Jessica Duffin Wolfe, photo by Liz Clayton


Print book reviews have been having a tough time in the past decade, but there are grounds for optimism in the online world. And though the web makes it easy to cross borders, there is still a case to be made for grounding a publication in a specific locale. One example of both that has been getting a lot of attention is the new Los Angeles Review of Books, which is scheduled to launch in early 2011. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, editor Tom Lutz says “The majority of our contributing editors live on the West Coast, and yes—without entering into any of the LA-NY rivalry, a kind of high culture version of Lakers-Celtics—I think our perch is a little different, we see things a bit differently. But we hope to be of national and international interest, and to cover the national and international book scene.”

This same spirit inspires Jessica Duffin Wolfe, editor of the forthcoming Toronto Review of Books. Its homepage is still in development, but as she points out in the following interview, the TRB will “take online media as seriously as print media—and will do so from an exuberantly Torontonian home base.” The TRB plans to publish its first issue this fall. We recently caught up with Ms. Duffin Wolfe via email to discuss the Canadian book reviewing landscape, what motivated her to start the TRB, and their plans for the first issue.

The name Toronto Review of Books parallels the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Are you aiming to create a Canadian equivalent?

I think the Literary Review of Canada aims to be the Canadian equivalent of those publications—but that's not really our goal, especially since those are pointedly city-based rather than nation-based publications. By self-consciously mirroring the names of the NYRB and the LRB we'd like to be a Toronto tribute to their traditions of excellent writing on ideas, but we're pursuing a fairly different structure.

Can you give us a sense of what Canadian book review publications are out there, and where you see the TRB fitting in? Why did you decide to start the Toronto Review?

The Literary Review of Canada fills the role of a more traditional reviews publication, but it only reviews Canadian books and doesn't really attend to culture online. In contrast, the TRB plans to take online media as seriously as print media—and will do so from an exuberantly Torontonian home base.

As for other publications with reviews, I actually edit the reviews section in one of them, Spacing, a magazine that considers public space and the city, and which has been at the forefront of articulating the new impression of Toronto that has grown here over the last decade. It was partly that experience that made me think it might be time to create a forum for a broader take on culture from this new Toronto perspective.

Really though, as for why—rumor has it that Canadian publishers have been griping of late about the lack of good review organs in this country, but I would never say there is actually a specific need for the TRB. We're doing this because we like books and ideas, and because we think Toronto abounds with interesting and talented writers—and mainly because we think it would be fun to do.

How much of the Toronto Review will be focused on Canadian works? Or is the name only an indication of where it is produced?

The name is an indication of where the editors live—a city we all feel excited about—so I think Canadian perspectives will emerge quite strongly by default, but we're not planning on having any rigid quotas and will publish whatever interests our editors and writers. Most of us have some kind of international affiliation or experience—that seems to be part of what it means to be from Toronto. (More than fifty-percent of Torontonians were born in other countries.) I hope that characteristic internationalism will infuse the TRB.

You mentioned in our initial communication that the Toronto Review will include a "heavy podcasting component." Can you elaborate?

We are planning to podcast public lectures in Toronto, as well as the essays we publish. It seems to me that audiences seek out book-review publications for access to sophisticated ideas put in easily consumable formats. Since many people seem to have more time for podcasts than for reading in-depth articles, exploring different delivery formats is a way to stay true to the spirit of traditional book review rags while catering to contemporary preferences.

Do you have the initial set of reviews already commissioned or written, and do you have a set of contributors who will write regularly for the TRB?

We're still putting the first issue together—so it's still too early for me to say in too much detail, however, I can say now that the celebrated Toronto columnist and author Shawn Micallef will be writing a review of the Toronto Twitter scene. Other contributors include filmmaker and Shakespeare scholar Holger Schott Syme, and Damian Rogers, a poet and former assistant editor at Poetry magazine.

Can you tell us about the TRB’s other editors?

Our editors are:

Karim Bardeesy, an editorial writer at the Globe and Mail (Canada's national newspaper), who holds a masters of public policy from the Kennedy school at Harvard.

Claire Battershill, who is also doing her PhD in English Literature and Book History at U of T, and who won Canada's prestigious CBC Literary Award last year.

Marc Glassman, who founded and ran Pages Books & Magazines—arguably Canada's most famous independent book store—for the thirty years it presided on Queen Street West in Toronto. He now continues to direct its incredibly popular book series This Is Not A Reading Series (TINARS), and run its offshoot sales organ Pages Beyond Bricks & Mortar. He is also a prolific film critic and edits two film magazines—Montage and POV.

