Monday, September 11, 2017

Why Canadian journalism is so boring

Some years ago the organization called PWAC, the Periodical Writers of Canada, changed its name to the Professional Writers of Canada. PWAC still had members, and they still needed advocacy and services.  It was just that few of them wrote for periodicals anymore. There were barely any periodical left, and the Canadian ones that survived paid such trivial fees that it was hardly worth any professional's time. Most of PWAC's members did technical writing, or manuals, or speechwriting, or other specialty work. (The decline of payment for periodical writing is acute in Canada, but it's a global phenomena. Judith Timson lamenting the recent murder of international freelance journalist Kim Wall, who was apparently killed by a source she was profiling, notes in passing that Wall's typical fee might have been $350.)

The Walrus, more or less Canada's leading general-interest magazine these days, has just published a review of Kathleen Winter's new novel, Lost in September, which is either about James Wolfe or about some modern characters obsessed with him. But the point is not Winter's novel, the point is what this review it has published says about consequences of the vanishing of the professional periodical writer in Canada.

The reviewer starts by emphasizing her ignorance of James Wolfe and his doings, and goes on to demonstrate an equivalent lack of knowledge of the Canadian historical novel. Nationally and internationally known works by Margaret Atwood, Douglas Glover, Wayne Johnston, Anne Michaels, Michael Ondaatje, Audrey Thomas, Jane Urquhart, Guy Vanderhaege, Moyez Vassangi, Richard Wagamese, and many more have made the novel reflecting on Canadian history one of the major genres of Canadian fiction. Even complaints -- Russell Smith's come to mind -- about the fictional community's over-reliance on the historical novel in recent decades give evidence of its centrality.

But this reviewer doesn't engage with Canadian literature any more than with Canadian history. She declares that "Canadians aren't convinced that we are exceptional. We aren't romantics. We don't have many capital H heroes." She speculates only jealously or greed would start anyone working on a novel in which James Wolfe or anyone else connected to Canada would figure. After all, case closed,  "Canadian history is boring.  It just doesn't live in the way the histories of other countries do."

There's the Walrus problem.  Since we don't support professional periodical writers and critics any more, it has to rely on what it can get from writers like this one, described as a "Los Angeles based critic and journalist."  And journalists who don't know anything about Canadian history and Canadian literature -- and given the prevailing rates, cannot afford to acquire any knowledge -- end up regurgitating for us the most boring trope of Canadian journalism, the endlessly recycled one we read and hear in every periodical and newpaper and radio program ever:  "We don't know anything about Canadian history, and we don't need to, even to write about it, because, hey, it's boring anyway."

Read it and snore.  And carry on.
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