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The Idler tragedy: killed by arts councils

Last week I praised the federal Liberal Party for taking an interest in the idea of government support for the arts. My subsequent discussions (arguments) with people over the value of government arts funding put me in mind of a famous failure of arm's-length, peer-reviewed funding. In this story, it was the artists themselves who were at fault.

I recently uncovered a stack of old Idler magazines. They date from the mid-eighties to the early nineties. This was a Canadian general-interest intellectual magazine - a bit like The Walrus, but more eccentric and unpredictable, and with less reporting and more reflection. It was an elegant, brilliant and often irritating thing, proudly pretentious and nostalgic, written by philosophers, curmudgeons, pedants, intellectual dandies. It was modelled on Samuel Johnson's 18th-century newspaper column of the same name. The layout was meticulously anachronistic: the fonts and the style of italicization were all 18th century; the writers often gave themselves and their subjects humorous Latin pseudonyms. The editor, David Warren, signed his rambling editorials Otiosus (Latin for idle).

There were articles on philosophical conundrums, on opera, on unjustifiably unknown Eastern European and Chinese poets ... and some of the most entertaining personal ads published in this country ("Want to meet a man to watch Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now over and over again. Then we could have a cigarette.")

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It was gloriously, unapologetically nerdy. It was for the kind of person who likes to know which way the port bottle must circulate after dinner and how to care for lithographs.

But many young writers got their start there too - early issues include essays by Douglas Cooper, David Eddie, Patricia Pearson. (These back issues are a trove of astounding treasures. One of the magazine's many pleas for money was written by a younger Robert Fulford, and I am sure that this issue is historically valuable as evidence of the last time that columnist publicly liked anything.) My own very first magazine article - a memoir of white life in apartheid South Africa - was published in The Idler.

It was also largely conservative in its politics and morality. I wasn't, and nor were a number of its eager contributors, but the editor was. So there were a few anti-abortion articles, some pleas to restrict Sunday shopping. I remember one completely nutty article by a lady I had never heard of (I got the feeling she was elderly) urging women to smash up the apartments of men who refused to marry them.

Now, remember how dull the boomer-dominated literary scene was at that time? Canadian literature was W.O. Mitchell and Margaret Laurence, and Peter Gzowski and the Canadian Forum were the pride of our culture. It was a time when every magazine editor in the country was renovating a farmhouse and writing self-deprecating anecdotes about the hilarity of raising goats. Urbanity was itself suspect - and when it was allied with right-wing views, it was enraging.

Well, an intellectual magazine like this one didn't, of course, have a large audience (just as The Walrus doesn't today). So it realized pretty fast that it wasn't going to survive as a commercial product, and it went, with some reluctance, to the public agencies that give money to literary magazines.

It went to the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. There The Idler was judged by "juries of its peers," which meant at the time (and sometimes still does mean) social activists who had published a book of poetry about organic cooking in 1979 and sat on arts councils ever since. (I'm exaggerating a little.) These people decided, repeatedly, that The Idler was not a worthy magazine, although its intellectual panache humbled all the other funded magazines stacked together. Perhaps the jurors were angry that a magazine that was officially against government expenditure on the arts would ask for just that. They had a point - but they weren't supposed to be taking such political questions into account.

The Idler made great hay out of the rejections, at one point advertising on its second page "Subscribe to the 98th Best Literary Magazine in Canada" (since the Canada Council had funded 97 magazines that year and not them.) Eventually, it got a little money out of the councils, and it liked to print on its masthead that exactly 7 per cent or 9 per cent of its budget was the result of this generous contribution.

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The Idler folded in 1993. Its failure was widely seen, at the time, to be a loss for the culture, and the politically motivated vindictiveness of the arts council juries to be an embarrassment. In 2007, the loss seems even worse - looking through these erudite pages I wonder where all those funny nerds went and whether one could even assemble as many of them in one place today. I challenge any of those arts council jurors who were responsible for starving this beautiful thing to death - funding instead 97 magazines that are almost all dead and gone too -- to look at those issues now, and to tell me that they made the right decision.

This was an example of death by peer - a polite, Canadian ostracism of something that was so cool it made people feel insecure. I hope in future we won't let petty politics jam up a system designed to nurture the exchange of ideas.

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