COLUMN

Attacking the left's sacred cows

Barbara Amiel December 7 1987
COLUMN

Attacking the left's sacred cows

Barbara Amiel December 7 1987

Attacking the left's sacred cows

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

On Nov. 2 of this year Luc Jutras of the Writing and Publishing Section of the Canada Council sent a letter to David Warren. The letter was in response to Warren’s request for a $30,000 grant for his Torontobased literary magazine, The Idler. Jutras did not mince words. “It is with regret that I must inform you that the Council did not approve a grant for The Idler,” he wrote. “The jury members were not impressed and felt that both the editing and writing were very uneven. . . . other publications . . . better meet the literary and artistic standards set for the program.”

The following day, Nov. 3, Sonja Koerner, identified as “chair” of the Ontario Arts Council, sent out her rejection slip to Warren. “Unfortunately your magazine did not receive sufficient recommendation for a grant from our adjudicators and on this basis Council has denied the application. Should you want to make further enquiries about the jury’s comments,” she wrote, “please contact Margaret McClintock, our Literature Officer.”

Koerner’s helpfulness notwithstanding, inquiries on this matter might be more fruitfully addressed to those literate, intelligent Canadians who might part more easily with hard-earned tax dollars if they could be assured that some small fraction would end up helping so extraordinary an accomplishment as the right-of-centre Idler. What on earth is going on?

All in all, the first week of November was a curious time for David Warren and his managing editor, Gerald Owen. The same week that Canada’s two major arts institutions brushed them off, they received requests from the University of Ottawa for reprint rights to half a dozen articles in The Idler. The articles, explained the university, were to be used as examples of fine prose in the new textbook of collected essays and journalism being published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Canada. Meanwhile, the most recent edition of The Idler— issue No. 14—was stacked jauntily about the Toronto offices.

The cover article on American fundamentalists by David Frum, associate editor of Saturday Night, had attracted a good deal of attention. The rest of the magazine was that peculiar balance of erudition, wit, the popular and the arcane that has made The Idler by far and away the best literary magazine

this country has ever had. (The nearest to it was probably The Tamarack Review in its heyday, which was co-edited by Gerald Owen’s father, Ivon Owen.) In The Idler’s “Queries” column, the plural of guru was discussed together with the origins of the remarkable footwear worn by waitresses in Canada’s Hungarian restaurants. In a long review piece, film critic Bart Testa discussed director David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in the context of American surrealism. Among other delights: a review of Julian Wiseman’s A History of the British Pig.

This issue, in fact, lived up to the universal acclaim that The Idler has received. “The wittiest, best-edited magazine to appear in years,” wrote the Toronto Globe and Mail. Said Books in Canada: “It assumes that Canadians can read foreign and domestic writers for wit and learning without reaching for their Canadian-content regulations.” Similar praise came from such dispar-

Why did the Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council refuse grants to the right-ofcentre Idler ?

ate sources as The Washington Post (“The Idler: wise talk from Toronto”), The Toronto Star and William Buckley’s National Review.

In light of this consensus, one is curious to see what periodicals the Canada Council might consider as being better able to meet its “literary and artistic standards.” It seems that there is not a single piece of experimental nonsense that has failed to get money out of the Canada Council purse. The list of such publications—many of them left-leaning—is endless. Art magazines such as ‘C’ and Parachute, borderAines, a leftwing intellectual magazine published by York University and Fuse, a left-wing Toronto-based magazine dedicated to cultural issues, use impenetrable prose to discuss batty issues seriously.

One of them—Fuse magazine, which received $53,500 in 1986 from the Canada Council—recently studied the need to re-examine “intergenerational sex” and “the contradictions and tensions between individual and social meanings in S/M erotic theatre.” The Canada Council happily supports the publication, for example, of a piece by ex-Canada Coun-

cil officer Tom Sherman in Parachute magazine in which he uses the following honed prose to describe North American museums: “The colonialist museums strive methodically, step by step, to clarify the distinctiveness of their cultural mission by introducing an army of living-dead apparently desperate for postmortem recognition. . . . These shadowy mercenaries drive forward like mating insects into the semi-conscious fog of a youth culture drunk and stoned on a relentless image barrage of disposable, instantaneous electronic culture.” Parachute received $97,500 from the Canada Council in 1986.

In quoting from these periodicals, one should not assume that the Canada Council has not supported good writing—it has. Nor should one assume that The Idler is a similar publication on the right which should be supported only in the name of a balance of lunacy. It is not. What The Idler does, however, is attack and analyse, with wit and intelligence, all of the sacred cows of the left.

The finances of The Idler are, well, precarious. It has been temporarily rescued by the new owner, Lodz-born Canadian furniture manufacturer Manny Drukier, a self-educated man of moderate wealth who simply loves literature and is estimated to have put $250,000 into the magazine. Meanwhile, Drukier and Warren have opened The Idler pub on the ground floor of their midtown premises. It is making a small profit, but not enough to carry the magazine.

Why did the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council turn down The Idler? I think that there are only two possible reasons. Either this is a clear political rejection in which the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council have served notice that they will not support anything to the right of centre, and are merely using their critical assessment as a thinly veiled hypocritical alibi for their actions. Or the members of the arts councils in Canada are totally lacking in judgment and competence.

I would opt for a mixture of the two reasons. It seems to me that, by now, our Establishment cultural referees have worked themselves into such a frenzied left-wing muddle that they are unable to see merit in anything that does not conform to their own cultural assumptions. But perhaps we shouldn’t worry about them. There is a new breed of young Canadian intellectuals with humor, vision and real talent breathing down their necks. It will take more than misguided arts councils to stop them.