Sunday, October 05, 2003

Tusk, Tusk

Bert Archer is a brave man. In this week’s eye he annihilates the debut issue of The Walrus:

Such high hopes, such modest expectations, all dashed on what we can now definitively identify as the unmovable rock of David Berlin's 46-storey, 7.8-density, steel-girdered, mirror-windowed lack of wit, mirth, imagination and editorial sense.

The cover doesn't bear talking about. But once past that grey-scale headstone, we get to the serious-minded editorial note of introduction, which only later, in the context of what is to come, reveals itself for the groundlessly self-important mission statement it is

I have no such bravery. Now, I’m not saying I agree nor disagree with him -- I haven’t finished reading the first issue. However, given that I would like to write for The Walrus ($2.50 per word!), expect no comments from me about the quality of issue #1. What I do hope is all those quivers from Archer will foster some strong, active debate in a literary community that tends to lack roaring beasts. As Stephen Henighan argued in his collection of essays, When Words Deny the World:

Unlike the United kingdom or the United States, where friends and acquaintances may cordially and vigorously disagree in print, Canada remains a colonial society; here friends must think alike and unanimity among the Family Compact of the chattering classes is still the hallowed aim of public utterances. In Canadian literary circles, the opinions you express continue to be a function of who you know rather than what you think.

Henighan overstates his case in places, but his main idea is accurate: writing bad reviews is a terrible career move in this country.

Meanwhile, those wanting some historical context for the nasty review should riffle through the newspaper recycle pile in the garage of an intelligent person until they find the September 7, Sunday New York Times. On the Op-ed page, Clive James briefly twirls the Moody takedown by Dale Peck and the Heidi Julavits plea against snark before providing a convincing defense of nasty:

Adverse book reviews there have always been, and always should be, lest a tide of good intentions rise to drown us all in worthy sludge. At their best, they are written in defense of a value, and in the tacit hope that the author, having had his transgressions pointed out, might secretly agree that his book is indeed lousy.


When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded.

At one point, James claims destructive reviews are both enjoyable, and "useful acts in defense of civilization." However, most relevant to the Archer salvo is this thought:

But a snark blatantly attacks the author -- not simply to retard his career but to advance the reviewer's, either by proving how clever he is or simply by injuring a competitor.

I’m not sure Archer is trying to prevent civilization from imploding – it’s only a magazine, after all. I leave it up to others to determine whether Archer has succeeded in using better words than his adversary. But proving how clever he is, that agenda is made very clear.

As for advancing his career, well . . . if Archer is able to dissect magazine writing and editing thusly, why is he working at eye?