Sunday, March 08, 2009

In Peril

The subject of the proposed cuts to Canadian Heritage support of art and literary magazines is something that I've been meaning to write about for weeks. When the cuts we're announced, I received a call from Q&Q for comment, and spent much of the next two days trying to get a handle on things. But I've found even the thought of the ensuing battle to help sustain funding exhausting. During the last month it's been hard enough to keep on top of the day-to-day: the editing and copy-editing of spring books, the grants, the early publicity for spring titles, the accounting, the fall catalogue and bibliographic data for the US distributor, the early editorial work CNQ 76 requires, just to name the most obvious things. The life of your minor literary functionary is, alas, never done: I've not had the energy to wade into the fray on this, though wade in I need to.

There has been some excellent coverage of the issues surrounding these proposed cuts, and what it will mean for art and literary magazines. Nigel Beale has several smart posts on this, as does Kerry Clare over at the Descant blog. There's been coverage of it in the Globe, on Bookninja, Career Limiting Moves, and many, many other places. The proposed changes -- which will end Canadian Heritage funding to any magazine with a yearly circulation of under 5000 copies, or, really, all but a handful of literary and cultural magazines in Canada -- will have drastic, if not actually devastating effects on CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries: close to 25% of our budget comes from the SALM program. The loss of the $9000.00, should this go through, may not result in the folding of CNQ -- we can always reduce the page count accordingly, go to cheaper production standards, pay writers less, and these changes just might make up the bulk of the difference in the production of the journal -- but there is no doubt that these would be moves in the wrong direction for a literary journal I feel is only now beginning to hit its stride, one of the only critical journals of its kind remaining in the country. There are certainly those out there who would probably love to see CNQ cease publication, but I don't think I'm being too egocentric to state that its loss would be felt out there in the wider literary community by many. So too would the loss of Malahat, The New Quarterly, Fiddlehead and others.

Part of what I've had trouble getting my head around here is how the Minister of Culture and his team define cultural relevance. It seems to me that the introduction of a circulation cap of this sort equates cultural relevance with some definition of commercial viability. A magazine or journal that can't reach 5000 people over the course of a year can't be worthy of sustained public support. It shows an incredible lack of understanding of the industry, and of the nature of art and literary magazines, both historically and currently. Many of the most important literary and critical journals both at home and abroad, from T. S. Eliot's Criterion to The Tamarack Review, would have had difficulty making this type of circulation threshold. It matter less how many people pay to read the individual magazine as who those people are, what influence the magazine has, what services it provides the greater community, literary or otherwise. Many of the best literary writers Canada has produced began their careers with the small magazines now threatened: we all, to paraphrase Norman Levine, begin in small magazines. The nature of these cuts are further evidence of the same ignorance and arrogance many associated with Stephen Harper's comments about Canadian artists during the election. And it is a further sign that we need to be on our guard here: if Harper's conservatives ever get the majority they want I expect we will see much more of this.

I would have less of a problem with these cuts to Heritage support of magazines -- though the attendant financial difficulties for CNQ would be the same -- if it had been across the board, if they had folded the program entirely, or changed it in some other fashion. What sticks a bit -- who am I kidding? it stick a lot -- in my craw is the fact that the refashioned program, either purposely or ignorantly (and I'm not sure which is worse), targets the arts and literary programs a cultural agency like Heritage Canada should be supporting ABOVE ALL OTHERS. We are, after all, CULTURAL MAGAZINES. We are not commercial magazines. Whereas the CNQs and Malahats of the world may find themselves without the financial wherewithal to keep going after 2010, those wonderful contributors to the Canadian cultural landscape Canadian Biker ($26,139), Fashion ($133,881), Flare ($156, 560) Inside Motorcycles ($31,510) and Today's Parent ($125, 374) will be safe under the currently proposed program. And these are only a few of the commercial magazines which will continue to receive taxpayer funding while cultural journals like CNQ are left to flounder. How taxpayer funding of Inside Motorcycles contributes to a greatly enriched Canadian cultural life is well beyond me. Perhaps Minister Moore might explain it to me.

