I'm really not sure what's happened to Granta in the last few years. I used to greet the arrival of each new issue with such excitement; it was fresh and interesting and relevant. Now each issue seems to be met with weary disappointment. It is perhaps more experimental and daring than in the past, taking risks with new or less established writers, but at a cost. It has lost its relevance and the few exciting pieces get lost in a maelstrom of clunky, overwrought and occasionally pretentious rubbish.
An issue on Japan should have offered something intriguing and at the cutting edge of a debate about the country's future, amidst a demographic crisis and the ongoing fall out from its recent tsunami and nuclear disaster. Instead we get something that reads as if it is an anthology put together by an undergraduate creative writing class. The only revelatory piece I can recall is Pico Iyer's account of a Japanese wedding. The rest of the issue was so deeply disappointing.
Whilst fighting my way to issue 127's gloomy end, Granta 128 landed on my doorstep. Its theme - American Wild - offers so many possibilities. Yet if the theme's potential isn't realised, I may - after 15 years and more than 60 issues - call time on my subscription.
This received an almighty panning from the American reviewer who is clearly possessed of much more insight into the Japanese history of short fiction. Nevertheless, I wanted to say that I enjoyed most of the stories in this edition of Granta. I read the book before I got to the review (which is from A J Sutter, an American living in Japan). I can't comment on his dismissal of the editing talents of Yuka Igarashi as I haven't read the originals and have to take his word that the quality might be better. But he makes the salient point in his comment on my review that only eight of the stories here are written by Japanese writers. This paucity is disappointing, when comparable collections on Brazillian writers and other recent collections are wholly given over to the writing of the country concerned. Nevertheless I found several of the stories highly enjoyable.
My own scattergun approach to the genre is probably only too open to being deplored but I enjoyed quite a few of the stories I read in this quarter's offering. Hiroko Oyamada's Spider Lilies somehow spoke of the specificity of Japanese culture as related to plants and breast feeding, not to mention eyedrops delivered straight from the source. Well, it made me smile, anyway.
The Beauty of the Package by Pico Iyer described the Japanese way with marriage both alienating and instructive. The photographs come before the service, a girl at an organ plays Bach, emotion sweeps through the participants and the occasion is perfectly choreographed, with God translated to kami-sama, originally a word meant for a Shinto deity. In place of telegrams and speeches there is an apology by the groom for only spending $30,000 on the event. There's a speech from the groom's boss and everybody either giggles or cries as bags of money are handed out (much preferable to the usual canteens of cutlery and toasters). Everything is neatly packaged in Japan, Iyer tells us, but for those who stay longer complaints are heard about the packaging of the self: "The packaging of rituals and the heart. As if something dishevelled is automatically more authentic, as if personal feelings can't be set within impersonal frames, the way the wedding photos from this day will be, and the memories of what was felt when Bono and The Edge sang `One' on the sound system."
There is more to be enjoyed than to be dismissed here, especially the disorienting and perfectly beautiful story The Dogs. I began with disorientation, and ended orientated to the beautiful east, following the white dogs into the lake.
Best Young British Novelists, great, Spanish- great selection of writing, Brazilian-likewise. What I expected here to be a representative slice of contemporary Japanese writing: this was a bit odd, a bit bonkers and knowing that there is a lot of great contemporary Japanese literature it would be wonderful to access, it seems like a missed opportunity. Although each Japanese piece had a different translator, I found several of the translations unappealing (either that or it was unappealing writing style I'm not qualified to judge), rendering dialogue in several pieces clunky and naive- sounding.Heavy use of American English also jarred. Another criticism is that this anthology not very Japanese: lots of writers not Japanese- which seems like a missed opportunity, even if David Mitchell's contribution was easily the best. I liked it when Granta had an editorial -if there was one here I perhaps wouldn't be so bewildered by what they were trying to achieve. Did the illustrator also not deserve a mention? Perhaps I missed it, but it seemed well hidden.