September 1, 2004: TDR: Five Long Years

by Michael Bryson

It’s been five long years
And I love you just the same
     – Colin James, "Five Long Years"

On September 1, 1999, I uploaded the files of The Danforth Review’s first issue. That issue is saved for posterity on the National Library of Canada’s website. To introduce TDR to the world, I wrote:

Technology has been changing the relationship between writer and reader for centuries. From the first papyrus pages to moveable type to the photocopier and desktop publishing, the movement has been towards assisting communication – easing both the means of production and the means of distribution. In recent years, the Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, has ignited a new communications revolution – complete with bi-polar visions of utopia and apocalypse.

To be sure the Internet is not the harbinger of a perfect human society. Neither, however, does it signal the end of all things bright and beautiful. To writers it offers almost unlimited distribution. To readers it offers a library of near infinite proportions. These are good things, surely, and yet there remains anxiety in the literary community about the definition of words like "book" or "magazine." Can the definition of these objects extend to words delivered digitally?

At The Danforth Review we say, "YES!"

My editorial also linked to a story on the CBC website about the imminent arrival of digital books, which seem no closer now than they did in the dying months of the 20th century. Nor can I point to any other transformative effect the Internet – or any other digital technology – has had on the book world, which has changed in the past five years, surely, but due more to predatory capitalist booksellers than the ongoing evolution of technology.

Since 1999, of course, the dot-com bubble has burst. Talk of a digital transformation of society – from an e-economy to new cyber-selves – has dampened considerably. The Internet and the World Wide Web have facilitated new opportunities for connections between writers and readers, writers and writers. But the nature of those connections have not changed substantially in the way some cyber-theorists once speculated. E-publishing has proven viable for reference works (legal publishing, for example); literary publishing, however, remains much as it always has: an effort of blood, sweat, tears, individual sacrifice and government subsidy. Large houses occasionally have best sellers, small houses survive by hook or crook, and micropress publishers exist on the fruitful margins of the economy where bartering is more common than the exchange of coinage.

If you build it, will they come?

As should be clear from the above quotation from TDR’s first issue, the magazine was jumpstarted by a spirit of experimentation. TDR began by asserting that an online magazine could be as literary and as supportive of good writing and the literary community in the same way as a print magazine could. It wasn’t a bold assertion (TDR, on the whole, has never been a bold magazine), and in 2004 it seems an odd assertion, but in 1999 there was some uncertainty about it. Specifically, would anyone bother to submit to this new, online entity that said it was open to submissions from around the world that met some simple criteria: "the right words in the right order." Would anyone read it?

I must add here that TDR started as a sub-folder on the editor’s personal website. The original URL for the magazine was Why would anyone want to submit work to’s pet project? I’m still not sure (in fact, I’m remain deeply surprised at how things have turned out), but one thing is certain: submit they did. TDR has received submissions from across Canada and the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Nepal, India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, Brazil, among other countries. And the number of submissions has steadily increased. TDR’s editors now receive well over 100 stories and 500 poems to review each issue.

Readers came, too. Exactly how many is uncertain, since tracking visitors to the website has been somewhat haphazard. Hit counter technology is both precise and easily manipulated (e.g., one person can visit a website multiple times; "spiders" crawl the web driving up numbers, but don’t represent actual "visitors"). However, it’s clear that between 1999 and 2004 increasing numbers of people became aware of the website and became regular readers. The latest statistics from TDR’s Internet Service Provider say TDR gets over 100,000 hits a month, representing over 10,000 visitors.

In the past five years, TDR has published 12 issues of fiction and poetry. Those 12 issues include 67 story stories and 86 poems. Since 1999, the magazine has published 63 interviews with writers, reviewed ~300 books, and published 22 essays (plus a number of other features, such as "a dozen Montreal high school students reveal what [they read] and why"). TDR has become, arguably, a small fixture on the Canlit scene.

In short, the experiment can probably be said to have been successful, though I leave that for others to judge, since I am too far inside the TDR bubble to review it with any degree of objectivity. My measurements of success are tightly personal: Has it been fun? Have I learned anything? Ultimately, am I getting more out of it than I’m putting into it? This last question seems to me to be the bottom line for just about any activity: Was it worth it?