Artist and business reporter Rachel Pulfer, who is currently International Programs Director at Journalists for Human Rights, while working on an MFA at the Ontario College of Art & Design.

You also mentioned before that you are "working to solidify a collaboration with the University of Toronto". What does that entail?

Basically, we have a small start-up grant from the University, but in the long run our collaboration with the U of T promises to be fairly multi-faceted. 

One of our ambitions is to function as an interface between Torontonians and the U of T. To that end, we've recruited about forty-five U of T graduate-student volunteers who will be helping us podcast lectures as well as blog about local events and U of T research. We hope that this division of the TRB can become a training ground for young writers that is sort of halfway between professional and student journalism.

Meanwhile, by soliciting contributions from both professors and journalists we also want to help critics working inside and outside of academic institutions learn about and collaborate with each other. That motive is very much indebted to the fabled, charming, and sometimes strange U of T-affiliate Massey College, which has brought together graduate students, journalists, academics, and engaged Torontonians ever since the tenure of its Founding Master, the novelist Robertson Davies. Most of our editors met at the College, and Massey continues to be an unofficial home of the TRB.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what motivated you to start the TRB?

As I mentioned earlier, being the reviews editor of Spacing magazine showed me how the TRB could work. Meanwhile, as both an arts journalist and humanities scholar I could see huge imbalances between the resources available to professors writing about culture, and experts working outside of institutions, but I also felt that scholarly expertise had too few public outlets. Situating an outward-looking cultural publication within a university seemed like a way to create avenues for communication among scholars, journalists, readers, and enthusiasts in general, while allowing academics to contribute some of their energy and salaried time to the public celebration and discussion of culture.

Another contributing motivation has been starting and running the graduate-student speaking series WIDEN (Workshops for Inter-Discipline Exchange and Novelty). WIDEN is sort of like a This American Life episode about academic research instead of stories—at every workshop three graduate students from different disciplines present their research on a common theme. One of the excitements of WIDEN is how it challenges presenters to make their (often arcane) work accessible and engaging. For me that same objective—to make complex ideas public in simple language—is behind the deliciousness of the NYRB and the LRB, and is very much a motive of the TRB.

Final point—on ancient history—when I was a kid my grandfather—who I thought was the smartest and funniest person I'd ever meet—seemed to be constantly reading the New York Review of Books, so this whole enterprise may be motivated by my childhood (and ongoing) desire to meet smart and funny people.


Leon Wieseltier

FSG publicity and marketing vice-president Jeff Seroy is pals with the New Republic's literary editor Leon Wieseltier—the two seem compelled to inform people that they went to Columbia together. But when Seroy dismissed TNR's less-than-fawning review (by Ruth Franklin) of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom by saying that Wieseltier "specializes in drawing attention to his pages through consistently negative reviews," the old collegial spirit quickly dissipated. Wieseltier has responded to the charge by penning a rousing defense of the value of negative reviews in a literary world "that is amiable, bland, clubby, pious, careerist, relentlessly cheerful, desperate for numbers, suavely relativizing, and awash in worthless praise." Wieseltier writes, "I was not aware that it is a heresy to hold that Freedom is not a masterpiece. There is something churlish about my friend’s insistence upon critical unanimity. . . . No culture, no literature, ever advanced by niceness."

Civilians will have to wait until next week to read Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, but the New York Times has managed to get a copy (Woodward's newspaper, the Washington Post, also has an early review). The Times notes that though the book's revelations of differing opinons within the administration over the war in Afghanistan "have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known." Also: "The United States has intelligence showing that manic-depression has been diagnosed in President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan." For readers puzzled by this bombshell, the Times offers a helpful bit of context: "Mr. Karzai’s mood swings have been a challenge for the Obama administration."

Tonight at the New School, the editors of The Best American Poetry 2010 present a reading from the anthology featuring John AshberyThomas Sayers EllisEileen Myles, and more. 

In 1980, Gilbert Rogin, an editor at Sports Illustrated and a well-respected novelist, had already published 33 pieces of short fiction in The New Yorker. Then, the magazine's fiction editor Roger Angell accused Rogin of repeating himself. Rogin hasn't written a word of fiction since then ("That motherfucker literally demoralized me," Rogin says of the Angell episode), but the author is having something of a renaissance, now that indie publisher Verse Chorus Press is bringing him back into print. This week, the Observer delivers a fun, expletive-spiked profile of Rogin, "one of the most irascible (often intemperately so) characters in the history of New York publishing."