By Frank Moher
A new issue of The Walrus is upon us, and across the nation, crickets chirp.
The cover story offers this breaking news: the earth is warming. “In the last decade,” writes its author, Alanna Mitchell, “the most authoritative reports on climate change have presented increasingly pessimistic worst-case scenarios about rising temperatures.” Really? Don’t know how I missed that.
Read further and you find that what the story actually wants to tell us is that severe climate change may occur more abruptly than anticipated. This is known as burying the lede. But given that this, too, is old news — based as it is on a study released in 2001 — it wasn’t much of a lede to begin with.
Elsewhere in the issue we find another been-there, done-that story, about the fact that women are outpacing men at Canadian universities. This is based on an only slightly fresher, 2004 Statistics Canada study. (Warning: anytime a magazine article is pegged to a StatsCan report, run, flee in the other direction, lest your eyes glaze over and fall from your head.) “As evidenced by a spate of academic studies, government reports, and newspaper and magazine articles, in the United States public and political concern about male underachievement is on the rise.” In other words, now that everyone else has done the story, we figured that we should too.
And, of course, there’s the Toronto magazine’s obligatory “hewers of wood, drawers of water” perspective on the rest of the nation — though most aren’t quite as literal about it as The Walrus. The front “Field Notes” section contains a story on abalone poachers in BC; the well (middle) has a pictorial on lumberjacks in Quebec. (All right, the former are “drawers of things from water.” Same damn diff.)
The photos of the lumberjacks aren’t even run large enough to turn them into ironic fetish objects. Tsk, tsk; what is magazine design coming to?
The Walrus has every right to be just as boring as it pleases. That’s the Canadian way — or at least it used to be, back about the time editor Ken Alexander was cutting his teeth at the CBC. What it doesn’t have is the right to be subsidized while doing it. If The Walrus has no interest in being fresh, engaging, provocative, and/or entertaining — in other words, a magazine that people want to buy and advertisers, hence, want to advertise in — then it doesn’t deserve even the postal subsidy it gets from the federal government, much less the $112,272 it received from the Canada Magazine Fund in 2005-06. The deal is, you have to at least try to sell some copies of the magazine if you want to be given access to the public teat. Or if it isn’t, it should be.
The Walrus claims a circulation of over 60,000, though based on what I don’t know — they aren’t tracked by the Print Measurement Bureau. Colour me sceptical. At any rate, even if that figure is accurate, it isn’t enough — as evidenced by the ad pages in the current issue — to sustain a magazine with The Walrus‘s ambitions, or pretensions. And yet the cover of this month’s issue seems calculated to repulse as many potential buyers as possible. It reminds me of nothing so much as the rills of grimy snow that accumulate along Canadian streets in late winter. (Apparently, it’s a photo of a glacier in Alaska, though so closely cropped that it’s become, if not an ironic fetish object, a meaningless abstraction.)
Many people blame Alexander, who also co-founded the magazine and sank $2.5 million of his own money into it, for chasing away a series of talented editors so he could run the shop himself. Not me. The Walrus may be dull, but it was even more dull before. At least some of the articles provide a smidgen of insight into their subjects now; the previous editorial regime reached its low-point with an article on Iraq by the late Bill Cameron, which did nothing more than cobble together everything we already knew. It was possibly the most unnecessary magazine article I have ever read.
But we’re talking increments here. The global warming story in the current issue is a close cousin of that Iraq story, and only slightly more fetching. (And speaking of irony, isn’t there something just a bit disingenuous about a magazine ululating over carbon build-up in the atmosphere, while killing a few more trees to do it?)
Tell you what. Head over instead to this post on the blog Canadian Magazines, which recounts The Walrus‘s recent travails, followed by a fractious debate between Alexander and a few of his tormentors. It’s entertaining, lively, and illuminating.
What a concept.