Goodbye to All This

By Maurice Mierau

As a serial procrastinator, I have procrastinated more than usual over the writing of this column, because its subject matter marks the end of something I care about very much: the end of this enterprise, The Winnipeg Review. The difficult decision to terminate publication was entirely mine. Six years of running on a shoestring made me long for thicker string and a better shoe, but those longings remain unfulfilled. Here’s the truth: we have been paying most of our writers only $25 per review for 27 issues now, and the editors didn’t even make lunch money. At the same time, we had professional standards, which our contributors cheerfully met. The prospect of positive change in the magazine’s financial health was, in my view, small, far-off and dependent on significant heavy lifting. I burned out.

The online magazine you are reading began in December 2010 as the brainchild of Gregg Shilliday, publisher of Great Plains in Winnipeg, and at that time my employer (I was the founding editor of their fiction imprint, Enfield & Wizenty). Gregg had wanted to publish a review of Canadian fiction for some time, and originally wanted to do it on paper, the old way. I convinced him that we should try something that looked new, at least in Manitoba at that time, which was to publish exclusively online.

We were not the only book-obsessed people who saw that book reviewing in this country was dying rapidly, with the loss of review pages most obvious in Canadian newspapers, but also repeated in literary magazines and other places that should have known better. Book reviewing matters — and saying this ought to be redundant — because it creates a literary and historical context for new work. When I was a graduate student of Victorian literature in the 1980s, fumbling with the then-current technology of the microfiche, it was obvious that the first reviews of Charles Dickens, for example, even when hostile, perverse, or ill-informed, still contained astonishing bits of insight for future readers and scholars. As you can tell, Gregg and I felt like missionaries, and I would later transfer my office and bar-room evangelism into regular rants on the site.

Near Christmas of 2010 I rushed over to the Wolseley house where Gregg operated his publishing company, and we plugged in his laptop and looked at the pages of the first issue like giddy kids admiring their new toys. That first issue was called “Sex in Winnipeg” to create click-bait, and featured cartoons by Winnipeg Free Press legend Dale Cummings. We were looking at the start of an ambitious project where we would publish reviews of about 80 books of Canadian fiction each year, by writers from all over Canada. We’d also publish author interviews, book excerpts, new creative work and columns devoted to fiction in translation, young adult fiction, poetry and reviews of local theatre.

Gregg invested a considerable sum of money in the site, using profits from sales of local non-fiction books to fund this new online venture instead of saving for retirement or some other boring but prudent cause. Relish Design built the site for us, and it seemed like a shiny new car we could rev up and take for a cross-country tour.

Since then the tour has been a great adventure, with the occasional pothole. In 2012 we began to get Canada Council support that gave us a very small budget. The first major bump was when I had to leave Great Plains in the summer of 2013, but Gregg allowed me to walk away with The Winnipeg Review so the magazine could continue. That worked reasonably well for about two years, at which point I started to explore finding some help.

The current editorial team, Julienne Isaacs, Carlyn Schellenberg, Shawn Syms and Ben Wood, edited a total of eight issues over two years, and I’m immensely grateful to them for doing a wonderful job, and for all the new contributors they brought into the magazine. The magazine would have folded two years ago were it not for their taking on a challenging task with such dedication and professionalism.

But returning to the past for a bit: the two most popular pieces TWR ever published were not book reviews. The first was John K. Samson’s “The New Jets Logo, a Boardroom, and a Bargain,” in August 2011, which deconstructed the militaristic origins of the Jets logo, and caused the site to crash because of the twitching anxious clicks of Winnipeg sports fans. I suppressed a threatening comment from a former military man. Thousands of people read the piece and its follow-up column in October (“The Return”), and Winnipeggers were so confused they wrote letters of objection to John care of the Winnipeg Sun, which dutifully printed them.

More than 3,000 readers, or at least click artists, accessed Spencer Gordon’s remarkable and remarkably long essay (9,000 words), “Goodbye to All That,” in July 2015.

