May 24, 2013

“Shit storm” at Granta explained, sort of


Now that I have your attention, the situation at Granta is still really confusing! But it’s gotten a little less confusing, so there’s that.

On Wednesday, I wrote about the weird closed-mouth policy at Granta regarding the magazine’s month-long spate of high-level departures. Well, yesterday the Guardian’s Alison Flood got a bunch of people connected to the journal to comment on the record, including owner/synergy enthusiast Sigrid Rausing and former editor John Freeman, and the results are fascinating, if not entirely illuminating.

The best comments came, as they always do, from anonymous “insiders.” One described the situation at Granta as a “total shit storm,” while another, likely fearing that the “shit storm” insider’s comments weren’t British enough, described it as a “complete bloody disaster.” Why the “bloody shit storm”? At least one of the insiders appears to have indicated to Flood that “It is understood to boil down to a desire by Granta‘s owner to save money, as the company continues to make a loss.”

Comments given to Flood separately by Freeman and Rausing suggest that money is, in fact, the heart of the matter, but their individual comments—and the discrepancies between them—are telling.

Freeman told Flood that:

“Sigrid decided a while back she wanted to run the magazine and books on a very reduced staff”, and that he “didn’t want to be part of that change, or the smaller ship, because I’ve seen us make huge reductions in our losses by growing. Working as a team”.

“I decided it was a good time to get out. And I quit,” he said. “I’ll miss it, though, we had a lot of fun and a lot of momentum, so did the books…. It’s a great magazine. But in the end it is her property and as she’s showing she’s going to do with it what she wants.”

While Rausing had this to say:

“People have left for different reasons, not all of them related… John Freeman wanted to re-locate to New York, and decided to leave, which led us to the decision to close the NYC office. His deputy, Ellah Allfrey, felt that with a new London-based editor, her own job would change, and she decided that she wanted to pursue other things.

Michael Salu, our art director, wanted to go freelance, which meant closing our art department. And Philip Gwyn-Jones is leaving because his role as executive publisher became redundant when I decided to take those aspects on myself.”

“Closing the NYC office, and the art department, will certainly be a cost saving,” she continued. “Publishing is going through rocky times – we are lucky because I can afford the subsidy, which means that we can do things that maybe harder for other publishers. The magazine I don’t think will ever be profitable, but I am certainly hoping that the book side will make money.”

Regardless of what kick-started the present “shit storm”—whether it was Freeman’s decision to move to New York or Rausing’s decision to reduce the staff—both Freeman and Rausing seem to agree that Granta’s financial situation is at the center of it. But Rausing, in her comments, seems to want to have it both ways. The decision to close the NYC office and the art department is BOTH part of a general plan to make the magazine more profitable AND inevitable as the result of the (totally unrelated, guys) departures of Freeman and Salu, respectively.

In Rausing’s convoluted version of events, cost-cutting measures seem to fall into her lap, as if by accident. (John Freeman wants to move to New York! Let’s close the NYC office, then! How lucky!) Freeman’s simpler version of events, in which Rausing wanted to reduce the staff and he did not want to play a part in that decision, strikes me as the more accurate one (that said, I am a sucker for Occam’s razor).

Still, perhaps Rausing is right—perhaps all Granta needs is a little bit of synergy and the journal will come out of this mess better than ever. But while the Guardian story answers some of the questions observers have been asking over the last month, Granta‘s long-term and short-term future remains uncertain. The departures of the supremely talented Freeman and Gwyn-Jones, the seeming confusion as to how to respond to Granta’s rocky financial situation, and the conflicting messages sent out by the magazine’s departing editor and publisher suggest Granta’s difficulties are here to stay—at least for the next little while. As novelist Peter Carey told Flood:

“It’s crazy because it undoes all the good work and they have to start all over again. If there’s another John Freeman out there, I doubt he’ll be applying. Maybe they don’t know whether they want to run it for its own sake or to make money. Very strange.”

Very strange indeed.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.