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Hazlitt stirs controversy and acclaim in its first year

Shortly after university students returned to class this fall, Hazlitt, the year-old online culture and current affairs magazine published by Random House of Canada, posted the literary equivalent of a bombshell. In an interview with journalist Emily M. Keeler, bad-boy author David Gilmour opined on his teaching experiences at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, where he has been an English lecturer for several years, and explained why he refuses to teach authors who are women (or, for that matter, Chinese). The writers on his syllabus, Gilmour added, are “serious heterosexual guys.”

When it was first posted, Hazlitt editor Christopher Frey didn’t think the article merited any special attention. But then social media got ahold of it.

The ensuing firestorm prompted Gilmour to state that his remarks had been taken out of context. Hazlitt published the entire interview transcript the following day, with a note from Frey asking readers to judge for themselves. With coverage of the fallout appearing everywhere from the front page of the Toronto Sun to CBC’s The National, the episode shot Hazlitt’s name into an entirely new orbit.

“The controversy,” Frey explains, “has been beneficial to Hazlitt insofar as it has dramatically expanded awareness about the magazine and our writers. It certainly wasn’t planned that way, though. It’s not about “˜clicks’ for us, because we don’t have any ads. But the increased visibility, and the fact that something originating with Hazlitt has sparked a national discussion ““ sure, that’s positive.”

Even before the Gilmour incident, Hazlitt had managed to muscle its way into Canada’s clubby media firmament, carving out a space that is considerably broader than its corporate affiliation might suggest. Plans are now in place to expand its influence even further. Having bagged a gold for magazine website of the year at last spring’s National Magazine Awards, the editorial team will release a Granta-like print edition in late October with a print run in the “low thousands,” says Frey. Hazlitt has also published four “ebook originals,” including a memoir by foreign correspondent Patrick Graham and an examination of corruption in sports by Richard Poplak. A new title, by Alistair McLeod, is expected this fall.

So while it’s true that Hazlitt, named after an early 19th-century British essayist, represents a new vehicle to showcase Random House of Canada authors, Frey and publisher Robert Wheaton have gone out of their way to produce something that aspires to be more than just another marketing vehicle. Freelancer and regular contributor Bert Archer confirms the point. When he began pitching to Hazlitt’s editors, he specifically asked if he should drop in references to Random House titles. “They said no, it’s not that kind of a publication,” Archer says.

Indeed, Hazlitt, which pays about $250 for a 600″“800 word story, publishes many writers who have no connection with the firm. “It lets us cultivate relationships with writers that we wouldn’t have relationships with,” says Wheaton, a former Indigo inventory manager who is now Penguin Random House Canada’s senior vice-president and director, business development, online and digital sales strategy. The magazine creates new channels for both established and aspiring writers, allowing them latitude to showcase their chops to a literary audience.

Still, Hazlitt’s practical role within the newly merged Penguin Random House Canada conglomerate is clear. Following the spring release of her memoir Drunk Mom, Jowita Bydlowska has published on Hazlitt an interview with addiction expert Gabor Maté, as well as a short story and columns about parenting, Toronto mayor Rob Ford, and Pope Francis.

“I find it to be a great way for me to show off my writing outside of the book,” she says. Bydlowska notes that her Hazlitt articles seem to attract attention from readers involved in the book industry or wider media circles. With a handful of exceptions, she’s not aware of other online journals with the same reach, wide-ranging sensibility, and ability to pay contributors.

The Globe and Mail arts critic James Adams offers a different view. He believes there’s been a proliferation of publications that straddle the worlds of highbrow commentary and pop culture coverage. “I’m rather weary of periodicals (online or otherwise) that groove on Big Star one minute, ruminate on Georges Bataille the next, celebrate one’s fabulous self the next, then ponder Quebec’s Charter of Values,” he says. “I know that’s how we live now; it’s all just one big mashed-up mosh-pit, and Hazlitt reflects that very well.”

Adams also wonders if Hazlitt is built to last. “If Random House becomes bored with it and decides it’s over,” he asks, “would its contributors find the wherewithal to continue in some other fashion?”

Away from the noise of the Gilmour incident, Wheaton knows that, as Hazlitt enters its second year, his team is going to have to demonstrate to its corporate superiors that their investment generates a meaningful return. That means meeting traffic-growth targets, building the Hazlitt brand with other publishing ventures, and gathering information on how readers use the site. But, he notes, “It’s got to work on its own merits, regardless of its mandate.”

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Q&Q.