And the third-most popular piece of all time was a book review of a non-existent book with the title Sex Lives of the Interlake Hutterites by the fictitious David Hofer-Cassidy. It was written under the pseudonym Bender Hamlet, and the real author was me. We received emails from Ireland and other refuges of the curious who wanted to know why they couldn’t find the book on Amazon.

I’m proud of having published a lot of new poetry by terrific Canadian poets during our run, including, in no particular order: Steven Heighton, Russell Thornton, Lori Cayer, Méira Cook, John Wall Barger, David Zieroth, Patricia Young, Patrick Friesen, Jennifer Still, Barry Dempster, Barbara Nickel, Elise Partridge, Nyla Matuk, Anne Marie Todkill, Gerald Hill and Brenda Schmidt.

More recently the new editorial team published short fiction by Trevor Corkum, Darren Greer, Casey Plett, and Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. You can find the landing page here for all the new work we published in various genres.

Over the years we had many memorable and lively contributors. I want to name just a few of them here: Jeff Bursey, who wrote a fabulous column on literature in translation for us, Richard Cumyn and Alison Gillmor, who wrote elegant and context-rich book reviews for next to nothing, many times; our young adult fiction columnists Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and later Anita Daher; Michelle Palansky and Chandra Mayor for their provocative reviews of Winnipeg theatre; and Shane Neilson, who wrote in every possible genre for the magazine, and was never boring. His piece on Douglas Glover, from 2012, is one of my favourites. And in the provocateur category, Shane’s essay on the Battle of the Bards at Harbourfront, from 2011, was an instant classic.

Winnipeg novelist Barbara Romanik wrote numerous columns for us having to do with buildings, landmarks and her own brilliant musings. One of my favourites is still “Would Robert Kroetsch Defile the Museum of Human Rights?” (not really a question, in Barbara’s view), published in our first issue.

We published many revealing interviews, my own touchstone being a 2015 conversation about the late, much missed, immensely gifted poet Elise Partridge, between fellow poets Christopher Patton, Barbara Nickel and Stephanie Bolster. Hubert O’Hearn, another long-time contributor, did a very fine interview with Winnipeg’s own Joan Thomas in fall 2014.

More recently, the new editorial team commissioned work you should go back and read or re-read, like the spring 2017 “All-Women Issue,” and Gwen Benaway’s “Facing the Legacy of Erasure and Cultural Appropriation in Canadian Literature,” which was one of the more interesting responses to TWUC’s newsletter controversy from earlier this year. In the current issue there is a thoughtful, wide-ranging piece by fiction writer Seyward Goodhand called “On Writing with Love.

In a more perfect world, The Winnipeg Review would have continued as long as Canadian fiction does. It’s not as if intelligent, professionally written, well-edited book reviews have suddenly begun to proliferate in this country. On the contrary, the chances are that many worthy and even exciting Canadian books, especially if they come from a small press, will not get reviewed at all. But we began as a project run off the side of someone’s desk—mine—and never found the resources to do the things necessary for the magazine to be sustainable: better payment for contributors, a major site redesign, an actual salary for at least one person to run the magazine, and pro help in fundraising and advertising sales. I could have done some of these things myself, but the prospect of years as a volunteer was too much. Early in 2014 I wrote that “we’d accept ads for cars if anyone offered them,” but, unsurprisingly, no one did.

For the future, a number of us are looking at a home for the entire Winnipeg Review corpus of over 900 posts. We know of at least one CanLit archive—at the University of Manitoba—that has used on-line spider tech to make the contents accessible to researchers. In the meantime, the site will continue to reside here until the fall of 2018.

For the sake of our readers, I hope that someone picks up the smoky torch. The Hamilton Review of Books is doing good work, and CNQ publishes real criticism out on the resolutely non-digital end of the spectrum. There are others. No one is indispensable.

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