Culture | We’re losing our lit mags

Recent changes to Canadian Heritage funding threaten the future of our nation’s literature

It’s hard to think of a Canadian writer who didn’t get his or her start in a small literary magazine. Up-and-coming writers from P.K. Page to Yann Martel found a venue for their early works in lit mags alongside established voices of all stripes. That these small publications have played an influential role in the development of Canadian literature is difficult to dispute. Take Moment magazine, founded by Al Purdy and Milton Acorn in the ’60s, which published Raymond Souster, Louis Dudek, and Irving Layton, among others. More recently, Matrix has featured work by Sina Queyras and Pasha Malla; The Malahat Review published new poems from Tim Lilburn; and Prairie Fire printed a story, “My Three Girls,” by then-unknown writer Saleema Nawaz, that would go on to win the Journey Prize. The list could go on, and on, and on some more.  
This past year, small literary and arts publications in Canada have experienced significant cuts to their Department of Canadian Heritage funding. In January, heritage minister James Moore announced new guidelines that would govern the Canada Periodical Fund (CPF), a program that has replaced the Canada Magazine Fund (CMF) and the Periodical Assistance Program (PAP). The shift to the CPF involved the complete elimination of the Support for Arts and Literary Magazines (SALM) component of the CMF.

It also established a rule mandating that periodicals must have paid subscription rates of at least 5,000 copies per year in order to qualify for the Aid to Publishers program, which funds editorial content. As most Canadian arts and literary magazines have subscription rates of 300 to 4,500 paid copies, this will render the vast majority of them ineligible for content-focused CPF funding. It’s a reality that will threaten the existence of a number of Canadian lit mags, negatively impacting the country’s literary landscape.  
“It’s like taking a small but very essential element out of an ecosystem,” says Jon Paul Fiorentino, editor-in-chief of Matrix, about the loss of CMF/PAP funding. “Small literary journals really do allow literary practitioners to cut their teeth, to start the lifelong project of improving their writing in public. There may be some literary periodical that won’t get funding and that needed funding in order to survive. Obviously it means that there [will be] less venues for writers to start their careers.” 
Without a doubt, small literary magazines are unique in their ability to foster the work of Canadian writers and to offer opportunities to young artists. “Where else are writers supposed to start?” asks Mike Thompson, business administrator at Grain. “Writers need opportunities, they need somebody at some point to give them a paycheque, and [literary magazines] offer that. We give them chances to work with editors before they launch into larger projects, and it builds up a [writer’s] fan base as well.” 
Amid this reality, the new CPF guidelines demonstrate not only Canadian Heritage’s disregard for small literary and arts magazines, but also its deep lack of understanding of the purposes and goals of these publications. “In every way that I can think of, the government has tried to graft the corporate model on to the literary magazine,” Fiorentino says. This is certainly evident in the circulation requirements, which Fiorentino guesses may have been set at a level “[the government] thought was a fair number because they wanted us to be more competitive in the marketplace. It’s an attainable number for many magazines,” he continues, “but it changes the way these magazines operate, in terms of turning more into businesses and less into artist-driven projects.”  
Indeed, the only CPF funding that most small magazines will be eligible for will come from the business development component, which is meant to finance managerial projects – not editorial ones. “Everyone always talks about, ‘are you a circulation-driven magazine, are you an ad-driven magazine,’ they always talk about the ways to generate revenue,” Fiorentino explains. “No one ever talks about the content-driven magazine, the idea-driven magazine. [Literary magazines] are about poetry; we’re about short stories; we’re about ideas. I don’t think it’s fair or necessarily healthy to graft the corporate model onto everything. I don’t think that’s the solution for the arts.”  
Gerald Trites, co-editor of The Antigonish Review, agrees. “[The government] is really treating literary journals as commercial enterprises,” he says. “They’re not. They’re not that at all. None of us are in it for profit; we don’t make any money; we never will make any. The government should not be applying profit-oriented metrics to this kind of journal. It just doesn’t fit.”

Most of the magazines that do fit the government-sanctioned profile are large, corporate-owned glossies that have the circulation numbers necessary to benefit from CPF money. But as Melissa Krone, circulation manager at The New Quarterly, wrote on the magazine’s blog, “do the magazines of large publishing companies that contain a huge ratio of advertising really deserve Canadian Heritage support?” After all, the DHC says that one of their goals is “increased Canadian content in periodicals.” 
What’s more, “If you look at the guidelines for the periodical fund, there’s absolutely no mention of qualitative criteria,” says John Barton, editor of the Malahat Review. “The only criteria there besides circulation is Canadian ownership and Canadian content. And both are quantifiable. You can count the number of pages of Canadian content. There’s no recognition of contribution [to culture]. There’s no recognition that literary magazines, all arts magazines, are incubators for the culture of tomorrow.” 
This leaves many wondering why Canadian Heritage is not fighting for literary and arts magazines, rather than against them. “This [funding] comes through Canadian Heritage,” Thompson says. “Small print run magazines, that’s what safeguards culture. It seems really funny that Canadian Heritage is not wanting to continue that investment, to [support] Canadian culture, in magazine form, anyway.” 
Fiorentino is less surprised. “I think it’s quite clear that this particular government and this particular heritage minister are really not all that interested in supporting arts and heritage,” he states.

The consequence will be that small magazines will have to revert to what Trites calls “survival mode.” The Antigonish Review may adjust the honorariums they pay writers, small sums to begin with. At Grain, which lost nearly 10 per cent of its annual budget with the new CPF regulations, the change will mean “less pages, which means less [writing], which means less pay for writers,” according to Thompson. “We really don’t have any fat to trim,” he acknowledges, “but we’ll keep doing it somehow.” 
And though the risk of magazine closures is real, comments like Thompson’s indicate that those involved are digging in their heels to prevent a worst-case scenario. “I think the literary community, and literary magazines in particular are like cockroaches – we’ll survive nuclear attack,” Barton says. “Grassroots culture is like that.”


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