By Frank Moher
Here at backofthebook.ca we’ve done a rigorous scientific study and determined that Mark Steyn has used the personal pronoun “I” precisely 1,546,784 times since beginning his “Books” column for Maclean’s. We’d provide documentation of our rigorous scientific study, but this is the internet, so we don’t have to. But if, say, our figures were off by a million-and-a-half or so, the findings would still stand: the “Books” column of Maclean’s isn’t really about Books, but about Mark Steyn — part of Ken Whyte’s strategy since his National Post days: More Mark Steyn, All The Time.
That’s why I’ve been putting “Books” in italics. Maclean’s once ran a Books section; now it runs a “Books” section. They might as well put a nudge-nudge, wink-wink after the heading. The reason is obvious enough: Steyn, after his departure in high dudgeon from the Post when Whyte was fired, signed on to write a column for Ezra Levant’s stab at becoming Ted Byfield, The Western Standard. Obviously, The Western Standard wouldn’t cotton to Steyn’s writing another political column for another Canadian magazine, not even one run by a fellow traveller, and so Steyn’s “Books Nudge-Nudge Wink-Wink” column was born.
Mr. Steyn has done us the favour of corroborating our findings this week by publishing a “Books” column about . . . his own book. This must set some new standard in po-mo self-referentialism. He is, of course, a bit embarrassed, adding tugging of the forelock to the general nudging and winking. “Don’t worry,” he assures us, as if the problem is ours; “lest you think this is a book plug, I don’t think it’s possible to plug a book that at the time of writing is unavailable in any Canadian bookstore.” His problem, you see, is that his latest, the breezily-titled America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, is apparently not available in any of the major bookstores in Canada, perhaps because Heather Reisman, who runs them, has something against him. Not that he’d ever suggest such a thing; his many admirers, e-mailing his website, say it’s so. Mr. Steyn is also circumspect enough not to give the name of his book in his column — its “title escapes me,” he chortles — because, of course, that’ll settle the matter of our thinking he might be rolling his own log. It’s not like anyone is going to say, “Hm, I wonder what this book of his might be,” and then type his name into the search engine at amazon. Though he does helpfully mention later in the column that the book can be found precisely there.
Look, we understand. When you write as much as Mark Steyn, who currently also contributes to The Atlantic, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Telegraph, Aluminum Today, and his mother’s bridge club’s newsletter, it’s hard to come up with new subjects. But, as the local Buddhists like to say, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” Oneself is always good for a thousand words. This approach worked well enough at the Post, where Steyn’s putative subject was Canadian politics; how else to make it entertaining? It works less well, though, applied to books (without the quotation marks), because, last time we checked, some books are actually more entertaining, or interesting, or full of ideas, or full of good ideas, than the person writing about them. It’s hard to believe, Mr. Steyn, but it’s true.
Oh well, let’s give the kid a break; he’s just trying to build a career for himself. Our real beef is with Whyte, for turning the once respectable, if not exactly scintillating, Books section of Maclean’s into a Yuk-Yuks franchise. (“Good evening, ladies and autodidacts . . .”) It happens that I once sat in Whyte’s office at Saturday Night and spied some copies of Henry James on the floor behind the desk, so I have the idea that he actually likes books. It’s possible they were left behind by Conrad, but let’s just say. Why he can’t find something else for Steyn to do is beyond me. Maybe, as he does for The Atlantic, Steyn could write the obituaries. Or should that be, “Obituaries”?