By Frank Moher
Gosh, what a surprise. The Walrus leads this year’s National Magazine Awards with 33 nominations, followed by Maclean’s with 27 and Toronto Life with 26. This compares to 28 for The Walrus, 27 for Toronto Life, and 20 for Maclean’s last year, and 37 for The Walrus, 29 for Toronto Life, and 18 for Maclean’s in 2008. L’actualité is occasionally allowed to rupture the Toronto Top Three, but only if it promises not to let it happen too often.
The Walrus is a radically improved magazine since I last wrote about it — for one thing, under John Macfarlane, it actually looks and reads like a magazine. So is that the reason it now dominates the awards? No. It does so because it fills the historical role of Toronto alpha-magazine, a role that used to be filled by Saturday Night. When I was jobbed-in briefly as an editor at SN in the late ’90s, I handled seven stories that were eventually nominated for National Magazine Awards. I’d like to think this means that I was the most freaking brilliant editor since Tina Brown, but all it really means is that I was working at Saturday Night.
There must always be a Toronto alpha-magazine, so when Saturday Night folded it was briefly succeeded by Toronto Life, but that raised the uncomfortable question: if this is a national magazine award, why is a city magazine all over it? Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when The Walrus finally got good enough to assume the stance — though it’s worth noting that that happened before The Walrus actually became good.
So now we are returned to the status quo: The Walrus will win mucho d’awards, just because. Meantime, the “coveted” Magazine of the Year prize will continue to be handed out on a semi-regular basis to magazines not from Toronto, as per last year’s award to Alberta Views. Which begs the question: if these publications aren’t good enough to receive double-digit nominations — which they apparently never are — how are they good enough to be the Magazine of the Year?
One explanation would be that the award-givers understand that an allegedly national prize must occasionally be given to a magazine not from Toronto, lest it appear to be less than national. But that would be cynical.
What’s the solution? There isn’t one. It would be nice if the English-language judges weren’t overwhelmingly from Toronto (which, despite the claims of the organizers, they are). In the case of the French-language and bilingual juries, however, it’s inevitable that they’ll be drawn almost entirely from central Canada. No, the only possible solution is to stop calling them the National Magazine Awards. Pick some deserving Toronto magazine icon — Pierre Berton, Doris Anderson — and name them after him/her. That would be fitting. But they have never been national magazine awards, and never will be. So why keep pretending they are?