But then again, according to the Conservatives, we're just whiny artists. The fact that we're also business men and women capable of running a business on a shoestring and punching well above our circulation weight, that we show absolute responsibility and accountability for every dollar we're entrusted with, seems to be ignored. Or, perhaps, this is one of the reasons why government bureaucrats and politicians seem to have such a problem with us: we make them look bad. Very bad. CNQ received approximately 35,000 in government/taxpayer funding in 2008-2009: on this we put out three issues of a critical journal totaling more than 312 pages. We'll have paid more than 12,000 to writers and artists, 15,000 to printers, 1500-2000 to Canada Post, 4500 to typesetters, with the rest of the funding and subscription dues going to basic administration, office supplies and marketing. Not a dollar has gone to the publisher or editorial personnel in the three-plus years Biblioasis has run it. Despite our rather lackluster, at least according to Canadian Heritage standards, circulation numbers, one of these issues became a flash point, according to the Toronto Star, for one of the sharpest literary debates Canada has ever seen, resulting in a national discussion about canon making and the importance of the short story in Canada, as well as international coverage. Journals like CNQ, in terms of financial accountability, responsibility and efficiency, are models other businesses might learn from, especially in these troubled times. A point which should actually result in calls for increased funding, instead of further cuts. If we can do what we do on $35,000, imagine what we might pull off on $50,000, or $75,000.

Yes, yes: I know. Fat chance.

There are other reasons why these cuts and their underlying logic should be cause for grave concern to anyone who cares for art and literature in Canada. The same sort of commercial arguments being used to justify funding cuts to art and literary magazines could be used the next time a cultural program is being evaluated to cut funding to, say, literary presses or art galleries. Why should we fund the likes of Brick Books when so few Canadians care about poetry anyway? Who, outside, of course, of a handful of whiny artists would miss them? And as far as galleries go, how many Canadians really care for abstract or experimental art, derive any benefit from exhibitions of the work of Tony Calzetta or Adele Duck or David Urban or the Painters Eleven? What? Only three hundred people showed up for an exhibit of the work of Richard Gorman? Thaddeus Holownia? Only two hundred people showed up to a book festival in Windsor? Hardly seems worth the investment. Better to earmark such funding to those responsible titans of industry, GM and Chrysler. Now there's real bang for your buck.

When I first learned about these proposed cuts from Scott MacDonald at Q&Q, I did some calling around, and spoke at length to some people at Magazines Canada. I learned, thankfully, that this is not set in stone, that the ministry is aware that the current solution "might not be perfect." That the funding may yet be preserved in some fashion. But it was also stressed that the best way to ensure that this happens is to get in touch with members of parliament and to make the case for sustaining the funding to art and literary magazines. The good thing, this manager at Mags Canada told me, is that us artsies aren't afraid of making a little noise. So I urge anyone who reads this post to make all the noise they can, to make it clear to the government that the proposed changes to Heritage funding are not acceptable. This should be a flashpoint for one of the sharpest cultural debates the country has seen. Because this is not just about arts and literary magazines: it is about how the current government evaluates cultural endeavors and enterprises in the country. The consequences, should they get away with it, may prove much farther reaching than anticipated.


Gabrielle de Montmollin said...

Hi Dan,

Have you seen this?

Also, I read on a Globe and Mail blog today that James Adams is working on the story and will be publishing a piece this week.


bigcitylib said...

So Lit mags get cut and Macleans keeps its 2+ Mill?

Rosalynn said...

As per usual, Dan, you make an elegant and compelling case. With Kim's permission, I think I'm going to put a letter from the managing editor in the next TNQ - could I quote you?

Anonymous said...

good post, dan, you make the points.
erĂ­n moure

Diane Walton said...

Thanks! This sums it all up perfectly. I, too would like to quote you!
Diane Walton, for On Spec Magazine (we'd stand to lose $10,000 if this goes through)

Anonymous said...

Well said, Dan. If only our current goobernment knew how to listen, or perhaps how to read.
When the going gets frivolous, perhaps the frivolous should move to Europe.
In increasing despair of ever actually being represented by my democracy--
Katia Grubisic

Kathleen Winter said...

Dan, I am glad you listed magazines the Harper government will support. This, to me, is the real argument. Thank you for making it so eloquently.

Patricia Robertson said...

You put your finger on it, Dan, when you say, "Because this is not just about arts and literary magazines: it is about how the current government evaluates cultural endeavors and enterprises in the country." The fact is -- as the uproar about "whiny artists" showed -- that the Harper govt is completely out of touch with anyone except its base in Alberta. Canadians support the arts. We have to make this argument to our MPs, especially Conservative ones. Even if they find artists anathema, they want to stay in power.
Patricia Robertson

Micheline Maylor said...

On the contrary, Patricia, being in Alberta does not make Harper more in touch with artists or culture. The only reason our little magazine runs is because of its advertisers, (500) subscribers, and volunteer power; 95% of the work done is unpaid. It has nothing to do with our locale, nor selective manna from heaven from a prime minister who remains ubiquitously dim about literary arts.

Dan, well said, regarding literary culture. Perhaps your post should become the petition that we all sign. I'd be happy to ride the coattails of your labour as posted here.