Iconic literary magazine Malahat Review turns 50

John Barton has edited The Malahat Review for 14 years. He describes his job as “icon management,” preserving, protecting and continuing the quarterly’s enormous role in Canada’s literary world.

Barton said that during its 50 publishing years, The Malahat Review’s short stories, poems, essays and other written works have established a reputation for excellence around the world. Every year, it receives about 3,500 submissions for publication, but prints only about 80.

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“There has always been a cachet about getting published in The Malahat,” he said. “Any writer, especially new writers, feel their career has reached a new level when their work appears in The Malahat.”

University of Victoria Libraries is now producing a special limited-edition book called The Malahat Review at Fifty: Canada’s Iconic Literary Magazine. It’s the fifth special book to be published by UVic Libraries.

The book, to be launched on Jan. 25, will feature new writing from wordsmiths such as broadcaster and UVic Chancellor Shelagh Rogers and Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi (2001), who credits The Malahat Review as the springboard for his career as a writer.

Coinciding with the launch is the opening of a new exhibit at Legacy Maltwood gallery called Landmarks: The Art of The Malahat Review. The exhibition runs until May 13 and will feature 200 selected covers and showcase visual art in the magazine’s pages.

The Malahat Review began in 1967 and was initially edited by UVic professors John Peter and Robin Skelton. Published by UVic’s Faculty of Humanities and Fine Arts, the magazine has never lost its connection with the university.

But Barton said it has also gained an international reputation for excellence, while its editors are credited with having an eye for new talent and the ability to bring out the best in emerging writers.

For example, in 1988, The Malahat Review published a short story by an unknown named Yann Martel. Fourteen years later, Martel’s Life of Pi won the 2002 Booker Prize. It has since been made into a film.

In 1977, The Malahat Review took the risk of devoting an entire issue to discussions and criticisms of the works of Margaret Atwood, then little known outside Canada. Now, that issue is almost impossible to find.

In 1978, it published a piece by W.P. Kinsella, then the author of only one book of short stories, Dance Me Outside (1977). Four years later, Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe was published and became a literary blockbuster and later a movie.

Barton recalls hearing American professors talk about the high level of interest in U.S. universities generated by The Malahat Review. He now believes that of all Canadian literary publications, it is the best known and most highly regarded outside Canada.

“It has a brand,” he said. “It has such a prestige in the writing world in Canada that I always felt my first job was to maintain that.”

Maintaining that prestige has also meant the magazine takes on the role of mentor for emerging writers. It’s not enough to just publish their work. Editors also work with writers to bring out the best in those who have yet to achieve literary success.

“We provide emerging writers with confidence, Barton said. “We give them the experience of working with an editor and it becomes a relationship.

“Then, it’s the magazine’s job to give them a readership. It’s as simple as that.”

UVic Libraries Special Collections also have the correspondence and notes of all The Malahat Review’s editors and staff. That collection will make a substantial contribution to the upcoming commemorative book.

Christine Walde, general editor of the UVic Libraries Publications and a poet herself, said she’s looking forward to the book’s release.

“It’s going to be a gorgeous book, a really beautiful publication,” Walde said.

“UVic Libraries is really pleased to work with The Malahat Review to commemorate its legacy.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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