Fewer reviews published

Yes, it has been worth it. But it’s also true that the returns (for me) have been diminishing, particularly over the past year. Five years is a long time to be dedicated to a project. I’ve always said to myself, "You don’t have to do this forever." In fact, in February and March 2004 I posted a "Request for Proposals" on the website to see if anyone was (seriously) interested in taking over the production of the magazine. While there were some expressions of interest, ultimately I decided I’d like to continue to produce the magazine, but also that I wanted to continue the spirit of experimentation – which meant making some changes. Namely, reducing the number of reviews. I wrote to publishers in March and asked them to stop sending books for review, a decision that caused Quill & Quire to ask me why I was shutting down the magazine (I’m not, I told them; only substantially reducing the number of reviews).

Experiments are led by hypotheses (will this work? Let’s find out), but experiments also use interim results to redefine themselves. Existence may precede essence, as Satre noted, but essence also shapes existence. TDR has proven that a website with a focus on the Canadian small press scene can gain and sustain an audience and attract submissions of quality fiction and poetry from around the globe. It has also demonstrated that the demand for reviews of Canadian small press books is greater (even desperately greater) than the current supply.

In fact, over the years, TDR has probably received twice as many books as it has reviewed – and, until recently, the number of books received month-over-month kept going up. Frankly, the demand for book reviews was something of a surprise to me. If experiments sometimes have unintended consequences, the affect of book reviews on TDR was one. Yes, I knew that the vast majority of books published by small presses in this country are lucky to get reviewed even once. However, TDR was never meant to be a "book review website," and it was increasingly becoming that. More and more, authors were sending copies of their books and sending followup emails asking when a review of their work would appear on the website.

The bottom line is, TDR could not meet these expectations without making substantial changes; changes that would have made TDR a reviews magazine with some fiction and poetry on the side. This was never the mission of the magazine, and it isn’t where I want to take the magazine, i.e., it isn’t the experiment I want to pursue (though I strongly encourage others to take up the challenge; TDR has provided "proof of concept"; I’m willing to provide advice to anyone interested in setting up such a website).

And so, the change implemented at TDR was to deliberately limit the number of reviews. In the future, I told publishers in March 2004, TDR will focus more on its central role as a publisher of original creative work. This new direction was also outlined in TDR’s Canada Council application in March 2004. It is, in some ways, a return to the original mandate of the magazine. Small. Insignificant. A portal to Canlit content on other websites.

No more poetry submissions

Now I turn to another change in editorial direction, which may be more difficult to explain: the September 1, 2004 issue will be the last, for the foreseeable future, to contain poetry. Why? Well, for quite some time I have wanted to make fiction a more dominant focus of the magazine, and now appears to be an opportune time to do that. For five years, TDR has tried to maintain a balance between fiction, poetry and reviews. However, that balance has been obscured by pressures in the marketplace (dozens of unsolicited books for review and email queries about reviews), as well as expectations from readers . . . and the glut of poetry books and poets pressing for recognition, i.e., over the years, TDR received more than twice as many poetry books as fiction titles from publishers. Were poetry publishers more desperate for attention? I don’t claim to know. What I do know is that five years ago I didn’t know Carmine Starnino from Sharon Thesen. Now I sometimes feel I know more about Canadian poetry than David Solway. Or maybe I just have broader tastes in Canadian poetry than David Solway, which is another point I couldn’t have made five years ago, when I would have asked: Who’s David Solway?

Is TDR abandoning poetry? (I expect a call from Quill & Quire any day asking this question.) No. TDR will continue to interview poets and review poetry books. But, for now, it will not be reviewing poetry submissions. Yes, there are many interesting things happening in the Canadian poetry scene. There are also magazine’s, like ARC, completely dedicated to Canadian poetry. As TDR continues past its fifth anniversary, it will be attempting to highlight the emerging short fiction writers in Canada. TDR is refocusing; it is rebalancing; it is redefining its experiment.

Before I go any further, however, allow me to pause to thank with my deepest appreciation the many hours of work and tireless dedication the cause by both Shane Neilson and Geoffrey Cook, who as TDR’s poetry editors since 2000 edited nine issues of poetry, choosing 56 poems out of, literally, thousands of submissions. Gentlemen, thank you. I know only a fraction of the dedication and effort you spent to achieve your assignment. I know from many comments to me that your work has been recognized by your peers. You have left a legacy of strong poems selected, one that will remain.

