From debut novelists to Nobel Laureates: British Library acquires Granta’s archive to mark the magazine’s fortieth anniversary

Granta at Forty (c) Granta magazine

  • The British Library has acquired the archive of Granta magazine marking forty years since the UK literary magazine was relaunched
  • Featuring letters and papers from well-known authors such as Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Kazuo Ishiguro, Iris Murdoch, Ben Okri and Fay Weldon, the Granta magazine archive is a significant source for understanding the landscape of contemporary British writing and publishing
  • Author AL Kennedy will be in conversation with Granta’s Deputy Editor Rosalind Porter at the British Library on 22 July 2019 to discuss Literature in Crisis? 40 Years of Granta, chaired by Samira Ahmed

Granta magazine was founded by Cambridge university students in 1889 before being re-launched in 1979 by editor Bill Buford, who transformed it into one of the world’s most important literary periodicals. The magazine has launched the careers of some of the UK’s most significant contemporary writers, among them Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith, as well as introducing the work of many international writers to a British readership.

Comprising around three-hundred boxes of material, the Granta magazine archive is a key source for understanding every aspect of late twentieth-century writing and publishing, including practical financial and administrative decisions; relationships between literary agents, publishers, and authors; and issues of gender, race, and foreign-language representation in British publishing.

Featuring correspondence from many well-known authors, including Martin Amis, John Berger, Raymond Carver, Doris Lessing and Martha Gellhorn sharing their working processes, aesthetic philosophies, personal situations and their opinions of rivals and friends, the Granta archive includes marked-up proofs, back issues, original correspondence to authors, agents and literary organisations and documents on readership, marketing, design, financials and other administrative concerns. 

Granta initially relaunched in 1979 to promote American writing in Britain, but fast became seen as an innovative international magazine dedicated to championing the most innovative contemporary literature and to rail against what was seen as a ‘crisis in fiction publishing’ in the UK.

Highlights from the archive include:

  • Letter from Doris Lessing, 21 January 1983: “The problem here is that I do have a strong reluctance to writing it at all, which disarms me; but you, I think, dislike a style which is natural to me – between the two of us, we have produced a curious lifelessness.”
  • Letter from Susan Sontag, 13 February 1979: “Every time I come to England – admittedly, only to London – I’m astonished and exasperated by the ignorance of contemporary American fiction. What you’re doing seems to me very worthwhile, and I hope that this special issue of Granta will be the first issue of a new kind of magazine for England. It seems hard now to imagine that yours is the country which produced, among others, Virginia Woolf. For the moment, at least – and it is a very long moment: thirty years – Virginia Woolf has been proved wrong. Arnold Bennett won, after all.  But perhaps you can change that.”
  • Letter from Kazuo Ishiguro, 2 May 1980 (asking for his short story, ‘Getting Poisoned’, to be considered for Granta magazine). “It may well be the case that the story got lost in the post, in which case I would be very grateful if you could contact me and tell me you have never heard of such a story, nor its author.”
  • Letter from Martha Gellhorn, 22 August 1988: “Your contract does not sound like you or Granta. It sounds like dreaded Penguin…  I hate to see you so much in the pocket of these Penguin people which you are. You’re a feather in their lousy cap, you know; and your books will not get any more care than anything of theirs does, unless it’s a bestseller. …   The mag only has to look neglected or dubious for a few issues for it to lose its shine. Be very careful now.”
  • Letter from Kingsley Amis, 4 December 1979 “I am afraid you are almost certain to be unable to afford me.”

Sigrid Rausing, Editor of Granta, said: ‘I am delighted that the Granta archive has found a permanent home at The British Library, where it will be preserved and finally made available to scholars and lovers of literature alike. The material generated from forty years of publishing Granta does so much more than simply showcase the history of our beloved literary quarterly: it also reveals how a plucky American, determined to shake things up by bringing new, edgy American writing to British readers, accidently ended up championing some of Britain’s – and indeed the world’s – most exciting writers. As a major research centre which attracts readers from all over the world, the Granta archive is now in the best of hands.’

Rachel Foss, Head of Contemporary Archival and Manuscripts Collections at the British Library, said: ‘Granta magazine has crucially shaped the landscape of contemporary fiction publishing in the UK and we are thrilled to have acquired the Archive of Granta magazine in their 40th anniversary year. This is an archive of remarkable depth and completeness, charting the intricacies of the day-to-day workings of the magazine that became a literary phenomenon and including hundreds of original, unpublished letters from leading authors, many notable for their depth of detail, personal exchange, playfulness, and even anger.’ 

To coincide with the acquisition, the British Library will be hosting Literature in Crisis? 40 Years of Granta, featuring author AL Kennedy in conversation with Granta’s Rosalind Porter and chaired by Samira Ahmed, on 22 July 2019.

The British Library’s collection of contemporary literary archives is extensive and the Archive of Granta magazine complements recent high profile acquisitions including the personal archives of Hanif Kureishi, Will Self, Joan Bakewell and Michael Palin, as well as the Hay Festival Archive, the Archive of Virago, the feminist publishing press established in the 1970s, and the Archive of Wasafiri, the UK’s leading journal of contemporary international writing.

The Archive of Granta magazine will be available to view in the British Library Reading Rooms by 2021. For more information on how to become a Reader, please visit the British Library website.


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