The Walrus, revisited

Note: This article was originally published, in a slightly different form, in the September 10, 2010 edition of True North Perspective.

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

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

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 the first issue was flawed, I was reasonably impressed by The Walrus' debut and for a time was optimistic it would improve.

But 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 mainstream English-language 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 founding editor Ken Alexander's bizarre, a-historical editorial which stated that (a) the habit of new immigrants to huddle together is a new phenomenon 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 here, thanks to the heroics of The WayBack Machine) on January 26, 2008.

In retrospect, Alexander's editorial was no aberration. It was pretty indicative of what was wrong with the magazine in general — a faux intellectual alarmism reminiscent of The Atlantic and a preference for the shallows of gossip to the depths of ideas which might make a reader think.

Having now read the September 2010 edition — my first in quite some time — I am sad to report no evidence the magazine even remembers its initial, and admirably ambitious, aspirations. 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 (usually, to oblivion)

The Walrus, September 2010

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 'round the fortunes of Britain's Labour Party, as a notable exception, but they must neglect the fact that Britain didn't have a mainstream centrist party. Blair moved Labour into unoccupied territory (unlike Canada's NDP, which has spent a couple of decades trying to out-liberal the Liberals, a fool's errand in a country with three-party (or more!) system. But I digress.

The point is, copying a successful competitor works when you're providing a lower-priced commodity, but not when your product is (or is supposed to be) unique. 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 news-stand shelf-space, there really isn't much point to such a change.

So I wasn't optimistic when I read in 2008 that Toronto Life's former editor, John Macfarlane would be replacing Alexander as editor.

Declaring a trend based on but a single data-point is a mug's game but if the current issue is anything to go by, having now read the September edition, I see no reason to become optimistic.

The Walrus now aspires to being a high-end magazine of cock-tail chatter and vapid witticisms designed to impress, not to challenge, its readers.

McFarlane's "Editor's Note" strikes an appropriately mediocre opening note for a mediocre publication. He suggests, in disingenuously 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.

He never quite explains why the current system is so bad, nor why it must be replaced rather than reformed, though he implies it is a top-heavy system needing to be stream-lined. Correct me if I'm wrong, though, but 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's argument is made with 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 stronger on the personal than on the political, it is an ultimately forgettable paean 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 . Unusually, it is also an optimistic one. No Polyanna, MacKinnon urges hard work and realistic optimism rather than despair in the face of our troubles, and the message bears repeating.

Yet "A 10 Percent World" is strangely silent on causes — on the economics and politics driving our slow-moving world crisis and, while they are arguably not necessary to this particular story, 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, a story on a small Toronto trend we are supposed to accept is 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 puff pieces, I suppose, but a magazine which takes charitable donations on account of its ostensible 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 probably the best piece of writing in the entire issue, 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 a 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 single piece of fiction, David Bergen's "The Matter with Morris", about which I have almost nothing to say.

I read it but couldn't recall a single detail about it until I revisited it (less than a week later) for this essay.

But as "The Matter with Morris" is not the kind of story in which I'm usually interested, I don't feel qualified to say whether or not it's a good example modern short literary fiction, of which I presume it is an example. I seldom read the short stories in Harper's or The New Yorker either, and when I do, I usually quickly forget them also.

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 to the arts — or so one would think.

Actually, it marks the segue from gossip about people involved in business and politics, to gossip about those involved in the arts.

In "The Canadian School", Jessica Johnson explains that Canada has no first-rank fashion industry but that some individual designers are successfully 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 now as to whether I might be interested in his work as I was before.

Penultimately, there is a mildly interesting piece on the Toronto International Film Festival's decision to build its own lavish film-centre in the hear 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 prerogative 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 I might have closed this particular door for myself), 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 pretensions 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.

Spread the word!

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