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Canadian Notes & Queries is one of few publications outside academe that contains substantial essays on literary trends rather than just short reviews, and it does not fear to be critical.
Canadian Notes & Queries is one of few publications outside academe that contains substantial essays on literary trends rather than just short reviews, and it does not fear to be critical.

Russell Smith: Canadian Notes and Queries is more lively than it sounds Add to ...

There is no journal with a drier, less interesting title than Canadian Notes and Queries – it sounds like a parody of the dusty colonies written by an Englishman – but it is actually a lively, funny, intellectual, contrarian and elegant-looking magazine about Canadian literature and culture.

It is also one of few publications outside academe that contains substantial essays on literary trends rather than just short reviews, and it does not fear to be critical. (Disclosure: I have an association with the magazine in that it is owned by the publishing company that publishes me, and I know all of its principal players, but I do not work for it.) It has the geeky name because it started life, in 1968, as a newsletter for antiquarian book collectors, largely consisting of calls for help in locating obscure texts – the kind of forum that the Internet now provides. The title echoes the august British publication, Notes and Queries, which serves to answer readers’ questions on lexicography and book collecting. The British journal is a celebration of obscurity, and it is I think out of pride in nerdiness that the Canadian version has kept its off-putting name.

Canadian Notes and Queries has got a bit of a reputation, though. It’s been a bastion of maleness. It was turned into a place for literary essays by its editor George Fetherling in the 1980s and then taken over by the Porcupine’s Quill and its famously fastidious editor and writer John Metcalf, then briefly by a very sensitive but fierce book reviewer called Alex Good: These guys were always more concerned with a particular aesthetic stance than with even paying lip service to diversity.

It is now owned by the publisher Biblioasis, who have made it look lovely (it is regularly illustrated by the graphic novelist Seth, who also works for The New Yorker), and who have upset its gloriously masculine boundaries by hiring its first female editor-in-chief. Her name is Emily Donaldson and she is known to anyone in Canadian publishing: She is a widely respected editor and book reviewer. The organization Canadian Women in the Literary Arts has called her the most prolific book reviewer in Canada. (She often writes for this paper as well. She has edited everyone, including me.)

I asked Donaldson how she was going to feel at home at such a place. “What attracted me was the monumentality of the established white maleness of it,” she said. “My mandate is to freshen things up and bring in some more diverse writers. I am having coffee with a lot of female writers right now.”

She is careful not to dismiss, though, the high calibre of inquiry the magazine has always reflected, and its interest in rereading and re-evaluating our past. She doesn’t find anything wrong with old white guys per se, and she is going to keep the best of them. Brian Busby, for example, “… who writes a really great column called the Dusty Bookcase on Canada’s ‘suppressed, ignored and forgotten literature,’ will be ongoing – I like the mag’s focus on old stuff and want to keep it up. Ditto for David Mason, who is a living literary archive and an eccentric and engaging writer with lots to say. You need the long view as well as the short, and writing about books and criticism and literature is one of the few places where it’s actually an advantage to be over 40. … The thing about literature is it’s often the case that you get deeper, better perspectives when people have been around longer and have wide reading experience.”

She had long been bugging owner Dan Wells to do an all-women’s issue under her aegis: “We were going to call it ‘The Adjustment Issue.’” That never came to fruition: Instead, she was persuaded to take over the whole thing. She is now going to publish three issues a year, and introduce photography to its previously text-heavy pages. The first issue largely edited by Donaldson will appear on newsstands in a few weeks, and is thematically centred around games. Essays include one by Donaldson herself about her autistic son’s fascination with pinball, and the sexism of pinball machines. Of this issue, she said, “it’s still not where I’d want the mag to be diversity-wise, though there are more chicks, and younger people, in general.”

The move away from the purely literary toward general culture is also new for the journal, and makes me wonder if Canadian Notes and Queries has the potential to become the new Walrus.

Certainly, a general-interest magazine with longer essays about literature, and the capacity for dissenting reviews, fills a widening hole in our national discourse. “Newspaper reviews are now half the length of what they were,” Donaldson said.

The magazine also has an unusual interest in international writing in translation. It won’t be purely Canadian. “We are calling it literature and culture from a Canadian perspective,” she said, “but we are unshackled from Canlit.”

Like every magazine editor, Donaldson now faces the conundrum of online content. If you put the whole journal online, then it’s free, and you earn no revenue (lucrative digital advertising is not really an option for something so highbrow), but if you have no online presence you basically don’t exist. She will compromise by putting the book reviews, and one key essay from each issue, on the website. (Right now, for example, Giller Prize-winner André Alexis’s provocative essay on racism in Canlit is up on the site.)

Perhaps most provocatively of all, she is going to keep the journal’s terrible name. “We want to query,” Donaldson said, “and we want people to query us.”

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