As Canada's new current affairs magazine, the Walrus, celebrates its first birthday this month, it must be pleasing to its editors that it has weathered an attack by one of the country's most powerful cultural critics.
I'm speaking here of a particularly nasty swipe by Robert Fulford, the National Post commentator and Toronto Life media columnist. Fulford is curiously prone to a nearly craven genuflection before the editorial imprimatur of American magazines and can strike, as if from nowhere, with all the ferocity of an agitated bully.
Fulford dismisses the Walrus - a mag recently voted best start-up by the Utne Reader, with a subscription and newstand base of 50,000 - as having "little in it that was original or challenging." Canada, he wrote in Toronto Life, has "the most international newsstands, bookstores, TV networks and cinemas anywhere, all of them dominated by work from outside Canada." So he wondered whether "there is a need for a magazine covering, without a unique point of view, the topics that quality magazines elsewhere cover."
"The Walrus," he writes, "has a serious problem and its name is Ken Alexander," who - wait for it - "holds his job only because he brings with him his old family money."
The idea that it is somehow acceptable to one of our foremost cultural critics that our best writers have no forum here, their stories and opinions only read when some crack appears in America's current solipsism, is deeply worrying. Alice Munro's contributions to the New Yorker notwithstanding, the situation is comparable to the military one that innumerable media pundits find so unacceptable. Canadian authors, with no vehicles of their own, are reduced to hitching a ride on American or British carriers as space permits.
Alexander, who honed his interest in politics and culture as a producer on CBC's counterSpin, was alarmed by the complete absence of a popular high-quality current affairs periodical produced by Canadians.
A year ago he established a magazine addressing national and international issues, in which all those apparently unoriginal and unchallenging pieces by Canadians - including Thomas King, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Wayne Johnston (a regular these days) and David Bezmozgis - might sit comfortably next to original articles by writers from elsewhere, such as Pico Iyer, Damon Galgut, Banana Yoshimoto and Richard Ford.
The question of "old family money' is an interesting one. Quite pragmatically, Alexander - who has already sunk a million and a half of his own cash into the operation - has recognized that an editor must pay the going rate to ensure that even Canadian writers with a patriotic sense contribute their best work here and not elsewhere.
There will, of course, always be writers who use Canada as a dumping ground the way Toronto does Michigan, but there are plenty of others who do not publish here, though they would like to, simply because other countries pay more and they need to make a living.
The writing in the Walrus is first-rate, and Alexander's intuitions have nudged the magazine toward a timeliness that monthly mags in this country tend to regard as attainable only by chance. I'm thinking of David Hayes's piece in the current issue on CRTC meddling, and Ivor Shapiro's exploration of a radical health care experiment. The previous issue featured Marci McDonald, whose earlier piece on Paul Martin's Canada Steamship Lines won the mag one of a couple of golds at this year's National Magazine Awards, profiling Stephen Harper's quiet co-conspirator, Tom Flanagan.
As a result of Alexander's efforts, the Walrus offers far more interesting, far more necessary stuff than the perpetually tired pages of Saturday Night.
It perhaps explains some of Fulford's vitriol: Toronto Life competes with the Walrus on all those newsstands "dominated by work from outside of Canada." (Um, how is it that Toronto deserves its own magazine, but the country doesn't?) From its inception, Alexander wanted not a "controlled-circulation' magazine that dropped out of the morning newspaper and onto the floor (as Saturday Night or Toro, the slightly more imaginative Esquire wannabe, do), but one that readers choose - as they do Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker.
All of these mags, as well as Granta, the London Review of Books, the Nation, the New Republic and the New York Review of Books - basically the pile of papers that arrive at Fulford's office door - depend on either a foundation or some benefactor's "old family money" for their survival. As did Saturday Night, where Fulford knows he lost plenty of money when he was editor. The truth about publishing serious magazines is that they are universally follies, no matter the breadth of the market.
What is really at issue is Alexander's sometimes egocentric bravura and the way he has replaced those in key posts. In America, a couple of swift sackings are routine to save an enterprise, but in Canada years at the wheel and not what you do in them are what counts. And so CBC presenters until recently were more likely to die than retire, and Canadians are forever forced to sit at the breakfast table with the same tedious National Post and Globe and Mail columnists. (A savvy local theatrical producer could set the next revival of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit on Front Street, with maybe Peter Mansbridge, Jeffrey Simpson and Andrew Coyne at the table.)
Alexander, formerly the publisher of the Walrus and now effectively its editor, committed a major Canadian faux pas when he behaved like someone who believed he could do better than the small pool of apparently proven trade staff from which Canadian custom says he should hire - "proven," in this instance, merely meaning that the departed worked on various incarnations of magazines that have consistently, um, failed.
When I spoke to Alexander recently, he was delighted that his subscriptions were healthily on the rise. But the future of any magazine is uncertain, and he also remarked that if the Walrus fails, it's likely that no one else will try anything like it for 20 years. He's right. We can support Canadian writing. Or we can wait for some American magazine to publish something that matters to Canadians, usually accidentally. The time to prove that we are more than some other nation's appended consumers is now.