February 9, 2011
Canada Reads Day 3: A Little Enthusiasm? Anyone?
There’s a myth about Canada Reads that I would like a stab at debunking today. It has always been around, lurking in the occasional rhetoric of the show, though coming more and more to the forefront in recent years as the producers started buying what was a particular kind of in-show tactic. The myth goes like this:
Canada Reads is a cause in support of literacy. It is a way of getting more Canadians to read, or Canadians to read more. What’s more, it gets Canadians to read the right thing; books that are good for us, that raise awareness about minorities, history, and democracy. Canada Reads is a responsibility: a directive handed down from our Mother Corporation that will get us all on the same page. And since it has to be read by everybody, it’s important that the Canada Reads winner be easy, short, non-offensive and “Canadian”. To fail to choose such a book will set literacy and nationalism back a hundred years.
What Canada Reads is, in reality, is a national book club. The people who participate are already readers and CBC listeners. It generates a book chosen, once per year, through a little round of fun and discussion by a panel of informed readers. The books up for grabs are already favourites of the panelists, books which have won a place in their hearts for simple, appealing reasons. Canada Reads winners in the past have been a little quirkier, a little lighter, and a little more interesting than your standard award fare. They are recommended because they are loved, not because they are good for you.
Today’s Canada Reads debates – Day 3 of only 3 days – certainly progressed from the self-promoting nonsense and backstabbing strategies of the previous two days, but it progressed to a subdued, embarrassed, funeral-like atmosphere. Once Unless had been voted off, it was as if all enthusiasm for any of the books suddenly evaporated. Even Ali Velshi and Debbie Travis, the two television personalities whose books remained in contention, didn’t seem very excited for their chosen picks. Their defenses had, from the get-go, felt false and theatrical. And now, left standing, they seemed almost embarrased to have made it that far. The other three panelists made some kind of a go at making the remaining two books sound appealing (Sara Quin’s “..and I don’t get to pick Essex County or Unless?” plea sounded almost too serious), but everything felt forced.
In the end, they resorted to apologetic arguments about how good the books will be for us. Sure, they might not be great, but it will help democracy. Maybe they’re not that appealing, but it might serve the cause of women. How this miracle would be achieved is a bit of a mystery. Readers aren’t sheep and booksellers aren’t fools. If the book isn’t good, if it can’t be recommended and hand-sold to a reader sparkling with optimism and leisure time, they won’t read it. Why would a non-reader pick up Best Laid Plans? Because they want to become more politically engaged? Why would a reader uninterested in politics pick it up? It doesn’t offer beautiful prose or deeper insight to compensate for the politics. How does being “good for us” encourage anyone to read a thing?
The Canada Reads myth treats Canada Reads followers like employees rather than participants. In a year where the Canada Reads process was more participatory than ever before, this is particularly wrong-headed. The people who are following the debates are the bloggers, publishers, librarians and booksellers. Now they are going to go home and interface with a public who won’t have heard the arguments, but who will want to know who won. We didn’t follow the debates so that we could learn the curriculum to take home to our classes; we wanted to take part in a process designed to generate a book we could love and recommend.
I know for my part, as a blogger and a bookseller, I could not recommend either Best Laid Plans or The Birth House to most of my customers or readers. Even if I hadn’t read them, why would I recommend something to my savvy, intelligent customers because Ali Velshi says it will make them better citizens?
Anyway, maybe I’m being a tad too bleak here. Some people apparently did read and enjoy The Best Laid Plans. But as to whether it will appeal to the bulk of the potential customers who are, again, intelligent, frequent readers, I have my doubts. They want a good, well-written, satisfying read. They aren’t going to buy it just because of the Canada Reads sticker, and I am not going to recommend it. That’s what matters, not the “accessibility” or how much better it will make us as citizens.
I also think the CBC needs to reconsider how the program is appealing to the online communities these days, because I fear they’re alienating their biggest advocates: the blogs. Online discussion this year was scarce and generally disappointed in tone. If we, the vanguard, can’t get excited about the competition or its yields, will readers?
I have some suggestions to the CBC for next year. I think this will help me, and maybe some of the program’s other former followers regain a little faith:
– No more polls to determine who gets to be on the show. This turned a contest between beloved books into a contest between promoted books, and that’s bad.
– Keep two or more pseudo-intellectuals on your celebrity panel. Writers, critics, academics, etc.
– Vet the celebrity panel choices to include a good mix of old and new, unknown and popular books.
– Aside from the (excessive) “pitches” given at the beginning of each show, don’t let the panelists talk about their own books, except in rebuttle. We know they want to promote their own book. But the most honest discussion comes from discussing the merits of the other books.
– Cut the book promotion down by a half and replace it with… more discussion!
– Bring back the community round-ups! The online community this year felt separated and un-engaged. Twitter is not a community medium, it’s a one-way cork board.
I look forward to reading the rest of your responses! I feel a bit glum about the whole thing, so maybe someone else’s peppy take on the contest can cheer me up some. I’d love to become a cheerleader once more!