I was recently congratulated via email for bagging a couple of prestigious National Magazine Awards. Yay me. These were in the categories Best Editorial Package (some anthemic multi-authored thing like "100 Things To Do Before Another Magazine Tells You to Do Them") and Best Single Issue (self-explanatory; though I might have contributed anything from a caption to a novella). As it turns out, what I - and a bazillion others - received in these categories was Honorable Mention. Not so hot it seems, though this often comes with a stylish, diploma-like commemoration suitable for framing.
The designation, however, does mean you were a finalist -essentially tied for Bronze in these categories because the only higher prizes are Silver and Gold. But wait... lest I derive too much satisfaction, I actually knew that the process of landing on a judge's table in the first place meant little, let alone being completely flawed. Whatever the outcome of my thinking, however, this surprise news would, as always, go on my resumé because this is Canada, a country whose national mantra has become "Not just good, but good enough ."
Anyone who knows me knows how fond I am of this expression (not mine, BTW; it's an old saw describing how editors manage most magazine publishers' low-ball quality expectations) and how frighteningly apt it has become in so many different milieus (including, as repeatedly demonstrated by Stephen Harper, Canadian democracy itself). Far from the water-cooler chuckle it once was, it now accurately describes a pervasive flaw in our natural character; one - now that the arts are on IV-drip at the hands of conservative-minded governments - that's become so entrenched we're likely never to shake it.
The relevance of this statement to magazine awards was highlighted in an online essay by Frank Moher, one-time editor of Saturday Night , entitled: "The National [sic] Magazine Awards." Mohler cynically notes how the top three mags in finalist nominations at this year's awards were the same Toronto-based top three ( The Walrus, Maclean's, Toronto Life ) as the previous two years. L'actualité , he notes (a French Maclean's for lack of a better comparison), is occasionally allowed to hang with this group, but only due to the kind of pandering that plague these awards. Otherwise it's too incestuous for words: does the The Walrus now dominate the NMAs under (former Toronto Life editor) John Macfarlane because it finally looks and reads like a magazine, wonders Mohler?
"No." he opines. "It does so because it fills the historical role of Toronto alpha-magazine, a role that used to be filled by Saturday Night ... There must always be a Toronto alpha-magazine... (so) The Walrus will win mucho d'awards, just because. Meantime, the "coveted" Magazine of the Year prize will continue to be handed out on a semi-regular basis to magazines not from Toronto, as per last year's award to Alberta Views . Which begs the question: if these publications aren't good enough to receive double-digit (category) nominations - which they apparently never are - how are they good enough to be the Magazine of the Year?"
Mohler goes on to note how, despite organizers' claims, English-language judges are overwhelmingly from Toronto , French and bilingual juries almost entirely from central Canada, and that this partially arts-funded farce should really stop calling itself the NMA.
Indeed. Mohler didn't even mention the quagmire in which the crap-shoot of "objective" judging at most magazine awards was preceded by the farce of subjective submission (by publications, or, in some cases, writers themselves who have the time or money to do so) - another reason to take little stock in the results. With the NMAs, magazines nominate their own pieces; they can submit as many for consideration as they like but must pay for each. This isn't cheap, engendering a numbers game: the more monied (i.e., Toronto-based) mags can pay their way into statistical position to receive a shitload of nominations and maintain alpha position. Beyond this, there's a problem with the categories themselves. Examples are nebulous catch-alls like Science and Environment or Sports and Recreation, where a profile of a professional athlete (a nationally recognized hockey or Olympic hero, for instance) in a widely-distributed mag like The Walrus will, strictly due to recognition factors and mainstreamedness, generally overshadow an account of derring-do by complete unknowns in some specialized, limited-distribution action-sport mag (e.g., climbing, skiing, snowboarding, surfing), a different style of widely-consumed journalism. When strategizing (as all editors must) about which categories to submit in, some of this material might be logically shunted into travel, where it will compete with specialized travel mags and the same pretense and purse-strings-an iniquity no one seems capable of addressing.
Ultimately, the NMAs and their ilk feed two big issues that perennially plague Canadian arts and culture and keep it from being truly democratic: institutionalized entitlement and institutionalized mediocrity. Which brings us to the final, bigger issue: when I got that email I was psyched - programmed to happily be part of the problem.