October 12, 2010
Two Cents Worth on Canada Reads 2010/2011
As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, CBC has announced some fairly major changes to the format of their annual Canada Reads competition in celebration of their 10th anniversary. The response to the announcement has been mixed, by which I mean everyone is complaining about it. The reader-responses posted to the Canada Reads website have all been positive, but the media/blogosphere criticism has already drawn out some official justification from the CBC (complete with straw-man defenses, claiming they don’t have the budget to include poetry and short story collections in the competition).
I have done my share of complaining here and there, but after a beautiful weekend’s reflection on the matter, I thought I’d elaborate my primary issues with the new format.
Last year after the announcement of the 5 books in competition, there was a fair amount of disappointment voiced by Canada Reads’ more ardent followers because the list was too contemporary, and included two books which “everyone had read” – Fall on Your Knees and Generation X. This spawned the Canada Reads spin-offs of which the CBC was so supportive, including Canada Also Reads and Canada Reads Independently. The genesis of these spin-offs has been ret-conned, it seems, with Canada Reads supporters claiming these stemmed from the success and enthusiasm for Canada Reads, rather than from disappointment in the official list.
For anyone who was paying attention last year, this year’s format-change seems completely baffling. Rather than shore up last year’s weaknesses and push for a more diverse list, the CBC has decided to go whole-hog in the direction of Fall On Your Knees by presenting a format that will ensure that every book nominated will be something everyone has read. Three caveats of the competition guarantee this result: the narrowing of the time-frame to the last 10 years, letting readers nominate their favourites and taking the “top 40” by vote tally, and an odd emphasis on books which have demonstrated “commercial success”.
Now one of two things has happened here: either I have wildly misjudged who Canada Reads’ followers are, or the CBC has. Why do we need to have a competition between the five best-selling Canadian books from the last decade? Are we presuming a great love of re-reading amongst the CBC’s listeners, or is there a secret mass of non-readers who tune in to Canada Reads of whom I am unaware? A Canada Reads listener will be someone who loves books, and someone who tunes in to the CBC. Some defenders of the new format have lashed out against criticism, saying Canada Reads is some kind of populist competition, to which I have to say bullshit. That might be the intent, and I’m sure there are light readers out where who make Canada Reads their one literary excursion per year, but I don’t buy for one second that these make up any kind of listening majority.
I heard a paper delivered once called “Divergent paths? Postcolonialism, book history and Three Day Road” which argued, basically, that there was a gap in the 2006 competition between the readers who loved Three Day Road and the panelists who felt it contained problematic postcolonial themes. This young academic felt the “average reader” wasn’t picking up on the nuanced issues with the book that panelists did, suggesting that the Canada Reads followers were less sophisticated readers than the panelists. Sounds like the CBC’s line, right? During the question period following this paper, the academic was asked what sort of sample she’d drawn on for her research – who were these “average readers” who’d held such strong opinions of Boyden over Toews? They were, we learned, librarians. Dozens upon dozens of librarians, people who read all five nominated books and furthermore, were well aware of the postcolonial issues and liked the book anyway. Four years later, Three Day Road is rising in the opinions of critics, academics and readers, and seems less and less like a simple, entertaining book, suitable mainly for simple readers.
Research sampling is fraught with issues, but nevertheless it fits, in my mind, that Canada Reads listeners would be librarians, book bloggers, book-club members and English graduates. These people may not be Frederic Jameson or Frank Kermode incarnate, but they are people who read and who think. They are people who have read the bestselling books of the last five years. I don’t know who could possibly be served by a Book of Negroes nomination. The book has sold 500,000 copies in Canada. It might be the favourite book of 50,000 of those people, but that doesn’t mean Canada Reads needs to recommend it to anyone. We already know.
Let me back-pedal in conclusion, and say that we know not what lies ahead and, who knows, we may be surprised by a short-list of new books that haven’t already won all the major literary awards and bestseller spots. I will read those books and be glad of it. But right now it looks unlikely, even if the daily “Reader Recommendations” are to be believed. I forsee a shortlist of Life of Pi, Three Day Road, and Elle; more laurels on their laurels, and a bored listening public. I miss keen, unexpected recommendations and rooting for the underdog. What’s a heavy reader to read?