Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

February 7, 2011

Canada Reads Day 1: Twitterrage

Canada Reads 2011 is off to an ignominious start, I’m sorry to report.

After thirty-three minutes of introductions, including some extremely hokey book mini-trailers complete with bird-and-baby sound effects, the panelists finally settled into some “debate” over the relative merits of their books.  Jian called out Essex County early on as the “elephant in the room” – the little format that shouldn’t be.  To which I scoff – if there was an elephant in the room, surely it was the CBC’s repeated insistence that this competition was about finding the “most essential” book of the last decade whilst gesturing at a stack of books nobody has ever heard of.  The meaning of “essential” wasn’t even scrutinized.

Out came the knives and Essex County was chopped to ribbons for its one and only fault – being a graphic novel.  Panelist Sara Quin made a valiant effort to defend the medium, asking if viewing art at MOMA was a shallow experience, but I fear she took the wrong tack.  The other panelists didn’t feel Essex County was unmoving or un-artistic, they just felt it “wasn’t a novel”, whatever that means.  Lorne Cardinal even chided it for being more like a collection of short stories.  Format, apparently, is of great concern here.  This is a Canada Reads panel playing tightly by the rulebook.

Hopefully they will remain just as anal retentive about semantics when they finally question this term “essential” and Unless gets its due.  Surely as the only book with prior literary credentials, awards and reputation it is the only one which can be defined as essential?  I don’t see how anyone can, with a straight face, claim that a first novel written in the last three years which nobody read in any way approaches the essence of anything, except obscurity.

Obviously I’m annoyed at Essex County‘s undeserved exit.  As is, it seems, much of the Twitterverse.  I had no idea Sara Quin was the star she appears to be – Canada Reads seems to have finally attracted those hordes of young, non-”CBC type” readers to its show that it always wanted.  Shame the book they came to see got scuttled off with so little regret.  I honestly wonder if they’ll stay to follow the rest of the show.  I wondered that myself, briefly, but then realized now we have the chance for the panelists to finally get in to the huge and glaring flaws the remaining books sport.  I desperately want someone to call into question the one-dimensional insult that Best Laid Plans‘ Lindsay was.  Actually I still just have it out for Best Laid Plans in general.  Grr, etc.

But I do fear for Unless.  Perhaps Sara Quin will take it up now that she’s free (she gave some indication she might lean that way, but that was before Lorne Cardinal’s mean about-face!), but the increased author participation and visibility in this year’s show (as I posted about yesterday) continues apace, and poor absent Carol Shields just isn’t there to toot her horn.  Me, I’d better get reading too.  I’m supporting Shields largely on her reputation right now (and the fact that I was so underwhelmed by the other three books).  I’d better make sure my mouth is where my money is.  See you all tomorrow!

9 Responses to “Canada Reads Day 1: Twitterrage”

  • steph says:

    Phew, that was fast! And refreshingly intelligent. Thank you.

    My personal favourite is Unless (so I fear for it, too), with the Birth House as a close second. Those, to me, are the best examples of Canadian literary skill, plain and simple. I’m not miffed by Essex County’s exit because I couldn’t finish it, but what gets me, what got me last year, too, is the way in which things are handled. Inevitably, I’m disappointed in the “discussion,” and how little of it there is, and I have to keep reminding myself it’s a game, not a literary debate. Actually, that and the fact that there are many trite or irrelevant remarks, and also that there seems to be no concrete definition of what the CR objective is, turns me off enough that now I don’t want to really bother with the rest. I will, but I won’t be happy, I think.


  • Charlotte says:

    Agreed! I’d hoped the discussion would get more depth this time with the extended length of the shows, but bafflingly, they’re wasting that extra time with promos, intros and “author input”, Why?

    I think Birth House will carry the day now. I didn’t mind it, and it really is a perfect book for that nice, white, upper-middle class Canadian reader. I think it would sell better than Nikolski…


  • aku says:

    Im not a canadian but found canadareads very interesting, since i am just starting to read. I wont read the other four book as my first, Essex County is, even its not the winning book.


  • steph says:

    I agree. I loved Nikolski (and Apocalypse for Beginners) but The Birth House will appeal to more people.

    I said over on the KIRBC blog today that last year I was hoping for deeper discussion after Day 1 but it never happened. I know it’s not supposed to be academic and that the panelists aren’t literary critics, and that the point is to appeal to the masses and not be snobby or high-brow, but frankly, and at the risk of sounding pretentious, that’s what I prefer. So I guess CR isn’t for me. In that case, though, recognizing that it’s meant to be literary Survivor, I just wish it were better played.

    On the plus side, from the beginning, many books, not only these five, got attention.


  • steph says:

    Aku,

    Even though this is contrary to the point of Canada Reads, or what is deemed one of the points, don’t let the outcomes of each day, or the contest itself, determine whether or not you read the books. Don’t let them decide what is worthy of your attention. You decide.


  • John Mutford says:

    Great synopses. And with Essex County gone, I too am rooting for Unless.

    As for The Birth House being more accessible or even more appealing to more Canadians, why is that the measure? More Canadians read Dan Brown than Mordecai Richler, too, that doesn’t mean the Da Vinci Code is a good book. If the Birth House wins over Unless it’ll be like Jodi Picoult beating Margaret Atwood. Does this make me elitist? A snob? Yes. And because I’ve read both, I deserve to be.
    ;)


  • Charlotte says:

    Accessible is mostly a consideration because at the end of the day, I think that’s what the CBC is going for. They boast first and foremost about the SALES generated by the competition. They are clearly looking for the book which will make the biggest splash, and I think you were right in your synopsis as well – the 40+ non-urban, white, average CBC listener might not take to Essex County as well as one of the more conventional books (though, again, not for any good reason – it’s well written, touching and complete. But the pictures, again, might deter the biased reader).

    I think it all comes back to this bigger question of who is Canada Reads for? The “elite”, this imagined “middlebrow” audience, or someone else? Nobody seems quite sure. The elite detest the populism of the competition. You’re missing the middle with all this youth-oriented social media stuff. And I don’t believe for one minute that the average Dan-Brown-reading Canadian actually follows the competition at all.

    My experience as a book-seller is that the person who actually buys the book in the end is the audience I described above: older, middle class, white, female, reads Picoult but Atwood too. They consider themselves heavy readers. But they’re not big on taking huge risks.


  • Canada Reads 2011: Day 2 « The Keepin’ It Real Book Club says:

    [...] some great discussion in the blogosphere. I’ve been reading the smart, thoughtful  posts by Charlotte Ashley and John Mutford for a start. Are you writing about Canada Reads? Leave a comment and a link! // [...]


  • BuriedInPrint says:

    The mini-trailers were not my favourite part of the event either. But perhaps those aspects will improve as the producers continue to adjust to the shift from audio to video.


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