Canada Reads Day 3: A Little Enthusiasm? Anyone? « Once & Future

Once & Future

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

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!

23 thoughts on “Canada Reads Day 3: A Little Enthusiasm? Anyone?”

  1. Kerry says:

    Oh, me too. I long for the days when I hated The Outlander…

  2. alexis says:

    Excellent post. I agree with a lot of this.

  3. Natalie says:

    I would handsell this post.

  4. Liz says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. The way the books were chosen this year was flawed and I think this is part of the reason that discussion was so lacklustre. I would not recommend
    any books on this list.

  5. steph says:

    I second that, Natalie.

    I agreed with pretty much everything but I liked this, in particular: “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.” This is why I really hate the whole dumbing down bit I talked about in my latest post and in the comments following.

    You nailed what I wanted to say in general, actually. Hear, hear to your suggestions, which are great. It’s one thing to complain, it’s another to suggest solutions. Well done.

  6. Sarah says:

    “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.”

    You’d have to read all the books to be able to do this…

  7. Jon says:

    I agree with much of what you’ve written here. I hated the condescension and paternalism that seemed to dominate the discussion of the books, particularly on Day 1. However, I really disagree with your take on The Best Laid Plans. While I do have my doubts that it is the “essential Canadian novel of the decade”, it is very well-written, subversive and hilarious. Implying that “intelligent, frequent readers” will not be drawn to it is disingenuous, in my opinion. It is already widely read, critically-acclaimed, and recommended. I feel like I was late to the party in terms of finding out about Best Laid Plans, and it has been on my bookshelf since some time in 2008. The arguments in favor of it as being more accessible did a disservice to just how clever, smart, and engaging this novel is.

    I think the problem with Canada Reads, which you have alluded to, is the implication that winning book is the only book (or at least, the only piece of CanLit) that Canadians will read in a given year. For the most part, frequent readers (who make up the Canada Reads audience) read across genres and come by a variety of diverse titles every year. Enjoying Best Laid Plans doesn’t preclude me from enjoying Unless, or Essex County, or any other worthy Canadian novel.

    1. Charlotte says:

      I’ll post my review of Best Laid Plans soon to back up my so-far baseless BLP-hate. 😉 You can see my initial issues with it here. I know many people did like it, and I can see what it’s target market might be. But on the whole, with the sorts of customers we serve… I wouldn’t recommend it.

      I do wish more readers would express interest in the non-winning books! But before I started following the debates closely, I had no idea who the other nominated books even were. I wonder what kind of strategy the CBC could use to promote all five books more equally? Bookmarks, a la GG? I’ve give them out…

      1. Jon says:

        I do think it’s important to remember, as most of the Canada Reads panel didn’t, that reading is a subjective experience. The example I always cite is Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. It is undeniably a classic, and Laurence is one of the finest writers we’ve had, but I have never been able to get through it, despite numerous attempts. I don’t think it’s elevating the debate to state that a book simply won’t appeal to the bulk of “intelligent, frequent readers” because you didn’t enjoy it. That type of condescension isn’t a whole lot better than what you reproach the panel for doing. I mean this respectfully, because it’s nice to see genuine, passionate discussion about Canadian books outside of a university-level CanLit course, and you certainly do a nice job of that with this blog.

        I also think it’s nice to see people committing to read genres outside of their comfort zone. I never would have come to Best Laid Plans on my own, but I received it as a gift and loved it. Without Canada Reads 2010, I would never have picked up a copy of Nikolski, which has also become a favorite.

        1. Charlotte says:

          It’s true that the reading experience is subjective, but at the same time I don’t think that makes all books endlessly mutable or equally valuable. I am prepared to make statements about the quality of some books – or I think Umberto Eco referred to it as the “limits of the text”. He said different readers can get whatever they like out of a text, but not all those interpretations will be good. Meanwhile some texts allow themselves to more, deeper readings.

          At the same time, my job as a bookseller (or librarian, were I one) is to pair the right reader with the right book. That does require some judging – is this book complex, important, easy, enjoyable, upbeat, serious (etc) enough for my customer? I won’t always be right, but the degree to which my regulars trust me is based on my ability to judge these things. Which is all a convoluted way of saying, I think I’d be safe in recommending other books before Fallis’s. 😉

          And no offense taken by the disagreement – I think all the best conversation is the contentious type! I’m glad to be able to “hold forth” once in a while.

