If only this were printed on scratch’n’sniff stock, there would be so much less explanation required. A smell, slightly sickly, a bit cloying, an odor caused by clothes too warm and yesterday’s cut flowers and the suffocating sorrow of the viewing room, yes-for this is how one who once worshiped Canadian magazines feels when invited under the covers of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. You know something beloved has died. You just don’t know what to say to those who have been left behind.
As one who entered Canadian magazines at a time when editors dealt with every comma change over a lunch and who left when he was himself taken out to lunch to be dealt with, I have somehow become the designated keener for the general-interest magazine, the one who shouts endlessly from the edge of the cliff and must be content with an empty, fading echo. The good read:-the simplest measure in all of journalism-has become a non-player in a new game where the rules have been made by those who do not write and, indeed, may not read.
It is not necessary that you remember even the names of the Star Weekly, Globe Magazine, Weekend, The Canadian, Canadian-Weekend, Today, Perspectives, Quest -only that you accept that there was a time not so long ago when there existed Canadian magazines that served massive readerships, largely well. Their purpose was simple-the Good Read-and they were all killed for reasons that had nothing to do with words and everything to do with numbers, though the actual weapon might have been termed circulation, advertising, target audience, Print Measurement Bureau or anyone of a dozen other handy euphemisms.
As far as anyone has ever been able to ascertain, not one died because it was incapable of making one word follow the next with an unusual and endearing grace. None was perfect, but each was, at particular times, capable of such style and energy and wit that-well, to know them was to love them.
Their passing has made us a curious country. Canada is now the place where the best magazine editors-I think of Don Obe and Walter Stewart for purely personal reasons, having once been fortunate: enough to write for them-do not edit but teach. Canada is the place where the best magazine writers-Christina McCall, Harry Bruce, Peter C. Newman, David Cobb, Earl McRae, a good dozen more are seldom asked and seldom perform, and are found far more usually in either newspapers or books, or even television.
Over a quick beer in Halifax two years ago, I happened to mention to Peter Gzowski, himself one of the premier magazine editors and writers in this country, that his weekly television show-since canceled-was structured along the lines of the classic magazine profile. Gzowski laughed. “You’re just now coming to realize that that is where magazines have gone, are you?” he asked. And he’s right. The best magazine work is now more often found on the fifth estate or W5 or The journal than between glossy covers.
And if not there, then please look at books and the Canadian reception to them. We are a world curiosity in that Canadians buy five nonfiction works for every work of fiction, and some publishers say this already astonishing ratio is in fact increasing. Publishers pay $100,000 advances to writers to deliver what in many cases-particularly where politics is concerned-would have been extended magazine articles in an era when magazines abounded. Beyond doubt, this phenomenon has made authors far richer, but readers many times poorer, partly because a book costs 10 times what a magazine costs, more so because of the effort required to get through a work that is far too long and has rarely been edited to the standards found in the best magazines.
Canada is the country where the National Magazine Awards-only 10 years ago a spring frenzy of competition-have become in large part the in-house sport of Saturday Night, mostly by default. And it may even be that Saturday Night is itself in dangerous flux without Robert Fulford editing and John Macfarlane publishing. We do not yet know, but we do pray.
There are, of course, a few excellent regional magazines to be found, such as Toronto Life and the weekend supplement of the Kingston Whig-Standard, and there are, as well, a number of fine special interest magazines, from Canadian Business to Equinox. But the death of the large circulation, general-interest magazine has meant that, for some time now, there has not been a forum available in this country where people are permitted.