Back before the beginning, at the dawn of time

In September 1995, I interviewed Evelyn Lau and Rosemary Sullivan. I published the Lau interview in Id Magazine (now defunct) and the Sullivan interview in The Varsity, a student newspaper at the University of Toronto where I was then studying for a masters degree in English. Lau had just published a novel; Sullivan had just published her biography of Gwendolyn MacEwen, Shadowmaker, for which she would later win the Governor General’s Award.

Sullivan told me, "Canadian culture doesn't have as many literary biographies as one would expect at this point in its history." I told her I’d interviewed Evelyn Lau earlier in the week. (I was taping over the Lau interview to interview Sullivan.) She chastised me for not saving the tape of my Lau interview: One never knows what posterity will value. She said she’d once interviewed Leonard Cohen, and now wished she’d kept the tape of that interview. She told me a little about her search for source material for her MacEwen biography. Later that fall, Sullivan’s publisher sent me an invitation to a party to celebrate Sullivan’s GG win (or was it nomination?). The party was at the Bamboo and talk soon turned of the need to create a permanent memorial for MacEwen. Nine years later, this memorial now exists: Gwen MacEwen Park.

In the mid-1990s, I’d started publishing short fiction in magazines like The New Quarterly and The Antigonish Review, publishing book reviews for newspapers like The Kitchener-Waterloo Record and magazines like Paragraph (also now defunct), which published reviews of small press books, along with features on writers and essays on Canadian literature. I later published in Paragraph an essay on Romanticism and Susanna Moodie, adapted from one I wrote for my MA at U of T.

Why do I bring this up? Because it was in these years that TDR began. Well before I interviewed Lau and Sullivan in the same week I was aware that Canadian literature was in a moment of transition. The post-1967 boom in Canadian nationalism had created a large wave of Canadian writers – the first big wave of Canadian writers to develop international reputations and give Canadian literature more than a marginal profile, even in its own country. That wave extended through the 1970s and 1980s; however, by the mid-1990s a number of smaller Canlit waves had followed in the path of the first one . . . and Canlit seemed ready for a new generation of dominant voices. Evelyn Lau was well positioned to be one of them. As a literary journalist in 1995, I felt as if I was writing stories about the old and the new in a single week. And a literary journalist is what I wanted to be . . . .

Stuck in Gen-X Hell

. . . . however, by 1999 I was three years past graduation from U of T with my second degree, and four years into an unplanned extended stay as a boarder in my parents’ basement. Yes, I was in Gen-X Hell: Over-educated and under-employed. Still writing and publishing short stories. (In 1998, I even landed a book contract with Turnstone Press.) Meanwhile, there was much talk about the digital revolution. Wired magazine had made McLuhan cool again. Id and Paragraph, two places where I’d written about the lit biz with relative frequency, went belly up. I’d gone back to school to get some HTML training and maybe – heck, why not? – get a better job than writing news and sports headlines for pixel boards, a job I somehow survived for more than 18 months. But HTML is no good without somewhere to practice: Why not start a little lit mag and see what happens?

Yes, it was as naïve as all of that. And it began with the question, "Can the definition of these objects [books, magazines] extend to words delivered digitally?" And the emphatic answer: "YES!" It also began with an editorial wondering if by becoming an editor I wasn’t switching sides: Weren’t editors and writers forever estranged? Now I get emails like this one (July 2004):

Hilarious that you would once again lose the opportunity to publish fiction by one of the most accomplished and adventurous writers at work today.

Get real: the number of submissions you have received for your upcoming issue is irrelevant.

Obviously, those are from apprentice writers, minor writers, and second-rate writers.

Obviously, you are most comfortable dealing with pseudo-fiction; obviously, you are unable to handle the real thing.

Really amusing to watch you pretend to have the slightest concept of what makes fiction work.

There are remedial English comprehension lessons available in your area.

Please continue to have fun pretending you're an "editor" and that The Danforth Review publishes anything that matters.

Silly, silly little person.

