On various conflicts of interest
Silvina Ocampo’s debut short story collection, Viaje olvidado (Forgotten Journey), came out in 1937. Her publisher was the book-making arm of Sur, the influential literary magazine — the same magazine that went on to trash the book when it hit the shelves. The reviewer commented on the “irritating mistakes” that filled Ocampo’s colloquial Argentine prose and described the imagery as “attacked by torticollis.” The reviewer was the editor of Sur, so she had some discretion when it came to saying what she wanted to say. The reviewer also happened to be Ocampo’s eldest sister, Victoria.
I think of that piece in Sur whenever a potential writer for this magazine flags a potential conflict of interest, mentioning, for example, that he once had dinner, years ago, with the author of a book I’d like to have reviewed or that she once sat on a conference panel with a recently published writer. In a country like ours, these sorts of passing acquaintances are inevitable.
While I probably would not ask someone to review his or her sibling’s work (unless Rufus Wainwright feels like tackling Martha’s new memoir), the real conflict I go out of my way to avoid involves members of the magazine’s board of directors. Of my own volition, I have a rule: the Literary Review of Canada does not cover work written by a sitting board member. What if we look at one member’s book but not another’s? What if a glowing review comes across as gratuitous log-rolling? Or what if a writer I’ve assigned proceeds to give one of my bosses the Ocampo treatment? No, it’s best and most appropriate to simply steer clear.
But then something like David Staines’s A History of Canadian Fiction appears, and I realize that a noteworthy volume will not receive the critical assessment that it and our readers both deserve — neither in these pages, because of my sensible rule, nor, frankly, in many others.
Instead of compromising my position and saying what I think of a board member’s latest (I’ll tell David that in person), I will say here that A History of Canadian Fiction ought to be reviewed widely and thoughtfully, whatever merit or shortcomings one might find in its 300 or so pages. The same can be said about countless Canadian-authored English-language trade titles, some 3,500 of which are published each year. But there aren’t venues enough for such engagement — in a land where books coverage has all but disappeared in the newspapers and in a world where Canadian letters barely register on the literary radars of New York, Los Angeles, and London.
A couple of months ago, a reporter asked me who I thought was this magazine’s biggest competition. I replied that he was asking the wrong question. Books coverage, like the news in general, ought to resemble not the reality show Survivor but rather a thriving ecosystem, with each species doing its unique part to enrich the whole.
We all know that this is a moment of crisis for the ecosystem that is Canadian media, for reasons both financial and ideological. More and more magazines are reducing frequency, whether it’s Maclean’s going from a weekly to a monthly or The Walrus going from ten issues a year to eight. Others, like Canadian Art, have ceased to exist. The advertising dollars that support journalism, especially in print, are harder and harder to come by, no thanks to Google, Facebook, and the pandemic. We have also seen the culture wars rippling through many organizations, including the CBC, which the writer and producer Tara Henley accused of succumbing to a “radical political agenda” in a widely shared and much discussed Substack post in early January.
In these polarized times, those media organizations that remain are increasingly pressured, by partisans with deep convictions, to reflect an orthodox line of thinking. But it is in heterodoxy that nuance, surprise, and growth can best be found. “A magazine’s promise is the delivery, on a fixed schedule, of its own version of the world,” the legendary editor Harold Hayes once wrote. I, for one, value the chance to read and compare competing versions.
A History of Canadian Fiction opens with a chronology of historical, cultural, and literary events that have shaped this place we call home. For reasons I intend to uncover over coffee, David neglects to flag 1991 as the year the Literary Review of Canada was born. I hope he’ll correct that omission in future editions, and I hope that those future editions won’t also include the year we cease publication. (Sur, by the way, lasted sixty-one of them, until 1992.) And just imagine if David can note our birthday as well as the arrival of a new crop of disparate publications that this country so richly deserves. The community of thought that helps sustain all of us would be better for it.