      2. Jon says:

        I hate to beleaguer the point, but I think there’s a difference between assessing the quality of a text and implying that intelligent people won’t like it, and that’s what I was referring to. It’s crossing from the realm of criticism into snobbishness.

        1. Charlotte says:

          True enough, as I conceded to Other John below. I think it isn’t so much that I don’t think it’s *enjoyable* to some people, but I’m not sure that’s the be-all and end-all of a book. I found the book owed a lot to Stewart McLean, for example – amusing, best read aloud, but maybe not exactly great literature, ykwim?

  8. m says:

    I agree with everything you have said. I would also add not having the authors in the audience! I think a more intelligent and impassioned debate would be possible if the people you might offend were not sitting right in front of you.

    1. Kerry says:

      Right on, M. My take on authors in the audience is here: http://www.picklemethis.com/2011/02/08/dear-author-i-dont-want-you-to-visit-my-book-club/

      I thought it was strange how when a book was voted out, news seemed to be presented as the authors themselves being voted out. It changed the stakes entirely, and not in a way that did anybody any good.

  9. Very thoughtful post with excellent suggestions for doing a bit of a Canada Reads reset next time out. I think the list of 40 to list of 10 to list of 5, and then the whole ramp-up to this week, created a measure of Canada Reads fatigue, too. And I agree that by the time we got through all the machinations to the final two, it did all seem to fizzle out in a kind of deflated, semi-apologetic fashion.

  10. Em says:

    This was my first time following CanadaReads (from the other side of the ocean) and I was a bit disappointed. I did no know what to expect. I enjoyed some of the points brought to the fore by the mini-debates, but the discussion remained superficial and the same arguments kept coming back. Today was just bland and I lost the little interest remaining once Unless was eliminated (even though I enjoyed reading The Best Laid Plans).

  11. John Mutford says:

    I haven’t written my recap post yet, but after reading yours I’ve hardly anything more to say. Well done!

    The lack of enthusiasm? Yeah, again, perhaps if they were able to bring their own five books to the table instead of picking from a list of 10. But on that note, without having read the BLPs it did make it to the to 10 with the support of voters, a group that I assume was made up of the very people who are tuning into the show, and therefore the same ones whom you predict won’t really like the book. That doesn’t really add up.

    1. Charlotte says:

      Touché! Alright, I’m probably being overly harsh – certainly as a reaction to the lack of criticism about some pretty deepish flaws (or, at least, debate-points) in the novel. I’d actually love to see Best Laid Plans reviewed further by reviewers (bloggers or otherwise) who I trust, so I can perhaps gain a little more perspective into what made some of the “humour” acceptable to them!

  12. box761 says:

    Excellent post. I’m really enjoying your thoughts on Canada Reads.

  13. Lincoln1 says:

    I agree that the tone got a bit preachy this year, but I wonder if it was the question. How do you judge the most important book of the decade? You either have to argue the art of it, which is what Lorne Cardinal and Sara Quin were doing, or the moral merits, which is what Debbie, George and Avi were doing. I liked last year’s pick a lot (the Nikolski Compass) – it was light, fun, engaging, imaginative. Important? I doubt it. And I am a serious reader….

  14. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts (although I’m behind on all of this…I found it hard to finish the books in time…I liked it when CR was in April) and have found them very stimulating.

    Your suggestions are solid, though I think the “unknown and popular” phrase could keep debate going for years. Perhaps their use of Twitter will improve next year: it’s not been an integral aspect of the show in the past, and it can be less of a corkboard scenario than it seemed to be this year.

    If you were my bookseller, I’d be glad to have you recommend only the titles about which you feel passionately. And as you obviously did not enjoy TBLP, I agree that it would be dishonest to claim to feel other than you do about your reading experience of it. But reading taste is varied and it’s not as though there is an infallible check-list of the ingredients in a perfect novel, even when we both want a “good, well-written and satisfying read”. What’s lacklustre for you might well be another bookseller’s favoured hand-sell.

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