Question: Is it better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? Hamlet couldn’t figure that out, and neither can I. I do know one thing, however: There is too much bitterness in the world, and no need to add any more. Wordsworth called poetry "emotion recollected in tranquility." My graduate degree days at U of T taught me something remedial English comprehension lessons never would: Wordsworth’s definition needs to be "problematized." Romanticism is rife with unarticulated assumptions, including the supremacy of the megalomaniac writer genius over the pedestrian critic/editor.

On the other hand, my experience at the helm of TDR has led me to conclude that the digital culture could benefit from more down time. Recollected in tranquility is exactly what many emails are not, and the result is often a screech-laced decorum, tattered feelings, and greater alienation. Is that what McLuhan meant when he predicted electronic media would create a "global village?" McLuhan said that mass market magazine’s had made even the smallest town part of the city. Well, the Internet has brought the other side of the world as close as a click on a mouse, but politics have rarely been more polarized – and wars, terrorism and other forms of homicide seem ever more prevalent.

It is also clear that there is something of a civil war going on in Canadian poetry circles, and that TDR became the locus for some rhetorical peashooting (ping, ping) and howitzer blasting (blam, blam). About half of the letters received by TDR in the past five years have been received in the past six months, and a good chunk of the letters reference heated exchanges between poets. I have had no desire to take sides in these exchanges, though I have felt responsible to ensure that civility ultimately prevails and that real communication (i.e., empathy with the other) occurs.

Admittedly, I have not always succeeded in this. Sometimes rhetorical highhandedness has won out. Sometimes exchanges have led to alienation, not empathy. I have already explained the naiveté that governed TDR’s beginnings. That naiveté was real, and to some extent continues: Being a mediator of pointed hurtfulness is not something I was – nor am – prepared to deal with. Likely, I have not always dealt with these issues appropriately, just as I will continue to make errors in the future. Ultimately, the standard I’d like TDR to achieve is an online environment that cultivates honest discussion of the prominent issues, within a decorum of personal respect and individual integrity.

Wanted: A Future With More Niceness

Here’s what I want: A little more peace, love and understanding. A little more – dare I say it – niceness. On occasion, I have described TDR as a collective art project. TDR has brought together contributions from dozens of people, largely volunteer labour and voluntary contributions, i.e.,. without niceness, TDR would not exist. Which doesn’t mean people shouldn’t disagree, but they should disagree in a way that ensures they are understood. And the focus should be on disagreements about the work, not about personalities. A good starting point would be to assume that everyone enters the scribbling game with integrity, and with the understanding that there are different schools of thought, approaches to writing, aesthetic tastes, etc., and that no one need "remedial English comprehension lessons."

Yes, literature is an individualist art form and individuals distinguish themselves by being different from each other. That’s a simple point which highlights where the tension lies: Between the collective and the self. Right underneath the title of a work is the by-line, the name of the author. All credit goes to him or her. Except that the editor plays a role, too, selecting, sometimes shaping. The printer plays a role, as does the publisher (or the webmaster). That is, there is a community of readers; a community of believers (that Canlit matters); a community of producers (not to mention distributors, journalists, publicists, book sellers, high school English teachers, students, and literary historians). At the centre of this web, there is, to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase, the individual talent. This intricate combination of relationships has been the source of much interest for many centuries, and it will continue to be a source of interest for many more to come, surely, through the digital age and beyond.

What does the future hold for TDR? More change, inevitably. More evolution. More experiments. Beginning with the September 2004 issue, Nathaniel G. Moore is coming on board as the new Features Editor. I welcome Nathaniel and his talents and insights and encourage him to continue to bring to TDR stories and interviews as he has in the past as a contributor. I will also be trying to provide more links to other websites with articles of interest related to small press publishing and literary scribbling in Canada. There are many people out there doing interesting things . . . and I’d like to help highlight that material more prominently.

Finally, while acknowledging the disappointment that many have expressed to me over TDR’s decision to substantially reduce the number of book reviews (and the disappointment that will follow the announcement that TDR is no longer reading poetry submissions), I want to end by saying I look forward to working with TDR’s contributors to continue developing material for future literary biographers. May the road rise up to meet you. May, some day, you have your own park.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.