Culture & Conversation

This Isn’t Your Father’s Canadian Notes & Queries

With reports of the printed word’s imminent death arriving on a near daily basis, it is uplifting to see a magazine, rather than crumple before the seemingly inevitable, make a concerted effort to improve its physical package. With its 79th issue, Canadian Notes & Queries unveiled a smart redesign for which they entrusted the vision of graphic novelist and designer Seth, author of, among others, George Sprott and the Palooka-Ville series. The result is a decidedly hip new look for the 42-year old journal of literature and criticism.

As far as names go, and this is putting it kindly, “Canadian Notes & Queries” is a marketing consultant’s sweaty nightmare. A magazine title could hardly evoke less enthusiastic assumptions about what awaits inside. CNQ, however, is actually home to some of the liveliest and boldest literary criticism in the country. So while Seth’s redesign includes a new and more attractive size, logo and cover for CNQ, his most significant contribution comes in the form of an injection, front and centre, of some humour at the journal’s own expense. Enter the comic mascots: rugged and grandfatherly Hudson (who beams proudly, “I handle the notes”) and aristocratic Stanfield (who — you guessed it — “deal(s) with the queries”). The ability to laugh at one’s self, especially for a small-circulation lit mag in the middle of Magazine Armageddon, is a sure sign of health.

Not lost amid the bells and whistles of this episode of Extreme Makeover: Can Lit Edition is substance. Always one of Canada’s most ardent defenders of the short story, CNQ dedicates its re-launch issue to an examination and promotion of the overlooked and undervalued literary form. The Short Story Issue comes just two years after CNQ produced – alongside The New Quarterly – the Salon des Refusés, a spirited response to the Jane Urquhart-edited Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories anthology.

In separate articles, Clark Blaise, Mark Anthony Jarman and CNQ editor Alex Good laud the short story and pan the mulish notion that it is, as Good laments, “a somehow less important, inferior literary form” compared to the novel. True to the spirit of the issue, there are three essays, by Robert Thacker, Douglas Glover and Michael Darling, devoted to individual short stories – two of Alice Munro’s and one of Audrey Thomas’s. This in addition to a thorough study by Jeet Heer of Leon Rooke’s novella “Gator Wrestling” from The Last Shot.

Other highlights include a new story by Rebecca Rosenblum, whose 2008 debut collection Once placed her at the forefront of Canada’s next wave of short story writers. And Ryan Bigge, who is as funny as he is combative, swings his wrecking ball and demolishes four of the five titles shortlisted for the 2009 Giller Prize (only Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean evades the razing). Bigge’s piece is a prime example of the kind of hard-hitting, unapologetic and, yes, entertaining criticism that distinguishes CNQ.

For all of the venom they’re known for (just ask André Alexis), after reading The Short Story Issue I was left with the overall sense, and not for the first time, that Canadian Notes & Queries’s editorial staff and contributors care. They wouldn’t involve themselves in such a thankless business if they didn’t. Carrying out a major overhaul and upgrade of their in-print product in the age of the iPad and Kindle is but more proof.

Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Spring Training” won first prize in the 5th Annual Geist Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. He is currently writing an exceedingly long short story (of a length known in some circles as “novels”) entitled With the Lights Out.

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