Martin Levin, the Globe and Mail’s long-time book editor, wrote an entertaining piece in last Saturday’s paper about the fun writers sometimes have hacking one another to pieces in print. He quotes mostly from Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, edited by Gary Dexter, and the barbs are from everyone from the Athenian Greeks to Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. It’s good fun, too, until this more or less inevitable bit of folk-lorish disingenuousness at the end of the piece:
“It pains me, though,” Levin writes, “that Canadian writers have fallen invectively short. Are we too nice? Too deferential? Sure, there’s no shortage of private whingings, resentments and jealousies, but wouldn’t it be a treat to have, say, Alice Munro opine of Robertson Davies something along the lines of: ‘The man was a blowhard. All that cloudy, mystical Jungianism hung on the slenderest of twigs; and never a character you could faintly believe in.’”
Levin has been the gate-keeper for Canada’s most prestigious newspaper book review venue for 14 years now. The disingenuousness of what he writes lies in the fact that his own editorial policies at the Globe have been among the principal causes of the shortfall of public hatchet-swinging amongst Canadian writers. If you administer a serious beating to a writer when you review in the Globe, you’re almost always punished for it by not being offered another book to review for at least two or three years. Way back in 2002 I savaged the ridiculously self-advertising Grant McCracken’s Plenitude in a review for the paper, and I didn’t hear from Levin for 7 years. Admittedly, I didn’t call him either, since I was busy and I knew, given the 4 pages of acknowledgments McCracken included with the book, that I was about to make some powerful enemies.
I have some sympathy for Levin here, because he works with a uniquely 21st century hatchet poised above his own neck: newspapers today, with their shrinking readership and advertising base, are under severe constraints in the way they review books. Only the big corporate publishers in Canada can afford to advertise in a national newspaper like the Globe and Mail, and they don’t want their authors savaged because the three or four marketing graduates who do the book buying for Chapters/Indigo (which sells 70 percent of the books in Canada) base their shelf-space allotments on what Levin’s reviewers have to say about newly published books. They read the Globe because it is the last paper left in the country that has a substantial review section.
Ergo, consciously or not, Levin, in an effort to keep his review section from shrinking more than it already has, has learned to bring in the wankers to review books, more often than not knowing that his reviewers have career or temperamental reasons for “being positive” about the books they’re reviewing. It keeps the advertising dollars coming in, and it wards off the bean-counters upstairs, who aren’t interested in discursive cultural fun and have their own kind of hatchets, along with the mandate to use them without the slightest regard to the cultural consequences. That the Globe and Mail’s book section has survived to the degree it has is a testimony to Levin’s tactical smarts in avoiding them.
550 Words February 5, 2010