The dumbing of the beast

The Walrus magazine's diminished aspirations speak to
the empoverished state of the Canadian intellectual realm

The Walrus is a magazine that should matter. It doesn't
 
Managing Editor
True North Perspective

 
 

Pierre Trudeau replies to his critics
Detail from the iconic photo by Boris Spremo/GetStock.co.

Back in the early days of the new century, I took a leap of nationalist faith and subscribed, sight unseen, to a new Canadian magazine, The Walrus. Deliberately modeled upon Harper's, up to and including its design, the first issue of The Walrus even boasted an essay by Lewis Lapham.

Although I thought the first issue was flawed, I was reasonably impressed by its debut and for a time was optimistic it would improve.

But during Ken Alexander's run as editor, the magazine remained flawed, a victim, I surmised then, of a small and insular and insecure Canadian intelligentsia and of what struck me as a basically content, bourgeois political mind at its helm, unsure where or how to sail the wannabe ship of Canada's public intellectuals.

Still, it was a more interesting read than any other Canadian magazine of ideas (with the possible exception of Montréal's Maisonneuve) and I re-subscribed once or twice, before letting that lapse in favour of an issue here or there when a cover caught my eye.

It was and remained a magazine I wanted to like, not one I did like, at least not very much.

The next time I wrote in any depth about The Walrus was in response to then-editor Alexander's bizarrely a-historical thesis that (a) the habit of new immigrants to huddle together is a new phenemenon and that (b) that self-ghettoization is somehow a result of 9/11.

I posted a reply to The Walrus' website (now strangely missing — I've reposted it to my own website, thanks to the heroics of The WayBack Machine) on January 26, 2008.

In retrospect, Alexander's editorial was not an aberration but in fact was pretty indicative of what was wrong with the magazine in general — a faux intellectual alarmism reminiscent of The Atlantic and a preference for shallow coverage of serious topics over anything that might actually make a reader think. In other words, The Walrus was too often about surface and too seldom about depth.

Having now read the September 2010, edition — my first in quite some time — I am sad to report that the magazine no longer even seems to remember its initial and admirably ambitious intentions. Instead, it seems to have given up entirely on being something different in favour of becoming a high-end service magazine — New York rather than The New Yorker.

Third way to oblivion! (Most of the time)

Copying a competitor is an all-too-common gambit employed by failing enterprises, or by those who have not met the expectations of their owners. More often than not, such attempts lead to the loss of those virtues which made the company or project worthwhile in the first place, while doing little to convince those who already liked the competition that the copy-cat was worth switching to.

Fans of the exercise might point to Tony Blair's Third Way, which at least temporarily turned around the fortunes of Britain's Labour Party as a notable exception, but they must then neglect to notice that Britain didn't have a mainstream Liberal Party of substance. Blair moved Labour into unoccupied territory (unlike Canada's NDP, which has spent a couple of decades now trying to out-liberal the Liberals, a fool's errand in a country with three-party (or more!) system. But I digress.

I admit I wasn't optimistic about the future of The Walrus when I read that Toronto Life's former editor, John Macfarlane would be replacing Alexander at the magazine's helm, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; after all, the mere fact that he had run the Toronto Life didn't mean that such a magazine was his ultimate ambition.

The point is, copying the competition is not usually an effective road to success; and in the case of a magazine like The Walrus, supported by a charitable non-profit Foundation, and ostensibly meant to be different from the slick, middle-brow publications with which it shares newstand space, there really seems to be little point in such a change.

I know that declaring a trend based on but a single data-point is a fool's game but if the current issue is anything to go by, that is precisely what has happened.

Far from being a serious journal of ideas and argument, The Walrus now aspires to being a high-end magazine of cock-tail chatter and vapid witticisms designed to impress, not to challenge.

McFarlane's "Editor's Note" offers a perfect opening to a mediocre publication with a not-at-all-subtle put-down of the North American school board system. He suggests, in disengenuously faux dispassionate tone, that school boards are too bureaucratic and that Canadian children and Canadian society would be better served if they were to be replaced by something else, perhaps modelled on the volunteer boards which run many public hospitals.

But he never quite explains why the current system is so bad, nor why it must be replaced rather than reformed. Correct me if I'm wrong, isn't an organization that employs only 50 managers to oversee "595 schools, 257,000 students, 16,000 elementary and secondary school teachers, and 25,000 additional full-and part-time staff" on an annual budget of "about $2.5 billion" an awfully lean outfit by any standard? (Seriously: please correct me if I'm wrong.)

In any event, Macfarlane argues for the abolition of school boards, but in such a passive-aggressive tone the casual reader could be forgiven for seeing no thesis at all. Macfarlane cloaks his conclusions in leading questions rather than boldly defended assertions.

Next on the agenda is personal memoir of Denise Chong's brush with Pierre Trudeau's fame. An affectionate and touching piece that's stronger on the personal than on the political, it is an ultimately forgettable paen to the deceased Trudeau.

Trudeau is followed by brief reports on a Canadian research station in the far north, on economic and political relations between Canada and Brazil, on a Canadian tennis player and on a Canadian reality television star. Trivia, in other words.

