Once & Future

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

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.

8 thoughts on “Canada Reads Day 2: Strategy”

  1. steph says:

    Well-articulated, Charlotte. I couldn’t agree more.

    Your posts make me want to hang up my hat as a blogger!

    1. Charlotte says:

      Oh my god, the world would be a poorer place! Don’t ever go anywhere! :D

  2. Kristen Dixie says:

    I completely agree with you regarding the panelists. I’m quite disappointed that celebs are the ones we are [yet again] suppose to look up to and follow.

    As a teacher and lit lover, it literally pains me to hear the way some of them discuss books and literacy.

    What is it about The Best Laid Plans that turns you off so? I’m just beginning it [audio book] and found it interesting and enjoyable; I’m quite eager to get some time to get into it.

    The Birth House on the other hand was a a disappointment. I had high expectations about it and found it to be middle-Canadian as you stated. In fact, the most interesting thing for me was the inclusion of The Virgin Mary, a character I find fascinating whenever she appears.

    Great post!

    1. Charlotte says:

      Thanks Kristen!

      I guess I’ll start with Best Laid Plans! I think I might end up posting a “real” review – especially if it wins, or comes close – but my major problems were as follows:

      The “humour” is eventually based on a very conservative mindset, one which borders of narrow-mindedness. I don’t find the idea of two teenaged punks with piercings and Mohawks very shocking, and couldn’t figure out why this 30-something year old protagonist was so taken aback by their appearance either. Similarly his reaction to the S&M scandal was over the top – yes, it makes for good political fodder, but he (and the other characters) seemed so personally put off by it, though the Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that” disclaimer was there, it didn’t stop the cheap shots. His portrayal of the NDP as bran-toting inepts was similarly insulting. If he was going to satirize the political parties so, I’d have likes to see him take similar low shots at the Tories – though he tellingly didn’t.

      I found the tacked-on love interest a bit offensive too. Lindsay was described almost exclusively in terms of what she wore (tight, casual, hockey-cap wearing. Every nice guy’s dream!) and she very rarely got any lines, let alone a personality. We know the superficials – she’s studying politics, she loves her grandmother – but she wasn’t a character. She was a device.

      And Daniel’s character? What was with this guy? I had to read the passage where the Tory Finance Minister is caught with his pants down three times over in an attempt to understand Daniel’s reaction. Why did he vomit in the bushes, exactly? Is he allergic to fire? Nudity? His subsequent breakdown was baffling to me. I couldn’t figure out if he wanted out of politics or not. He seemed desperate to escape, but then spends the latter half of the book having panic attacks over the future of his career in the party.

      Angus McLintock was the best thing about the book, but his whole story arc was Utopian. I’d have loved to see a flaw in his character. It might have added some depth to the book.

      I agree with you on The Birth House! I think I’m supporting it at this point to prevent an even less-deserving win. I hate being in that kind of position with any literature – I wish Essex County was still in and I had something to love!

  3. John Mutford says:

    I thought Travis’ credibility was hampered when she voted off a book she finished (Essex County) before one she couldn’t (Best Laid Plans). Clearly it was more of a strategic vote yesterday. I don’t have a problem with strategic voting but it would have done Essex County more of a service if she had just admitted to it.

  4. Although I personally would like a little more bookishness in the discussions (the sort of chatter that characterizes CBC’s “The Next Chapter” and “Writers & Company), I really don’t think that the majority of listeners are as interested in those aspects of the books and the writing of them.

    I’ve followed CR since 2002 (I didn’t always read all 5 books though), so I’d guess that I fall in the category of “devotee”, but I am favour of choosing the books that I consider to have a wider appeal. (But of course how each of us evaluates what constitutes that appeal will vary. Case in point: TBLP.)

    As much as I love bookchatting with other folks who are as obsessive about books and reading as I am, I also love the fact that I can chat about Canada Reads with my more-casual-reader friends, those who do enjoy a good book, but aren’t (anywhere near) as obsessive about books and reading as I am, those who really don’t want to reflect on a novel’s complexity exhaustively. These are relationships in which books are rarely discussed, so it’s nice to have some literary chat rooted in this event.

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