February 8, 2011
Canada Reads Day 2: Strategy
Jian Ghomeshi, writers and producers of Canada Reads 2011: for the love of Pete, if you read this before tomorrow please HEAR MY WORDS and let’s engrave a new Canada Reads rule: after half an hour of listening to panelists and authors publicize their books, all debate questions should begin with “Which book OTHER THAN YOUR OWN.”
While today’s debates contained some sparkle and sizzle of insight and passion, it was in equal parts marked by eye rolling hyperbole and outright… how do I put this… cow poo. “Which book is the best written” was an unapproachable question to begin with, but Ali Velshi’s attempt to somehow twist the question to support his poorly written contestant, The Best Laid Plans, was laughable. I nearly stood up and cheered when Debbie Travis tore into it in response (though her admission that she didn’t finish reading it hampers her credibility somewhat). The other panelists seem to be similarly floundering as they attempted to twist the question to their own agenda, but at least, in the end, each admitted that sure, if writing is what you care about, maybe, grudgingly, Unless is your book.
This also had the consequence of then requiring each of the panelists to explain exactly why, though Unless may be the best written book, it isn’t the best, or “most essential” of the remaining contenders. Score one for literary analysis: by putting Unless under the microscope the panelists were forced to trot out actual passages, themes and devices, resulting in the most “literary” debate we’ve had on this show yet. Ali Velshi’s shameless attempts to turn every conversation into a conversation about Best Laid Plans also put his book under the microscope, though the depth of that excavation was proportionately appropriate to the depth of the book: that is, not very.
Thankfully the panelists today did try to address what they were looking for in this “most essential” Canadian book. Unfortunately, the general consensus seems to be that essential = accessible. Georges Laraque continued with his absurd suggestion that picking the wrong Canada Reads champion will deter readers from reading ANYTHING EVER AGAIN. The winner has to be a book that appeals to the Average Person. The same argument came up last year, when someone (Perdita Felicien?) suggested she didn’t like that Nikolski made her think too much, and Michel Vézina shot back with some crack about how we learn to read in school and a little thinking shouldn’t scare anyone.
What I found striking about the direction of last year’s debate vs this years is that last year, a shot about the reading ability or education of the panelist was enough to scare them all into keeping a more complex novel like Nikolski around. And of course it did: the 2010 panel was a fairly intellectual one, including a doctor and a writer/critic. But the 2011 panel are entertainers down to a man. Suggesting they should be higher-minded in their reading would roll right off their backs. While Lorne Cardinal and Sara Quin seem to be working hard in the cause of literature, the other three panelists are bending over backwards – perhaps because of the “light” nature of their books – pressing for the quality of literature to be set aside. This has to be “for everyone”. I’ll eat my hat if choosing a “simple” Canada Reads winner over a literary one adds any buyers. If I could call for a little realism when considering who our Canada Reads devotees are, please.
In the end though, the votes had more to do with strategy than the debate. While I won’t miss The Bone Cage, I do find it baffling that a book so little discussed could be voted off 3-2. Three people just up and decided to give a barely-mentioned book the boot? I smell conspiracy. It only makes me a little uneasy because I disliked The Best Laid Plans so intensely and I don’t like seeing it move on. Especially given the hate Unless is unjustly receiving! I shiver at the thought of this stinker taking the prize. Not that I’m discounting The Birth House – this is a prettier, better-written, perfectly middle-Canadian book that would make a good deal of sense to win. And I suppose it probably will. Only one more day to find out! Here’s hoping.