Gay Talese’s Basement
by Ari Paul
There are many cultural icons that help our neighbor to the north define Canadian identity, such as ice hockey, “The Kids in the Hall” and mounted policemen. The Walrus is one more.
This monthly magazine aims to give Canada a place to put its collective pen to good use. Ken Alexander, a Canadian writer and literary aficionado, had a love for American magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s but saw no equivalent in his home country.
“I was interested in a magazine that would exist as part of something larger. At the time, there were numerous stories about Canadian media concentration and consolidation,” Alexander says on the magazine’s website. In prose less elegant than he might find in the magazines he admires, he adds: “It is true, whereas in some areas of the world there are a plethora of voices, it seems that here there are fewer and fewer. So I envisioned a magazine functioning as part of a multi-pronged approach at getting divergent views out there.”
He launched the magazine in 2003 with David Berlin. The front of the book features small stories from around the globe and columns on sports and politics. The lengthy features in the middle are followed by fiction, poetry, and an arts and culture section. Based in Toronto, the small staff produces a glossy, erudite monthly, and in its history The Walrus has been nominated for several (Canadian) National Magazine Awards.
The Walrus frequently features an up-and-coming fiction writer. Much of the foreign correspondence is written by Canadian nationals. The magazine also examines the less pleasant aspects of Canada we Americans might not otherwise see. Julian Sher has a story in the February issue about Thomas Sophonow, who is “one of the disturbing number of wrongly convicted people in Canada—a victim of police and prosecutorial misconduct.”
The Walrus’ views on politics are nuanced but undeniably left-leaning. The February issue profiles and critiques one of Canada’s most prominent public intellectuals, Michael Ignatieff, the Harvard professor and The New York Times Magazine contributor who, at the time, was poised to become a new member of parliament representing the Liberal Party. The writer, Alex Mazer, a Canadian law student, questions his devotion to Canadian liberalism by citing his support for the war in Iraq and “his willingness to countenance coercive interrogation practices in terrorism-related emergencies.” The subtitle of the piece says: “The New York Observer wrote that Michael Ignatieff left Harvard ‘to save the Canadians.’ Why have his writings led some to wonder if we need saving from him instead?”
The Walrus’ adherence to a political ideology has caused the magazine to miss the mark in some of its political commentary. In the coverage leading up to Canada’s January elections, political writer Joan Bryden speculates that discontent with the Liberal government in Quebec would mean that the separatist party would gain votes. Although it turned out that she was right, she went on to predict that the Bloc Quebecois’ increased presence in the race would make it harder for the Conservatives to win than for the Liberals—and the Conservatives won in the end. But beyond coverage of Canadian politics and culture, does The Walrus offer anything new to the North American reader in the rest of its pages, which cover foreign news and reviews of books that can be purchased in the United States? A look at the February issue suggests that the answer is yes. It contains reports on Latin America’s political move to the left and a town in Iraq made up solely of women because all the men have left.
Such reports could easily fit into an American general-interest magazine, but their placement in The Walrus allows them to have a fresh viewpoint. After all, had either of these stories been featured in The New Yorker, Harper’s or The Atlantic, they would have had to comment on how the United States is affected by such developments or to what extent they are a consequence of United States policies. This is not the case with The Walrus. Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales are not fighting off the yoke of free trade and economic policies imposed by Ottawa. Nor is that town in contemporary Iraq living under a Canadian military occupation. Because Canada is seen as relatively benign to the international community, foreign news can be covered and analyzed in a detached way that is not possible in American periodicals.
The Warus’ residency on American newsstands thus gives readers here a new perspective on foreign events as well as a glimpse into the nuanced culture and politics of our often-ignored neighbor.