Bringing you the issues since 1986

View Online Print Edition


Ackerman’s Rover online magazine turns heads in arts review world

Irwin Block Special to The Senior Times

April, 2011

Park Avenue, for many of us, was the highway of our growth and generation, so the uproar was broad and deep in the fall of 2006 when the city tried to rename it in honour of Robert Bourassa.

Remarkably, the turning point in rolling back this proposal came not from the politicians, talk-show hosts, or even the 30,000 who signed a petition: It came from a story by a freelance journalist who has sunk deep roots into this city’s cultural landscape after moving here from Ontario.

Propelled by her love of the city’s older neighbourhoods and her finely honed journalistic instincts, Marianne Ackerman, in late January 2007, booked an interview with the late premier’s mild-mannered son, jazz pianist François Bourassa, resulting in a devastating disavowal and embarrassment for renaming proponents. On February 3, The Gazette slapped the story on Page 1 under the headline Dad would cringe and three days later the idea was dropped.

Coincidence? We think not. Certainly, it was par for the course for Ackerman, who made her mark here as the Gazette’s award-winning drama critic, then, with Clare Schapiro, moving on to found and run The Theatre 1774 company for eight years before becoming a successful novelist. She has three books under her belt and another in progress.

Today Ackerman uses her journalistic acumen and organizational energy to put out The Rover (, which she founded in October 2008. It’s turning heads and attracting growing reader interest as a premium site for reviews and overviews of the city’s vibrant cultural scene.

Returning to Montreal in 2004 from Provence, where she lived for six years and married Gwyn Campbell, a McGill University economic historian, Ackerman recalled being struck by two trends: the Internet culture, where you walk into any coffee shop and everyone is engaged with their laptops, and the decline of mass media arts coverage.

Though committed to writing more novels, Ackerman’s strong journalistic impulses vibrate strongly within her. She has loved its immediacy from the time she was paid for her first story for the Kingston Whig-Standard at the age of 18. “It’s the world I know. I feel comfortable in that world.”

The omnipresence and reach of the Internet opened her eyes.

“I realized you could deliver the news almost for nothing. People have the machinery to read your product. The medium really attracted me.”

She finished her second novel, Matters of Hart, before researching and planning the first issue of Rover, which came out in October 2008. With no outside investment, Ackerman says she put in about $20,000 of her own money to get the project off the ground.

It has since published almost 900 individual posts and through word of mouth and positive notices is attracting about 9,000 page views a month—not a huge readership, but a quality demographic that is growing and should be attractive to advertisers.

“We get about 2,500 people who check in each month. It’s increasing all the time, and we are quoted a lot. It’s definitely a niche market,” she observed in a recent talk at a Mile End café.

Part of the secret, of course, is volunteers. Usually, those who offer their services are propelled by the best of instincts, Ackerman noted.

“There just seems to be this incredible need among writers to write for an intelligent class of people. The editorial and writing side is very satisfying, but now we’re into Year 3 and the business plan is back on the table. We have some new ideas to increase the number of clicks,” she noted.

It has what Ackerman describes as a “very quiet” look, one that invites contemplative reading.

Marianne Ackerman at her favourite café, La Croissanterie, on Hutchinson

“I have my own vision of where we have to go next, but we had to develop a format for one new or two new stories a day, on average, allowing the other stories to hang around on the home page so people have time to read yesterday’s and the day-before contributions, but not to hang around too long.

“It’s a writer-driven site. We have a pool of writers, we do workshops and we have get-togethers. We have a style guide and we talk a lot about good writing. The writers pitch ideas. If the writer is excited about something and feels it will be interesting, chances are it will be.”

Apart from such well-known occasional contributors as David Homel, Claire Holden Rothman, Noah Richler and Brian Demchinsky, some of the most energetic and perceptive writing is from people just out of university or building careers, such as Alex Woolcott (theatre), Julia Vyse (jazz), Shawn Katz (visual arts.)

“People just come out of the woodwork,” Ackerman said with some pleasure. But they are asked to write within style parameters, and a somewhat more conservative approach than the “me-like” approach of so-called New Journalism.

“I don’t encourage the word ‘I.’ I tell the writers: ‘It’s not about you, it’s about the thing you’re writing about.’ I tell them to keep it short, about 500 words, and the first paragraph, which is on the front page, has to hook you into sinking in and reading the whole article. I want lively writing.”

The conversation then veered into a verbal assault on the standards and values that are becoming commonplace in mass-media arts criticism.

“We just don’t have great critics any more, people who really make it their business to sit back and look at what’s out there, look at it from the point of view of what the artist is trying to do, and how well they are doing what they try to do.

“Everybody’s got a hidden agenda … there is so much penis envy among critics, and I’m tired of envy fuelling criticism. Instead of just allowing myself to become old and bitter, I will take a generation of young writers, I will sit them down over my wine, and I will say: ‘Here is the honourable position of critic and here’s how you do it.’ As T.S. Eliot and others have said: ‘Drop your own ego and enter into the dance’.”

“Ninety per cent of what passes for arts journalism now is based on the premise, ‘What I would do if I had written the play or novel?’ In the long term, this is completely detrimental to art.”

Rover Arts, she emphasizes, is meant as an alternative to “pulp, puff, or bitter little pieces on what they (the critics) would do if only they had gotten around to having an artistic career.”

Surveying the scene, Ackerman advises the curious to check out the city’s vibrant visual arts scene for innovative and arresting work, as outlined on her website last month in a short piece by artist Mical Moser. Ackerman mentions such artists as Marc Séguin and Dil Hildebrand as creative trailblazers.

“There’s quite a lot going on,” Ackerman noted, and it’s all out there waiting to be discovered, with her Rover Arts among other publications as guides to who’s doing new and interesting work in our vibrant arts scene.

The paperback edition of Ackerman’s third novel, Piers’ Desire (McArthur & Co.) about the love relationship between a 44-year-old man and a 70-year-old woman, will be released in June.




Post a Comment