 56, 8]). Outrage is thus turned inwards, and the editor’s definition of British writing as ‘valedictory realism’ (Granta 56, 8) refers to ‘a literature of farewell’ (Granta 56, 8). In insisting, in the different parts of the issue, on fragmentation (the issue is framed with ‘Undermining the Kingdom’ and opens with John Banville’s ‘The Enemy Within’, which focuses on a British traitor during the Cold War, and ‘End of an Empire’ closes it). The approach to the dialogue advocated by the first editors between British fiction and other countries in the ‘World Republic of Letters’, as well as the breach of limits, has shifted to a focus on fracture. This evolution of the founding outrage of the magazine is a recurring motif and persists in the editorial discourse, the published works and in the promotional material. As already mentioned, the cover for issue 119, ‘Britain’, published in spring 2012, displays the photograph of a cracked teacup, while the video teaser10 is a single travelling take of a tea party table slowly going awry.

25Outrage, in Granta, has moved from an original aesthetic positioning against the limitations of the British novel to a new set of limits, and has enabled the magazine to move from the periphery of the literary world to its centre by becoming a cultural icon. The object created by the impetus of its outraged—and outrageous—beginnings has used shock value as a way of asserting an editorial line aiming to promote a dialogue in contemporary culture as well as a constant readjustment of its ever-shifting borders, creating communication between various media to challenge the readers’ horizon of expectation. The graphic ‘Sex issue’ cover (Spring 2010, 112) and the ‘Aliens’ cover (Winter 2011, 114), whose visual frame of reference leads the reader to expect a science-fiction issue when it is revealed that it is a montage based on a photograph of migrants, cultivate such a tradition by maintaining unease and instability. The ‘Horror’ (Autumn 2011, 117) and the ‘Medicine’ (Summer 2012, 120) issues, exploring the limits of the human body, have also shown the magazine’s willingness to test boundaries on a number of levels, ensuring that Granta remains a cultural icon caught between the ‘Great British Public’ and a desire to locate and test borders.

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Bourdieu, Pierre, ‘Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction’, ed. Richard K. Brown, Knowledge, Education and Cultural Change, London: Tavistock, 1973, 71–112.

Boxer, Mark, ‘Noël Annan was very kind’, ‘Revelation Granta’ 1239, November 2nd, 1964.

Buford, Bill and Pete De Bolla, eds., ‘New American Writing’, Granta 1, Cambridge: Granta Publications, 1979.

Buford, Bill and Pete De Bolla, eds., ‘The End of the English Novel’, Granta 3, Cambridge: Granta Publications, 1980.

Casanova, Pascale, The World Republic of Letters, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004.

Connor, Steven. The English Novel in History, 1950 to the Present, New York: Routledge, 2002.

Garfield, Simon, ‘From Student Rag to Literary Riches’, The Observer, December 30, 2007.

Freeman, John, ‘Britain’,Granta 119, London: Granta Publications, 2012.

Higdon, David Leon, Shadows of the Past in Contemporary British Fiction, Athens: U of Georgia P, 1984.

Jack, Ian, Granta 56, ‘What Happened to Us? Britain’s Valedictory Realism’, London: Granta Publications, 1996.

Legge, Elizabeth, ‘Reinventing Derivation: Roles, Stereotypes, and “Young British Art”’, Representations 71 (Summer 2000): 1–23.

Peterson, Theodore, Magazines in the Twentieth Century, Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1964.

Swinden, Patrick. The English Novel of History and Society, 1940–1980, London: Macmillan, 1984.

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1 The poem starts thus: ‘Let God get up. He snores in bed/ With a dirty old stocking wrapped round his head’ (quoted in The Granta 1964, 46).

2 For instance, critics like David Leon Higdon and Patrick Swinden draw a bleak portrayal of the state of the post-war English novel. In The English Novel of History and Society, Patrick Swinden states: ‘Too many English novels betrayed a sort of imaginative anaemia and provincialism that was much commented on by foreign writers and readers’ (Swinden 2). He attacks precisely the position of the English novel as a model for conduct instead of a creative outlet: ‘The English novel has always been preoccupied with establishing proper limits within which human beings can best conduct themselves’ (Swinden 12). However he sees the 1980s as a moment of essential change for the English novel and a potential exit from its post-war isolation. David Higdon, in Shadows of the Past in Contemporary British Fiction, also published in 1984, also describes the English novel as an artifact essentially focused on the past, although his analysis concentrates on the change he feels is at hand. On the other hand, critics like Margaret Scanlan dwell on what Steven Connor calls in The English Novel in History ‘a certain collapse of confidence in the inherited narratives of the past’ (Connor 134). They therefore see in the 1980s English novel a model in crisis with its past.

3 This attitude is exemplified in the 1960s by Rubin Rabinovitz’s polemical The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel, published in 1967, and, later on, by David Lodge's argument of the return to a ‘metonymic’ literature (which Lodge relates to realism) in The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy and the Typology of Modern Literature, published in 1977.

4 Chris Bigsby, whose biography appears in the ‘Notes on contributors’ section of the issue (Granta 3, 205–206), is an academic specialising in the study of popular culture. The Granta note adds that his latest book at the time was a ‘study of black writing of the last forty years’ (Granta 3, 205).

5 The recurrence of the term ‘middleground’, both in the primary sources and the critical material such as Elizabeth Legge’s article, is reminiscent of the inherent paradox of the creation of a middleground through outrage. It is also related to the controversy developed by Dave Beech and John Roberts in The Philistine Controversy, in which they attack high art and attempt to reinstate a ‘middleground’ which does not correspond to mediocrity.

6 Little magazines were firmly anchored within Cambridge culture. Defined by T. Peterson as works ‘edited for a discrimination minority’, they are limited in audience but are defined by their refusal of the rules of the mass-market: ‘Their influence, as their editors saw it, lay not in the number of persons they reached but in the kind.’ (Peterson 403)

7 Such use of the ‘cultural capital’ pertaining to renowned academics can lead us to consider the sociological dimension of Granta as one blending reproduction (Bourdieu in Brown 71) and acquisition.

8 The editorials, in particular in the case of the first issue, rely on critical theory. The essays of the ‘symposium on the British novel’ of the third issue also follow such an argumentative basis, thus grounding the outrage against the novel in a theoretical framework which legitimises, paradoxically, the crossing of boundaries.

9 The refusal of ‘exhaustion’ in 1979 mimics the intellectual climate of the time, moving from the originally pessimistic turn of the ‘Literature of Exhaustion’ exemplified in John Barth’s 1967 essay to his 1980 study of postmodernism, ‘The Literature of Replenishment’.

10 Retrieved on December 5th, 2012.

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Cécile Beaufils, « Outrageous Britain: Granta and the Rebellion Against the English Novel »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cécile Beaufils

Université Paris-Diderot—Paris 7
Cécile Beaufils, a former student at the École normale supérieure de Lyon, is a doctoral candidate at the University Paris-Diderot—Paris 7. Her doctoral thesis, entitled ‘The Granta/Granta, un objet culturel hybride’, is supervised by Professor Catherine Bernard. Her research focuses on cultural studies, intermediality and the evolution of the book in recent years.

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