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March 10, 2010

Editor Interview: John Freeman, Granta

Not long ago, you were one of the most prolific freelance book critics in the United States. Now, after a stint as Granta's American editor, you've left New York for London, where you have the top spot on Granta's masthead. Being a freelance critic for (mostly) American newspapers and being the editor of a British literary magazine demand very different skill sets, maybe not so much intellectually as organizationally and socially. How have you made the transition?

John Freeman 031010.jpg

That's right -- you could say the Americans and the English are divided by a common language. And not just the words. But I've quite enjoyed it. Granta's history has always been hybrid: an English literary magazine, resurrected by Americans, embraced by the English, and populated by writers from Ingo Schulze to Milan Kundera with of course generous contributions by the profoundly talented British and American novelists who have grown up with us. I think those moments of cultural friction are actually what give the magazine its distinct feel and texture. Managing that and making it into art, rather than something disjointed, is a much bigger challenge than figuring out when it's my turn to buy the round at a pub.

When you were the president of the National Book Critics Circle, you were extremely active in the battle to save endangered book review sections in American newspapers. The British are a people whose bookies regularly make odds on the major writing prizes, which suggests an awareness of things literary that we don't have here. How do you find U.K. literary culture, criticism included, faring compared to ours?

I think the grass is always greener somewhere else, so I meet British writers and editors who greatly (and rightly) admire the rigor and energy of the New York Review of Books and the Believer. And lots of Americans read the Guardian first for its very impressive book section. But if I had to make one generalization about British literary culture I'd say it's much smaller, which has its benefits (and a few problems). America's so geographically large and each city has its own micro-literary culture that there are so-called regional writers in the South and upper Midwest who can develop a rather sizeable following and critical attention without the supposed anointment of New York. It's that separation that's allowed literary magazines like Tin House and McSweeney's to flourish in Portland and San Francisco. (And writers from the late Larry Brown to poets like Leslie Adrienne Miller). On the flip side, Britain doesn't have the same magazine culture as America, so its newspapers are where its serious, most talented writers often turn when they have something they want to say -- which makes Saturday and Sunday a good day for a reader. Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, Caryl Phillips, they all write serious essays for the newspapers. I always miss that when I come back to the U.S. and read the Sunday newspapers.

E-mail's overuse rankles you enough that your first book, which came out in October, was "The Tyranny of E-Mail." Clearly you're not shunning all electronic communication; we're conducting this Q&A by e-mail. So tell me: What are we missing, and what are we gaining -- aside from convenience -- by having this exchange electronically?

We're so infected by computer-language that it's easy to forget that the face was the best interface ever created. So if we rely too much on e-mail, there's a whole set of conversational valences that are effectively erased: no eye contact, no body language, nothing to slow us down when we're about to say something idiotic or offensive, which is partly why we have so many blowouts over e-mail. So I often try to slow things down over e-mail -- which is why I've been slow to respond to this, sorry! I just think it helps, a deliberate slowing down, to find a more thoughtful register (at least I hope that's apparent here). But doing this over e-mail also means it's very hard to have a spontaneous conversation. I'm responding to your questions -- thanks for them, by the way! -- but if we were to have met face-to-face we probably would have wandered down a few tangents which could have produced a richer conversation.

Recently I heard you speak at Symphony Space in New York, where you noted that technology has been cleverly marketed to us as "a prosthetic extension of ourselves," convincing us of the so-called need to brand ourselves. You're hardly a Luddite, and you're no slouch at self-branding, which makes your protest all the more interesting. Given the tremendous pressure journalists feel to brand themselves by using every possible technological tool, I wonder: Is there a better, saner way, and are we all just too panicked to see it? Or is resistance futile?

Well, I hope resistance isn't futile, otherwise we might as well sign up to buy and use every technological development ever sold to us. Little changes can mean a lot. Moving laterally and finding the appropriate channel for a conversation or dialogue can mean a lot. So as a reporter, you can't do all of your reporting by e-mail, otherwise you'll probably miss a significant aspect of a story. People can say surprising things when faced with a silence they have to fill. On the flip side, I think we are moving to a media world where normal distribution channels are fracturing, so on that end journalists and writers do have to find ways to have their work disseminated electronically. It's almost like information has a brand-new vascular system it moves through...But all the big arteries still work, I find, if the majority of your time as a writer is spent doing the thing over-investing in the virtual world makes so hard...which is to sit alone and write the hell of out of what you're working on.


Photo courtesy John Freeman via Granta

March 10, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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