Seth and Scott Symons

A Doug Wright cartoon

I’m always afraid to tell people that my favourite literary magazine is Canadian Notes and Queries. The name is so off-putting. It sounds like a mimeographed sheet devoted to esoteric bibliographic information about Duncan Scott Campbell and Stephen Leacock. And in fact that’s what the magazine was for most of its history. But for the last decade or so,  it’s been the home to the best essays on Canadian culture, and also some excellent short fiction. (John Metcalf was the editor who re-invented CNQ and he’s been helped by Daniel Wells, Alex Good and others).  Perhaps wisely, the editors have tried to rebrand their journal as CNQ, to hide their embarrassing original name.

The new issue of CNQ, number 77, is chock full of the goodies including a new story by Clark Blaise. And some of these essays are already available online. Here are two goodies:

1. Seth on Doug Wright. The best writing on comics tends to come from cartoonists themselves: Art Spiegelman, Scott McCloud, Chris Ware, Eddie Campbell.  There are few other art forms in which the critical discourse is so totally dominated by practitioners. Seth belongs to this elite company of cartoonists/critics. His essays on cartoonists like John Stanley and Chris Reynolds are filled with sharp observations grounded in a rare in-depth knowledge of comics history. The latest issue of CNQ reprints Seth’s speech on Doug Wright, delivered 5 years ago to launch the Doug Wright Awards. It can be found here.


2. The strangest and most moving compliment I ever received came from the Scott Symons, a controversial novelist who died earlier this year. He told a friend I was “phallically perceptive” and this colourful phrase got back to me. The phallus meant a lot to Scott: he grew up in a society that taught him to hate his own sexuality, and his scandalous coming out of the closet, an event that embroiled him in legal trouble that stretched from Toronto to Mexico, was the central event of his life.

I met Scott Symons in the summer of 2000 while I was working on an article about gay conservatives. To the extent that so quirky a man can be summed up in two words, Scott could be described as a gay conservative, although he was really a bundle of impulses at war with themselves. He was very conservative and very radical at the same time, a man born to rank and privilege who found happiness in the sexual underworld, a monarchist and federalist whose behaviour scandalized polite society, a central figure in igniting the Canadian sexual revolution of the 1960s yet also a man who was uneasy with organized gay rights and feminism, a man capable of great courtliness and sensitivity but also often truculent and at war with his closest friends.

Scott Symongs, circa 1973. Photograph by John McConnell from CNQ #77

Like many who met Symons, I had divided feelings about him. Aside from his own novels, he inspired much commentary: there is a beautiful chapter on Symons in Charles Taylor’s book Six Journeys as well as a splendid documentary by Nik Sheehan, titled God’s Fool. To the list of Symons-inspired art we should add Ian Young’s excellent memoir in the latest CNQ, which can be found here. Young captures the impact that Symons had on many people, the way he could be both inspiring and disheartening.


5 thoughts on “Seth and Scott Symons

  1. Zach Wells — who, editorially, predates Alex Good by almost two years — has worked like a dog to bring the critical writing in CNQ up to snuff (especially with regards to the poetry reviewing) and thus deserves the lion’s share of the praise for the magazine’s “re-invention.”

  2. Yes, I agree Zach deserves a lot of credit. As does Carmine Starino himself who guest edited a very fine issue of CNQ. I’ll have more about Zack in a future post….

  3. I just finished reading Symons’ “Heritage: A Romantic Look at Early Canadian Furniture” (published in 1971), mainly because I’ve had it around forever and because I sell antiques for a living. What a beautiful book. Symons’ writes so wonderfully about these ancient articles. His take on Canadiana is very unusual for its time and still a minority preoccupation for people in this country.

  4. I recently found out three days ago that I am Scott Symons’ grand nephew. My grandfather never discussed him because he was a homo. Being kinda bi myself (I like sucking dick, but I find the male body repulsive), I was naturally curious. Sadly, it took my grandmother’s death for me to learn his name. The more I read about him, the more I am in awe of the man. The people he knew are favorites of mine, and, after reading Heritage, he has quickly joined their ranks. I wish I met him before his death a few years ago. Thanks for the blurb. I’ll need to pick this issue up.

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