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February 1, 2013

The Toronto Globe and Mail decides readers aren’t really its demographic


Martin Levin

Big city newspapers deciding that their readership is so overrun by attention-deficit dunces that they don’t need to cover literary culture has become one of those stories publishing reporters find themselves writing again and again, but the news from Canada yesterday was more depressing than usual: Toronto’s Globe and Mail — whose superb book coverage made most of us snobby New Yorkers consider it the New York Times Book Review of Canada — announced that it was diminishing not just its arts coverage, but itself, by removing one of the most esteemed book section editors in the business (on either side of the border), Martin Levin, and his assistant book editor, Jack Kirchhoff, both of whom double as two of the best critics in the country.

As a report by Susan G. Cole in Toronto Now notes, the move comes after the paper had already “drastically [cut] back its books section last summer.”

Still, it was stunning news. Levin had been in the job for 17 years, and, as I say, was as admired in America’s publishing capital as he was in Canada’s. Both he and Kirchhoff were something more than snooty editors, too — the Globe and Mail’s section not only reviewed, but reported on, more than just the bestsellers from the big houses. It covered a vibrant Canadian publishing scene that included books from a wide range of publishers, and piercing reportage on developments in a turbulent business. In fact, you were far more likely to find critical coverage of Amazon, the country’s leading chain Indigo, and the government’s bizarre abandonment of its literary culture than you were in most American periodicals. In short, this is a decision that has done real damage to Canadian literary culture, and maybe more …

Both men, it seemed, were caught off-guard. In the Toronto Now report, Kirchhoff attributed his removal to “the lack of ads ‘even during the busiest release season.'” (An unfortunate if not ridiculous charge — is the newspaper going to stop covering the government if it doesn’t take out ads?) Levin, meanwhile, charged that “criticism has given way to celebrating the first scoop,” reports Cole. Levin tells her, “It’s all about celebrity now and being the first one to come out with a review, as if the first review is definitive. But a book review should be only an opening salvo, the beginning of a conversation.”

As might have been expected, outrage ensued. According to a report by Charlie Smith in Vancouver’s,  The Writers’ Union of Canada protested immediately, issuing a statement saying that the removal of Levin and Kirchhoff left it “wondering if there is a crisis of critical engagement in Canada’s mainstream media.” TWUC chair Merilyn Simonds issued a statement saying, “Without intensive book coverage in our large daily newspapers, publishers and festivals will lose access to a targeted, engaged, book-loving audience. Not only will it be harder for books to find readers, but the ongoing literary conversation sparked by quality reviews will be silenced — or at the least, reduced to a whisper.”

Late in the day, perhaps in response to growing outrage, the newspaper issued a statement clarifying something rather crucial that hadn’t been clear in initial reports — that is, had the “removal” of Levin and Kirchhoff meant that they’d been fired? According to a report in Quill & Quire, they hadn’t … although it looks like the newspaper would like both men to move on: Kirchhoff’s new job hasn’t been announced, while Levin has been reassigned to the obituaries section.

Telling enough, but meanwhile the powers-that-be at the Globe and Mail are keeping up the line of bullshit that always follows such indefensible moves. Editor-in-chief John Stackhouse says the moves don’t signify anything. “We will continue to publish what I hope is an outstanding weekly books section but also hope to develop … the most engaging books coverage in the country,” he tells Quill and Quire.

But of course the various cutbacks put the lie to that. It’s moronic on the face of it, of course. Who’s more likely to read a newspaper than people who read books? And so we find ourselves once again watching a newspaper seal its own fate.

But meanwhile two great literary champions have been cast aside. Chances are that both of these gifted men will find a new way to express their impressive talents. But meanwhile, we here at Melville House say bon voyage, and thanks.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives