or, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret Atwood
from the Aug. 13, 2009 issue of prairie dog magazine
by Emmet Matheson
“The sad fact is that the next generation of Canadian writers is working at Starbucks because writing doesn’t pay the bills.”
Richard Rosenbaum is being a little facetious, but probably not as much as he wishes he could be. As associate and online fiction editor for Broken Pencil, the magazine of record for zine culture and independent arts, he’s better positioned than most to know what’s going on with the Giller nominees of 2025.
Rosenbaum recently edited Can’tLit, an anthology of fiction published by Broken Pencil over the last decade, which will be published by ECW Press this fall.
Assuming you already have a latte, that’s where you’ll find Canada’s freshest writers.
You’ll also find them in magazines, at least for now. But magazines are in trouble around the world, facing the double whammy of a global recession and an online audience that expects everything for free. Canadian mags are even more vulnerable, faced with the overwhelming free flow of content from the U.S. and a federal government that’s at best suspicious of all things cultural.
Most ominously, Masthead, a Canadian magazine about Canadian magazines, folded last October. But while they last, magazines like Broken Pencil, Winnipeg-based Border Crossings, and The Walrus continue to present the best in Canadian writing, both fiction and non-fiction.
“Magazines that publish fiction are always at the forefront of discovering new talent,” says Rosenbaum, “because the newest writers who are just discovering themselves and experimenting with forms are writing short stories, and magazines are practically the only medium that prints individual short stories.
“If you’re looking for really exciting writing, that’s where you’re going to find it,” he says. “I don’t think most people realize that. Because if they did, Canadian magazines would be in a much better state. Broken Pencil has been around for 15 years but it’s always just barely kept its head above water. The Walrus is practically bankrupt. It’s a matter of insufficient funding certainly, but it’s also that I think people just don’t realize how much great stuff there is out there.”
The Walrus was founded in 2003 as a Canadian answer to high-minded American general-interest mags like Harper’s or The New Yorker. Since its launch it has consistently cleaned up at the Canadian National Magazine Awards, and was recently awarded the “Best Writing” prize from the Utne Reader’s annual Independent Press Awards.
The Walrus boasts a paid circulation of 60,000. Not bad for what publisher Shelley Ambrose calls “a Canadian magazine for smart people.”
But perhaps The Walrus’s most notable achievement, the reason it deserves to be enshrined as a national treasure, was its March cover-dated issue. At a time when every magazine, American, Canadian, Uruguayan, whatever, had U.S. President Barack Obama on their cover, The Walrus stood out on the rack with its cover featuring a Marco Ventura portrait of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Ambrose recently posted a video appeal on the magazine’s website, calling for donations to the Walrus Foundation, the non-profit organization that guides and provides a third revenue stream for the magazine, beyond the traditional circulation and advertising dollars. But as the global recession claims its casualties in the corporate world, the once-titans of ad buying, like GM, just aren’t spending like they used to.
“Our advertising revenue has plummeted,” Ambrose says, “because we are attached to the outside world.”
That’s why The Walrus was founded on a model based on the funding structure of U.S. mag Harper’s, which is partially funded by the McArthur Foundation. Similar to the concept of Community Radio, The Walrus accepts that what it’s doing may not always be commercially viable, but nonetheless takes on the important and vital task of presenting Canadian voices.
The Walrus has bet its life that means enough to Canadians that they’ll support it.
“If Canada is going to have a magazine like this, it’s going to have to be based on that funding model,” Ambrose says. “Though it’s difficult for many Canadians to understand why they should give money to a magazine. There’s no reason for someone to pick up The Walrus instead of a magazine like Harper’s or The Economist except that it’s by and for Canadians. Those other magazines, as good as they are, don’t talk about us.”
Lee Henderson is a Saskatoon-born writer living in Vancouver. His short story, “The Nerve”, is featured in the recent “Summer Reading” issue of The Walrus alongside fiction by Joseph Boyden and Stephen Marche.
Henderson’s first novel, The Man Game, recently won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize at the B.C. Book Awards.
“If The Walrus didn’t exist in Canada, the country’s national identity once again goes into hiding,” says Henderson. “We need this ferociously weird, shaggy broom-bristle-moustached ice monster to stand tall for our shiftless, passive national intelligence.
“I love The Walrus,” he says.
Henderson is also a contributing editor at Border Crossings. Border Crossings published his short story “Conjugation” in 2005, which went on to win the gold medal for fiction at the 2006 Western Magazine Awards.
Henderson has also written journalism and criticism for both Border Crossings and The Walrus.
“Journalism is a necessary part of a writing life,” he says. “It takes me out of my sordid brain and into the world to meet real people and learn their stories. At its best, journalism is a deeply selfless art. I look to do journalism that will help me research or inspire my fiction projects.”
Both Henderson and Rosenbaum attest that Canadian readers do indeed have a desire to read Canadian writers.
“Broken Pencil’s annual online fiction contest, the Indies Writers Deathmatch, I think has proven that Canadians do have a craving for the new and the weird if they just knew where to look for it,” Rosenbaum says.
“We have to find a way to let Canadian readers know that this is really where the boundary-pushing art is happening. Nobody has a lot of money right now, but if you knew that for like 20 dollars a year you could discover all this great new stuff that would genuinely enhance your life and help Canadian artists survive, wouldn’t you want to do it?”
Can’tLit features nearly 40 different writers ranging from total unknowns to more established scribblers like Joey Comeau and Zoe Whittall. Rosenbaum is quick to point to highlights like Emma Healey’s “Last Winter Here” as “one of the best things we’ve ever printed,” “Panties” by Greg Kearney as “hilarious and weird in exactly the way we love” and Janette Platana’s “heartbreaking” tale of the Clash playing in Regina, “Some of This is True”.
Canadian writers, it seems, will always be with us. They’re a tenacious bunch with something to say, usually about ourselves. Often unflattering.
One believes, one hopes, that in a world where Canadian bands like Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene can attract the gaze of the world, Canadian writers will somehow, some way, finally attract the readership they deserve right here in Canada. Maybe Canadians will someday come to appreciate learning about themselves, perhaps from a magazine that dared to put Stephen Harper on their cover at a time when it was really important for Canadians to know something about Stephen Harper.
“If The Walrus weren’t around,” Shelley Ambrose muses, “where would you be reading an in-depth profile of the sitting Prime Minister? Not in Harper’s, not in The Economist, not in The New Yorker.”
Maybe Fox News?
mp3: "This Is It" by The Wheat Pool, from their forthcoming second album, Hauntario