The Canadian Forum: alive or dead?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, April 17, 2001)

For The Canadian Forum, the oldest political magazine in Canada, the first half of 2000 was a painful time. It began with hideous editorial embarrassment. The last lines of two columns of type in the January-February issue mysteriously disappeared, so two articles ended abruptly in mid-sentence. In March, the editors apologized and printed the chopped-off words, but elsewhere in that same issue several paragraphs disappeared from a piece of fiction, hurting it so badly that they had to reprint the whole story in May.

These mishaps were, it now seems, outward signs of inner turmoil. In March, 2000, the editor, Robert Chodos, announced that he, too, was about to disappear. He resigned because new financing that had been promised had not materialized and he lacked adequate resources -- "a computer that worked, for instance."

Next, The Canadian Forum itself disappeared. With no money in the till and the editor gone, the publisher, James Lorimer, decided to suspend publication and regroup. The July-August issue, with a tribute to the late Al Purdy featured on the cover, was the last one printed. The Forum has now been absent from newsstands for seven months. About 4,000 subscribers await the next issue.

Has this ancient journal, once a source of national influence, finally died? Or is it, as some believe, merely hibernating? The 80th birthday arrived last October, but no one celebrated. Worse, hardly anyone grieved. It appears that the Forum's absence was little mourned. I've been a Forum reader since the 1940s, and around 1960 I was a contributor and a member of the editorial board. Yet I didn't know it had stopped publishing till last month, when a friend casually remarked of someone, "He was there when the Forum died." Feeling stupid, I said, "The Forum died?" I wasn't alone. Jack David of ECW Press, a recent member of the board, says hardly anyone noticed when publication stopped. My private survey of former readers came up with the same result.

If the Forum has in fact died, what killed it? Perhaps its mild leftish social consciousness, combined with a good-hearted interest in the arts, no longer commands attention. Perhaps its earnest tone doesn't engage sophisticated, media-saturated readers. Perhaps it was a case of suicide. After all, some recent Forum writers obviously set out to extend the frontiers of ennui. Last year a book reviewer opened his piece with the following: "This is a thoroughly researched book on an important and poorly understood subject written by one of the West Coast's competent lefty academics." (Were those who finished reading that review given a prize?) And then there were the covers, which are the responsibility of the publisher, not the editors. For years most of the covers have been intolerably ugly -- bad drawings badly displayed.

In recent decades, those running the Forum have tried to raise the funds that would put it on a professional basis, with decently paid editors and writers and proper design, promotion, etc. That seems logical, but it is an odd fact that in the years when the Forum mattered most, no one was paid at all.

Some University of Toronto teachers founded it in 1920, and in the 1930s and 1940s two celebrated Toronto professors, Frank Underhill and Northrop Frye, were Forum regulars. Underhill was its shrewd political voice, Frye the main editor for a time and a prolific contributor. In those days the Forum looked better than it has since: Thoreau MacDonald created an elegant logo and coherent typography.

While Forum articles were incubating democratic socialism, the literary pages were helping create Canadian literature. This was where Earle Birney published his most famous poem, David, and where the 16-year-old Gwendolyn MacEwen saw her first poem in print. Forum readers grew accustomed to encountering Irving Layton, Margaret Atwood, Marshall McLuhan and other stars. The circulation was never large; the Forum became important without being popular. And it kept going on the longest shoestring in Canadian publishing.

The last time it seemed really important was in the 1970s, when Abraham Rotstein was editor, Mel Watkins was a contributor and left-wing nationalism was the agenda. In the 1980s it faltered, and by the end of that decade was almost dead. Lorimer, a Halifax publisher, and Aubrey Golden, a Toronto lawyer, revived it. They chose Duncan Cameron to edit it from Ottawa while he taught political science at the University of Ottawa. Cameron put out a magazine that was competent but flavourless, more dutiful than compelling.

In any account of the Forum's last dozen years, Lorimer plays two roles: generous saviour and major annoyance. After Cameron resigned in 1997, Lorimer decided to move the magazine back to Toronto, though he would continue to run business operations from Halifax. He decided the Forum should take Harper's Magazine as a model. From the start, this new project was shaky. Lorimer hired Julie Beddoes as editor but couldn't work with her; she left because she wouldn't tolerate Lorimer's apparent desire to control the design. His management style also involves secrecy. Jack David of ECW notes that even editors weren't allowed to know the circulation. "The publisher was not willing to give that kind of information."

Chodos, appointed editor in 1998, didn't last two years. When he quit, the editorial board, chaired by Judy MacDonald, offered to buy the magazine and try to revive it, but they got no reply from Lorimer; he says they had no business plan. Lorimer and Golden said they would consider selling to the right buyer, but no one materialized. They now hope to reactivate the magazine with private investment and matching federal government funds, in all $1-million to $1.5-million. They have chosen the next editor, who now works elsewhere and therefore can't be named. Their belief that people will invest without knowing the editor's name suggests a startling faith in the Forum tradition.

Other magazines have come back from near-death experiences, and perhaps Lorimer and Golden can pull it off. If they can't, then the Forum will fade slowly into oblivion, providing Canadian culture with the most striking example in memory of a T.S. Eliot ending, the kind announced "not with a bang but a whimper."

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