Only when we reach page 26 and J.B. MacKinnon's long essay on the future of the world's environment, do we approach the realm of serious thought.

"A 10 Percent World" is in fact a very good piece on the (very bad) state of the world and also, and unusually, an optimistic one. No Polyanna, MacKinnon urges work and realistic optimism, rather than despair, and the message is one that bears repeating.

Yet "A 10 Percent World" is strangely silent on causes — on the economics and politics of our slow-moving world crisis and, while they are arguably not necessary in this particular piece, their absence seemed suspicious when I read it, a harbinger of The Walrus as it has become.

Next up is "Pravda and Other Words for Truth" by Medeine Tribinevicius, a well-written but shallow story on the popularity in the west of post-Soviet kitsche.

Or rather, of a small Toronto trend we are supposed to accept as a significant signifier of ... well, of something. In the end, it seems basically to be a story of a writer who managed to spin conversations with a few local bar-owners, and one eccentric art-dealer and prop-man, into a sale to a high-paying national magazine.

"Pravda and Other Words for Truth" is entertaining filler disguised as cultural anthropology; a puff piece, in other words. Nothing wrong with that, but too much of the magazine is devoted to variations on the form and a magazine which takes charitable donations on account of its importance to Canada's belle letres and political culture ought to aim higher.

Following is a long profile on Indira Samarasekera, the controversial president of the University of Alberta by Gordon Laird. And profile is precisely what this story is. Larger ideas — the conflict between arts and sciences, between applied and theoretical sciences — are mentioned but not actually addressed.

The focus of the 8,000 word article is upon Samarasekera herself and, but perhaps for its length, would not have been out of place in Report on Business Magazine. The issues which make Samarasekera a "controversial" figure run straight to the heart of the future of the human experiment on this planet, yet they are dismissed, as if the current iteration of capitalist democracy is something closer to a law of nature than a temporal human construct.

University President Super-Star! gives way to what is arguably the best piece of writing in the September issue of The Walrus. Marni Jackson's "The Boomerang Effect", a self-reflective essay on some of the issues involved in becoming a parent at a relatively late stage of life.

The introductory note suggests we are in for an analysis of "aging baby boomers...shouldering a greater burden [of] parenting their adult children", but any reader expecting either a sociological treatise or even a top-10 list of do's and dont's will be sorely disappointed.

Jackson's reflections are strictly personal, and the "The Boomerang Effect" is an example of the form at close to its highest level. As with good fiction, the reader is presented a story, to interpret on his or her own terms. Jackson is "simply" offering the reader a clear and concise slice of a life. We are free to see parallels to our own lives, or not; to draw conclusions, or not; to enjoy her narrative, or not.

Jackson's "true" story is followed immediately by the magazine's short story, David Bergen's "The Matter with Morris", about which I have almost nothing to say.

I did read it but, forgot it almost as soon as I turned the page and couldn't recall a single detail about it until I revisited it (less than a week later) for this essay.

But as it is not the kind of story in which I'm usually interested, I don't think I'm qualified to say whether or not it's a good example of the genre of short literary fiction. I seldom read the short stories in Harper's or The New Yorker either, and when I do, I usualy forget them right away as well.

If a linear, author-omniscient narrative tale of a middle-aged writer's grief, the dissolution of his marriage and his (possible) redemption via a long-distance correspondent, intrigues you, so might "The Matter With Morris".

Fiction marks the magazine's segue from current affairs in favour of the arts and culture — or so one would think.

Instead, it is time to embrace the people who are involved in the arts.

In "The Canadian School", Jessica Johnson explains that Canada has no first-rank fashion industry but that some indivdual designers are creating specialized niches for themselves, which I presume is very nice for them.

 
  "'Satire'? We don't need no stinkin' satire!"

After that comes "Books", which, surely, will offer us something beyond a personality profile.

Well. Surely not.

"The Work of Art" is about the Haitian-born, Montréal-based writer Dany Laferrière. Not about his fiction, or his ideas, but about the man. A potted biography, an over-view of his rise to relative fame, and that's about it. Laferrière sounds like an interesting man, but I am as in the dark as to whether I might be interested in his work than I was before I read the article.

Penultimately, there is a mildly interesting piece on the Toronto International Film Festival's decision to build its own lavish film-centre in the heart of downtown Toronto.

And once again, we are face-to-face with an article that is, at best, only a single step up from high-end service journalism.

If The Walrus aspires only to compete with the likes of Toronto Life, that is of course the perogative of its board of directors. And the existence of that board, presumably meaning the magazine need not necessarily earn a profit, just might see it survive where the likes of Saturday Night or even The Idler (for which there is not even a Wikipedia entry) have succumbed to entropy's grinder, at least for a while.

As a writer, I of course want there to be as many high-paying markets out there as possible (even if with this article I might well have put the kibosh on my changes of selling something to The Walrus in particular), but as a reader, The Walrus offers little I can't find elsewhere other than a certain snobbish cachet due to its name and one-time pretentions alone.

Besides, Toronto Life has more pictures and offers coupons to boot.

Nearly a decade after The Walrus was launched, Canada still needs a home-grown venue for writing about art, culture and politics.

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