Culture  Not just a load of bull

Ph.D. candidate establishes an online review for McGill’s literati

The Bull Calf is a tri-annual journal reviewing Canadian fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. The McGill Daily sat down with one of its creators, J.A Weingarten – a Ph.D. candidate studying Canadian Literature at McGill – to discuss his motivations for starting a new journal with fellow Ph.D. student Kait Pinder and his views on reviewing literature in a technologically advanced age.

The McGill Daily: Why did you start the Bull Calf?

J.A. Weingarten: Kait and I wanted to have a better idea of what is being published today in Canada and how it relates to the literature we study from the past. We also liked the idea of getting a lot of books, to be honest! So, Kait suggested that we start our own review, and I was excited by the idea. We spent the rest of fall 2010 organizing the first issue and finding reviewers. So many friends from McGill and elsewhere, mostly graduate students, offered to review for us. As well, two professors in the English department – professors Allan Hepburn and Peter Webb – graciously offered to write reviews for the first issue.

MD: How is your review different than others?

JW: We wanted to use some traditional approaches to reviewing, but we also wanted to offer new ways to review books. Kait proposed the idea of a retrospective review, where contributors write about texts published before 2000. It was a great idea, especially because grad students across the country read a lot of canonical texts when working on a thesis; we thought that our journal could give them an opportunity to offer some casual thoughts on these books. In addition, we wanted to include a group review (where two or three reviewers critique the same book) because we thought it would give greater perspective on the reviewed text. We’ve also considered reviewing short poetry chapbooks in future issues, which are rarely reviewed in most journals. We’ve also added a section for Ph.D. dissertation abstracts, where recent Ph.D. graduates can advertise their area of specialization on our site.

MD: Why do you think reviews matter in literature today?

JW: When it comes to literary criticism, I think it is important to demonstrate that people are paying attention to and acknowledging the work that scholars have done. A lot of effort goes into critical work, and that deserves recognition. The same goes for writers or poets – they deserve an audience, and a review is verifiable proof of one. It’s important to me to know that colleagues and writers feel validated in some way; the arts depend on that, I think.

MD: Can anyone review for you?

JW: Well, for the time being, we have been limiting our reviewers to graduate students and professors because there is a certain familiarity with early literature and contemporary literature that we value. We want reviewers who can best draw those links, and those are usually students or professors who have read widely. Kait and I really pride ourselves on the fact that our first issue and its reviewers were so strong.

MD: What kinds of texts do you seek to review?

JW: Almost anything written by Canadian writers. We’re really interested in the new and established voices in this country.

MD: Why limit the review to Canadian writers?

JW: Kait and I wanted the journal to be of the highest calibre. Both of us study Canadian literature, so our expertise rests in that field. When we keep reviews focused on Canadian content, our background makes it easy for us to know when a reviewer is hitting the right notes.  As well, our other editors – Renaud Roussel, Laura Cameron, and Claudine Gelinas-Faucher – all specialize in Canadian literature. We’re most confident dealing with Canadian writing for that reason.

MD: If you could review any author or poet who would it be?

JW: I think it would be cool to review some of Irving Layton’s or John Newlove’s earlier works, which you can only really find in rare books libraries. Layton’s an especially interesting case, because he didn’t get very good reviews in the fifties. I wonder, sometimes, how he’d fare with audiences today. But I’d almost always pick poetry to review, even though I love novels; I understand poetry much more instinctually than fiction.

MD: The Bull Calf is an online journal. Why did you decide to publish in that format instead of in print?

JW: It is obviously cheaper to publish online, and for two graduate students that is definitely a plus. Publishing online also allowed Kait and I to organize the journal much faster. An online journal is also far more accessible; people who are interested can just Google the Bull Calf on their own time, whether for causal interest or for academic use.

MD: Do you think that print journals are dwindling in our technologically advanced world?

JW: A lot of print journals have decided to go online, or others publish online before they publish in print. However, some tenaciously stick to print. The Journal of Canadian Poetry, for example, still prints their issues. Canadian Literature publishes their reviews online and in print. I find print is usually reserved for articles these days; even interviews are published online quite often.

MD: Why did you call it the Bull Calf?

JW: When Kait had mentioned we start a journal, I kind of just blurted out the name because I had recently been reading “The Bull Calf” by Irving Layton. We were touched by the poem, I think, and remembered it fondly. It is about a small calf that tries to stand with pride, but is too weak to do so. He dies, shot by an onlooker, and is buried in the mud. We thought there was something tongue-in-cheek about naming a blooming Canadian journal after a dying animal.

MD: What are your hopes for the review in the future?

JW: Certainly that we are not shot and buried in the mud! But hopefully that we can continue, that we are able to keep enlisting reviewers of a high caliber and expand the content. Right now though, Kait and I are happy to take it slow and see where the Bull Calf takes us.

­­—Compiled by Laura Chapnick

Check out the Bull Cafe here.