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The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Safe Travels

A message from the outgoing editor-in-chief

Sarmishta Subramanian

A few months ago, a colleague of mine and I had a curious exchange with a writer whose work we wanted to publish in the Literary Review of Canada. The writer declined the opportunity, citing as his reason an article we had run that he said contributed to violence against women. I was taken aback, being of a demographic and moral persuasion that is, generally speaking, pretty hostile to the idea of violence against women. We wracked our collective brains, but the matter remains a mystery (though I have now perhaps inadvertently launched a very unfortunate sort of reader contest), all the more so because our man the writer, in a sudden show of restraint, chose not to ’splain any further.

Violence is defined broadly these days, but even by some of the broader definitions, the LRC seems an unlikely promoter. The notion that this is an inhospitable environment for a writer who believes in respectful treatment of women would come as a surprise to many feminist writers committed to the same ideal who do publish in the LRC. (As a subscriber to the Groucho Marx school of club joining—“any club that will have me,” etc.—I also can’t help lamenting the declining influence of old-fashioned self-loathing in our time.)

But the whole episode crystallized for me a deeper question around the role of magazines. This has become a familiar enough conundrum in my circles—a writer refusing to appear in a publication that published something that offended them. The pique of a writer over an unfavourable review is an old story. These days the fault lines are more likely to be political, and the offending party doesn’t have to be a rabidly racist hatemonger. Equally unwelcome may be a white man who is making too obvious a point about racism’s ills, or making it using the wrong metaphors, or, well, still speaking, instead of shutting his caviar-hole and ceding his spot to worthier others.

Now, I want nothing to do with the former set, and of course we are all free to support the writers and publications we like and ignore the rest. How broadly we define the category of offender, though, is an important point, as is our response to offence. The one-strike-and-you’re-out approach nags at me because it shrinks the size of the arena, and the possibility of a real exchange—almost (I say almost) as much as shouting down the other side, as apparently happened at a Vancouver literary event last month. Shuttering the conversation seems a terrible way to achieve enduring progress or the vital goal  of making space for a range of voices.

It is hard to consider all this without recalling the decision by The New York Review of Books to publish Jian Ghomeshi’s unremarkable and yet infuriating self-rehabilitation project. (Precis: He passes with flying colours. Cured!) The essay was definitively not up to the NYRB’s standard. I suspect it shook the faith of many NYRB readers, as it did mine, in the judgment of that august publication—and in its authority, which springs not only from presenting superlative and factually accurate writing but also from a kind of monocled disdain for what is popular or wins cheap attention.

And yet, that Ian Buruma, the NYRB’s editor in chief, was pressured to step down should chill anyone who believes in a spirit of adventurous debate and risk taking in journalism. For one thing, it should alarm us all when we start sounding not like readers but like human resources managers enforcing the corporate handbook rules on brand ambassadorship. For another, editors, like writers, should sometimes make mistakes; crossing a line occasionally is a reliable signal that you are trying to negotiate something interesting. It’s much easier to be ensconced in comfortably pillowy journalistic spaces, cossetting both reader and advertiser.

My own response to the affair, I noticed, shifted. I shrugged at the firing initially as a necessary cleanse. A couple of days later, I saw something interesting in the NYRB. A few days after that, it seemed clear the magazine could win its way back into my heart fairly quickly by doing what it most often does: publish thoughtful, superbly written and edited essays and reviews that do add something to the wider conversation. A single story by an onanistic middlebrow celeb did not taint the whole enterprise for me forever; nor was the firing a necessary step to moving on.

I think readers of the past saw this instinctively, or perhaps just had to be more patient because they had not yet been changed by the process of constantly being courted, appeased, catered to. The market speaks, and it speaks fast these days, and writers and editors are more vulnerable to its pressures than ever before. Principled objection may have driven the response to Buruma, but ultimately, his exit came in a language familiar to every eyeball-chasing, click-counting newsroom editor circa 2018; he misjudged what was popular. He didn’t give us what we wanted, or he gave us something we didn’t want. Send it back; this isn’t medium-rare; fire the bum; we’re the consumer.

But is that all we want to be? Readers get to be alarmed, and outraged, and disappointed, also surprised, and entertained, and illuminated. Consumers get to be right. I know which experience I’d rather have. Reading is a journey in the end, and it makes for pretty dull travels to only want to see things you already know and like. Better in that case, most travel guides would tell you, not to leave home at all. In an era of dispiritingly divisive politics, a more adventurous stance would seem worth cultivating. We need readers, not warring groups of consumers, each righter than the other.

And we need editors curating spaces that take risks and occasionally make mistakes, and in which a wide range of voices can coexist. Editorial courage as well as fallibility need all the weight we can give them. The real sin is, to paraphrase Alastair McLeod, in publishing something so boring that the reader puts it down and goes off to make a cheese sandwich—although the real danger is graver. Economic precarity already makes writers and editors more careful, less willing to offend; anything that exacerbates this tendency doesn’t serve journalism’s broader aims, never mind how satisfying it feels to win one against the patriarchy.

Many of these questions have gripped me over the past few years, as they have other journalists and readers, but I find myself in a particularly reflective mood these days, as I polish the last issue of the LRC that I will see to print. A few weeks ago, I decided to step down as the magazine’s editor in chief. I am moving on to pursue some long-deferred projects of my own.

This is a farewell note, then, and why, one might wonder, have I chosen to spend so much of it talking about a terrifically minor dust-up with a writer, and the kind of major controversy in American media that has not, mercifully, alighted on the LRC? It’s because I think these are vital questions in journalism right now. They speak directly to my aim in two and a half years of editing the LRC. This principle of creating space for a range of views and voices, far more than my own political beliefs or positions, has driven my work here. I raise them, too, because we are all in this together, in a sense—writers, editors, readers. The diminishing of the conversation in one place affects us all, everywhere.

It is with some regret that I give up the opportunity to pursue these principles, and to curate this vital space for opinion and thought and excellent writing. There are not many places in this country I could have published several thousand words on Michael Ignatieff’s intellectual and political legacy, or the myopia of Jane Jacobs, or tax rage through history, or the horse-human bond. But work, and life, are journeys too, and it makes for pretty dull travels to keep doing only the things you already know you love, however ferociously you love them.

It has been a privilege to helm this extraordinary magazine, to work with wonderful writers, and to serve an engaged, warm, supportive community of readers. I owe you all a debt of gratitude for enriching my life. I will miss both writers and readers, and I will miss being in the trenches with my tiny, talented crew in our modest corner of the action. (Well, slightly less trench time might be all right.)

But I’m looking forward to my next chapter, and to the LRC’s. I know I leave a magazine that is in better shape than it was a year ago, when it, too, faced financial precarity, among other challenges. It is in good hands, and I’ll be watching its evolution from the other side—not as its editor, not as a consumer, but as a reader, curious, interested, and eager to be surprised, irked, delighted, and challenged.

Sarmishta Subramanian was the editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada from 2016 to 2018.

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