A flawed but hopeful start: The Walrus has yet to find its true self, but it took a while for The New Yorker, too
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 30 September 2003)

Editing a brand new magazine must be a great joy, but with it comes the duty to explain why the world needs another magazine and why yours will be pretty terrific. Editors necessarily function as press agents, and perhaps David Berlin of The Walrus has done this part of the job too well.

Long before his magazine made its debut last week, he spread the word that it would inject new life into the Canadian intellectual scene, which otherwise might languish and die. He enlisted a platoon of names (Ignatieff, Atwood & Co.) to testify that The Walrus sounded like a great idea. He further announced that he had $5-million behind him, enough to stay in business for years. No doubt to his subsequent embarrassment, he implied in an interview with the Toronto Star that if Canada doesn't accept The Walrus then there's something wrong with Canada. (That desperate notion is the last resort of failing whiners; you don't ever say it when starting out.)

It all sounded like a set-up for disaster. Surely no magazine could live up to this billing. But The Walrus contains such a variety of interesting material, all of it engagingly wrapped, that readers will probably forget the excesses of the publicity campaign before they're halfway through the issue. While The Walrus sometimes stumbles, its mistakes don't begin to offset the pleasures it offers. It lacks individual style and coherent editorial direction, but those qualities normally take time to sort out.

Shrewdly, the editors begin with a bouquet of shorter pieces that exhibit their international ambitions. A film crew goes to the Congo and nearly gets killed instead of getting pictures of an endangered ape. Moscow mistreats its homeless children. A vicious riot at a Zagreb water polo game, of all things, reveals that anti-Serbian hatred still burns among the Croats. Some pieces are impaired by trench-coat prose ("the mood in Amman was sombre") and I can't imagine why the editors wanted to tell us at such length that the British aren't interested in the European constitution. (We could have guessed.)

An analysis of Arnold Schwarzenegger's run for governor of California contains useful insights, but the writer, trying too hard, calls him, "the Austrian-born robot thespian" and "the muscle-bound monosyllabist."

A cute diagram lays out the history of I.Q. testing and an astonishing article describes Claude Simard's wildly imaginative plan to move a dozen or so abandoned buildings from India, piece by piece, for re-assembly at Larouche in the Saguenay Region, where they'll be transformed into an art museum. Douglas Coupland writes on the beauty and meaning of trash, and Neil Pollack meanders through a self-indulgent piece on "Why I write."

But then, still only at page 32, we plunge into the issue's wittiest piece: Mireille Silcoff on the lunatic fringe of the architectural preservation movement, which has somehow persuaded UNESCO to declare an ugly, crumbling district of Tel Aviv a World Heritage Site, on the grounds that its wretched old buildings represent a splendid flowering of Bauhaus modernism. Silcoff brilliantly demonstrates that the best journalistic comedy emerges out of facts properly arranged by a clever writer.

Unfortunately, the two most substantial articles severely test the reader's patience. "Blind Trust," Marci McDonald's investigation of Paul Martin's business manoeuvres at Canada Steamship Lines, would surely have been twice as good if half as long. She delivers fascinating detail on his registration of ships and business in dodgy distant places, and on the large mortgages he arranged with foreign banks; but her many thousands of words constitute merciless reader abuse. An editor's note implies that her piece will be of international interest, but it's hard to imagine a foreigner even starting it, or a Canadian finishing it -- unless, like me, that Canadian happened to be discharging a professional obligation.

The article springs briefly to life when we meet Maurice Strong, one of Martin's gurus. In McDonald's hands, Strong sounds even more pompous than usual. He insists he won't be the power behind Martin's throne, but he's unconvincing. In fact, he all but admits he's hiding his role. "I'm trying not to be a big actor on the public side," Strong says. "I simply don't want anyone to be looking at Paul somehow as a creature of our relationship." Funny, that never occurred to me till he said it.

An article on "SARS, Censorship, and the Battle For China's Future," by Lorraine Spiess, is shorter than McDonald's but equally tedious. Spiess has rich material on the mishandling of SARS but tells us far too much about Chinese politics. Curiously, after her long account of official incompetence, secrecy and lying, she suddenly decides at the end that the tragedy may have the happy result of encouraging open government -- a dubious proposition at best.

The shorter items at the end of the magazine range from a piece by Lewis Lapham on Marshall McLuhan, which runs several columns without containing a single thought of any interest, to Margaret Atwood's delicate, evocative discussion of six books on Islamic countries.

Sometimes a magazine looks nearly perfect on its first appearance. The Tamarack Review, which became English-speaking Canada's dominant literary journal for about 20 years, began in the fall of 1956 with a first issue that was far more poised than The Walrus's; it contained the first fiction of Timothy Findley, a story by Brian Moore, and non-fiction by George Woodcock, Ethel Wilson and others. But magazines more often start their lives badly.

Certainly the first Walrus reads much better than the first New Yorker, which impressed absolutely no one when it appeared on Feb. 21, 1925. It was thin, painfully self-conscious, and starkly unfunny. Still, it was better than the debut issue of Time, published two years earlier and composed entirely of rewritten newspaper clippings. In 1968, during the first few months of New York magazine, one of its contributors, Jimmy Breslin, said he couldn't go out in public without hearing people tell him it was terrible; as Breslin remarked later, New York magazine in its groping early days seemed to be mostly concerned with the problems of hiring a maid.

Those magazines soon found their true selves, and flourished. The first Walrus may be flawed, but in historical context it's made an exceptionally promising start. I'm looking forward already to the second issue.

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