Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

1 posts from May 2023

18 May 2023

Tracked Changes: Looking for Migrant Editors in Publishing Archives

Ben Fried was a 2022 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library; he recently completed his PhD at Cornell University and is currently a British Academy Newton International Fellow at the Institute of English Studies in the University of London, where he is working on 'Migrant Editors: Postwar Migration and the Making of Anglophone Literatures, 1967-1989.'

I came to the British Library in search of publishing archives—the records of how books come into the world and reach their readers. As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, I was beginning a new project on 'migrant editors,' on the postwar immigrants to London who created and reinvented the capital’s literary institutions. How did migrant-led publishing houses and magazines develop through the decades of decolonization and shape later twentieth-century fiction, both British and more broadly Anglophone? I was hungry to understand the extent to which these editors harnessed and redirected London’s cultural and commercial power. I wanted to learn how their own hybrid identities influenced the writers they cultivated and the works they released. I knew the answers lay in letters, memos, pleas for money, and the margins of manuscripts.

And so I spent my month sifting through three archives in particular: the Virago Press records,1 Carmen Callil’s personal archive,2 and the files of Granta magazine (which are still being catalogued).

White background with an image of a green apple with a bite taken out of it on the right, with the word Virago above.
Promotional pin badge for Virago Press; part of the Virago Press Archive (Add MS 88904).

The famed feminist Virago Press was founded in 1973 by the Australian Callil and later led by a Canadian, Lennie Goodings. Sitting in both the Manuscripts and Maps Reading Room, I opened folder after folder of author correspondence, business plans, reader reports, all of them illustrating the fates of individual works and the larger sweep of an upstart publisher’s progress. Callil died just a few months ago, in October 2022, and her courage (not to mention her crackling wit and energy) is everywhere apparent in these archives. The picture they paint is not a solitary portrait, however, but a scene of collective literary labour, illuminated by the sparks that fly off creative relationships. Callil was a necessary node in a much wider network of readers, professional and lay, mobilizing to bring women’s stories to the centre of literary life.

Take, for instance, the folders devoted to Angela Carter, perhaps the most emblematic of Virago’s contemporary authors.3 They reveal a Carter who was as important a reader to Virago as she was a writer. You can track not only the agonizingly slow development of Carter’s Sadeian Woman (1978)—a study of the Marquis de Sade and 'the culturally determined nature of women'4—but her backstage interventions on other writers’ behalf. She submitted reports on manuscripts; she connected aspiring authors to an ambitious publisher. She acted as a go-between, and practically a second editor, for her former student Pat Barker, passing along Barker’s first novel with twelve pages of luminously insightful notes. On 8 January 1981, Callil replied that 'I’m deeply grateful to you for getting the book to me; I’ve offered for it and asked at the same time that they will let me work with her incorporating your alterations and suggestions.'5 Barker’s revised Union Street was published in 1982 and quickly became one of Virago’s biggest sellers, proof that a press famous for reprinting forgotten classics could also launch startlingly original fiction.

Granta was similarly electrified by a fresh arrival’s energy. A venerable undergraduate magazine at Cambridge which ran out of steam in the 1970s, it was relaunched by the American graduate student Bill Buford in 1979. Initially a channel for American literary influence—its first issue purveyed 'New American Writing' and its third proclaimed 'The End of the English Novel'—it became over the course of the 1980s a much broader magazine for writing in English, one that has exhilarated generations of writers and readers. The Granta records open a window onto the alchemical process of bringing an issue together. Along with his co-founders Peter de Bolla and Jonathan Levi, Buford began by working his academic connections and wielding his university’s clout, coaxing established authors to contribute and letting would-be writers down gently, hustling for grant money and blowing past unpaid bills. Given such ingredients and such results, it’s rather fitting that Buford followed up his celebrated editorial career with an equally ravenous second act as a cooking-mad writer.

A type written letter from Susan Sontag to Bill Buford, 13 February 1979.
Letter to Granta from Susan Sontag, 13 February 1979; copyright, The Estate of Susan Sontag.

One of the most famous of all Granta issues—the Spring 1983 number devoted to 'The Best of Young British Novelists'—shows how vision and opportunism, readerly recognition and marketing flair, could combine in the editorial act. Buford neither initiated nor chose this list of promising young writers. Rather, the 'Best of British' began as a promotional ploy by the Book Marketing Council. But Buford and Granta seized the potential of the list as an issue-shaping, generation-defining, audience-enticing format.6 They built on the Council’s own marketing push, selected excerpts from each author’s work, and made the list palpable to the reading public. Buford’s textual suggestions were not universally welcome. William Boyd embraced the idea of shifting a story’s pronouns, while Maggie Gee 'rejected every one of the [editor’s] 47 emendations.'7 Nevertheless, the magazine reaped the reward. Its cachet as a cultural arbiter immeasurably enhanced, Granta has returned to the format every ten years to anoint a new cohort (its latest 'Best of Young British Novelists' issue dropped just weeks ago).

I think of editors like Callil and Buford as readers with power—the power to select, revise, and reject. Editorial reading can be a generous force, releasing the creativity of others and realizing the potential in the text. By the same token, it may also be damaging, turning the tap off as well as on. Insofar as they can be recovered in archives such as those held by the British Library, the editor’s contributions tell us a great deal about writers, readers, and publishing institutions—about where and how power and creativity intersect.

Notes

1. Add MS 88904.
2. Add MS 889178.
3. In the 1970s and 80s, Virago was primarily known for reprint publishing: recovering and reissuing the works of neglected women writers. The Virago Modern Classics series, with its beloved green spines, introduced a generation to the books of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stevie Smith, Christina Stead, Rosamond Lehmann, and many, many others. See D-M Withers, Virago Reprints and Modern Classics: The Timely Business of Feminist Publishing (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2021).
4. The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (London: Virago 1978), 1.
5. Add MS 88904/1/60.
6. See Myles Oldershaw, “Granta and the Advent of the Contemporary,” Journal of Modern Literature 43.1 (Fall 2019), pp. 150-168.
7. Deposit 11183 L. in 44.