June 7, 2010
Another Part of Print Culture
The National Magazine Awards were given out this weekend, and the results were sort of depressing. The very first line of their website begins, “Despite a year of magazine closings, restructuring and layoffs…” and the recipients of the awards are largely the few hardy brands which remain: The Walrus, Report on Business, Macleans, Canadian Geographic. I know it hasn’t been a good year for periodicals in Canada, given that the Canada Magazine Fund and Publishing Assistance Program are about to be gutted in favour of the much more limited Canada Periodical Fund. The new funding program restricts federal funding to periodicals who distribute at least 5,000 copies a year – a exceedingly difficult number to reach for a magazine published 2 – 4 times per year as so many smaller publications are. But the new funding structure doesn’t come in until this year – our struggling but excellent little ecosystem of tiny journals and quarterlies ought to have been better represented in the NMAs. I love the Walrus, don’t get me wrong – but does highest-profile actually mean best?
This made me wonder what the rest of you are reading. During Book Camp’s Literary Grassroots session, almost every person in the room admitted to having a subscription to a print periodical of some kind. What are you subscribed to? Why? And how do your favourite magazines and journals hold up to the big boys?
I am positively addicted to periodicals. It’s the same neurosis that compels me to check my email every three minutes – I love getting mail. And there are just so many incredible publications out there! Not, sadly, ones which win NMAs – but here’s a look inside my mailbox.
“A Journal of the Printing Arts” from Porcupine’s Quill, DA is dedicated to all those things about the form of the book. The focus is decidedly Canadian. Rather than a series of smaller articles and features, each issue tends to zero in on, for example, one press, artist, or issue and really go over the subject in excellent, long-form detail. The journal is, needless to say, beautifully produced. My favourite bit is the “keepsakes” included in each issue – small prints done by or after the work of print artists like Frank Newfeld or Gerard Brender à Brandis. I’m always scumming garage sales for more little frames for these little beauties!
I wasn’t sure about this one at first. What I wanted was a Canadian version of British Notes and Queries, and that is exactly what this was once supposed to be. Over the years the mandate has broadened somewhat from a more scholarly study of books (not, necessarily, literature) to a more conventional literary review. Nevertheless it remains the place to go for a report on the Canadian book world outside of the Canadian publishing world. Honestly, that it is where David Mason publishes his essays was what ultimately sold me on it. The content is a little unpredictable, but that means it’s likely to contain some really excellent pieces. My only complaint is that they make it devilishly difficult to subscribe. For heaven’s sake, I don’t want to “print out” an order form and mail it in! I want to click on a button and enter my credit card information. Please, and thank you.
This is a British publication, but I love, love, love it! From their website: “Slightly Foxed is a rather unusual kind of book review, informal and independent-minded, and its readers tend to be independent-minded too – people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing.” I picked up my first copy from the British Library in London and have never enjoyed so many successive essays in my life. It isn’t about is-the-book-good or should-you-buy-this-book, but what did this book mean to its reader, and how did it fit into the story he’s about to tell you. I came back from England determined to start a Canadian version of it. Coincidentally I had also just read Don Gillmor’s phenomenal essay My Life With Tolstoy, and I thought, this is the kind of thing I like to read. Needless to say my little idea never got off the ground, but I did subscribe to Slightly Foxed.
They who need no introduction. Let me talk about The Walrus for three minutes: I am only subscribed for Don Gillmor. Once upon a time I would read my Walrus cover to cover and be a better person for it, but I really think it has gone (a little) downhill, its 30+ NMAs not withstanding. For starters, reading Ken Alexander’s editorials was once the highlight of my month. The first editorial I read by current editor John Macfarlane was a plea for money unadorned by anything worth reading. They haven’t got any better. Somehow the articles don’t bite the way they used to. Yes, it still contains some excellent reading and I don’t think there’s a serious challenger for its status as the “Atlantic of the North”, but that speaks more to the lack of competition than any greatness on the Walrus‘s part. I remain subscribed because I want to support the project and, as I say, three or four doses on Don Gillmor per year are worth the price of subscription to me. I have hopes that The Walrus will have higher highs. Perhaps if the remainder of the Canadian magazine world can stay afloat, some competition will do it some good…?