Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thoughts on Canada Also Reads

While I was away, the winner for the inaugural (will there be more?) Canada Also Reads contest was chosen: Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise. Congratulations to Jessica and to Neil Smith who defended it. I'd like to say it deserved to win, but at this point and time, the best I can say is, I don't know. You see, despite being a panelist for Canada Also Reads, I haven't read Grant's book. No, I wasn't a bad panelist, we weren't expected to read any of the others. Which brings me to my conclusion that, dare I say it, CBC's Canada Reads is still better.

This might come as a surprise to those who remember my beef with the CBC program in the past. It might also come across as sour grapes: my book choice (Steve Zipp's Yellowknife) didn't win, so therefore I must crap all over the National Post and their Canada Also Reads alternative. Believe whatever you want, but I had these concerns before the winner was even declared. I just didn't want to blow my chances to still bring some attention to Zipp's novel. Here's my two cents on where the producers of Canada Also Reads went wrong:

Back in December, shortly after the CBC program unveiled this year's panelists and books, Brad Frenette and the other editors of National Post blog, the Afterword, launched the Canada Also Reads program in response to what they referred to as uninspired book choices. Most notably they took issue with contenders Ann-Marie McDonald's Fall on Your Knees and Douglas Coupland's Generation X. While my biggest complaint with Canada Reads over the years has been the insistence on exclusively using celebrities for their panel, I had to agree that those two books in particular had already been read and discussed ad nauseum and it wasn't a terribly exciting year. But still, it was the request that the general public suggest books and panelists that got my attention. It didn't appear that you needed to be particularly famous to participate and so, I threw my not particularly famous hat into the ring.

But, if an uninspired CBC book choice was their raison d'etre, they should have kept things more similar to the original program, just with more interesting books (and okay, keep the better panel). Slowly but surely more and more differences crept in:

1st: Nominated books had to have been published in the past 2 years and not have won any major awards. I get the not having won awards bit. If it's already won major awards, there's a very good chance it's already been discussed and read by many people. So why did Terry Fallis' Best Laid Plans get through when it had already won the Stephen Leacock Award? Maybe they should have defined "major award" better since I'd personally consider the Stephen Leacock Award a big deal. As for the two years thing, I'm not sure why that was a criteria at all. Actually, I'd say that was one of the things I'd always appreciated about Canada Reads, that the panelist could pick books published at any time. Rockbound's win was particularly exciting.

2nd: On February 9th when the panelists and our book choices were announced to the public, it was also the day we found out. As well, it was revealed that, unlike Canada Reads' 5 books, Canada Also Reads would be showcasing 8 books. That in itself wasn't a problem; bigger's better, right? However, the debate was less than a month away. How could we panelists read all 8 books in time to make our defense? Turns out, we weren't expected to. I was sent free copies of Stacey May Fowles' and Jocelyne Allen's books as a courtesy by their publishers, but the National Post had nothing to do with that (Random House also sent me a free copy of Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise about a year ago, unrelated to Canada Also Reads). Four books I still didn't have, and no time to read the ones I did have. How could we debate the 8 books if we hadn't read them all? Well, that was yet another difference. We were to submit defenses of our chosen books and were not required to even mention the others. After we all had our say, there would be a vote, open to the public. For the record, I hated these changes. Why didn't we just invite readers to Google reviews for each book, and cast their vote based on those? The best part of Canada Reads is the debate and Canada Also Reads essentially killed the debate. To be fair, they did host a live online discussion, but when asked which book we'd like to see go, none of the panelists bit. No, it wasn't just politics (though that was why I didn't raise my objections to Best Laid Plans being on the list), but mostly because we hadn't read all the others! How could we say definitively that any of these books were inferior (or for that matter, why our own choices were superior?). Not the point? It's all subjective anyway? Of course. The game/debate has never been the real point of Canada Reads either, but it has been their entertaining facade. People have come down on Canada Reads in the past for being too Survivor-esque, but I've always found the format to be fun. I think few people would say that about the National Post version.

I'm not sure what was up with all the changes. Perhaps it was a loss of focus somewhere along the way, throwing in more and more issues with the CBC program as they went along. Perhaps there was a legal issue. Did they need to make so many changes so that the CBC lawyers didn't accuse them of stealing their format? I guess the folks at the Afterword are the only ones who can answer that.

What's to be learned from all this?

For the most part, the producers at Canada Reads should keep doing what they're doing. I maintain that they should add at least one non-celebrity panelist to the mix (though if my stint at Canada Also Reads counts for Canadian celebrity, the CBC can contact my agent, should they be interested in my presence next year).

Canada Reads future panelists should take note: pick interesting books! Fall on Your Knees didn't win. Generation X didn't win. In the past, Handmaid's Tale and Life of Pi didn't win. Canada Also Reads, despite its flaws, got that part right. People aren't interested in rehashing the same old books over and over. Still, I applaud the Canada Reads producers for being more hands off. Book choice should be a panelist decision. Just note, pick an overly popular and awarded book and people won't care, nor will you win.

In the meantime, I'm slowly, since there are no time constraints, going to work my way through the 8 Canada Also Reads books. When I'm finally done, I'll let you know why Canada should read Steve Zipp's Yellowknife. If I still feel that way.

Stay tuned this week for a review of Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates.


Chrisbookarama said...

I watched Canada Reads online this year and found it very entertaining. I also wondered why there was no debate with the Canada Also Reads format. That would have been interesting.

I'm sorry you & Steve didn't win. I did vote for Yellowknife but I have read Come Thou Tortoise and it would have been my 2nd choice. It is very good.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think that the debate aspect of these sorts of endeavours are crucial! On has to be able to compare if one is to choose. I'm very happy that you had a chance to participate, but agree that the contest did go off the rails along the way.

B.Kienapple said...

I think there is likely to be another round and I agree with you, debate is necessary. We get so little back and forth in Canada. The fact that I could listen to people taking down Fall On Your Knees on national radio filled me with glee. Or maybe it was just the book.

John Mutford said...

Chris: I would have liked for Zipp's book to have won, for sure. But that's okay. It made a few more fans in the process, I'm sure.

Barbara: I wonder how much impact the whole process had. Not to downplay Neil Smith's defense of the book (I think he did a fine job) but I wonder if the National Post had simply given us the same 8 titles and told the public to vote (without the reviews disguised as defenses and without the live discussion) if the outcome wouldn't have been exactly the same.

B. Kienapple: You're wrong! We don't need to argue more! (I'm trying to be ironic. I'm sorry. (I'm trying to be Canadian. I'm sorry.))

Steve said...

I've done a lot of thinking too about Canada Also Reads. As the event unfolded, it became clear that the guys at the Afterword were running a minimalist competition, one that involved a lot less overhead than Canada Reads. They latched onto popular discontent with Canada Reads, and cobbled together a quick alternative.

I do admit to being a little disenchanted when I learned how the winner would be chosen, for it seemed based not on literary merit but on who had the most family and friends. But then I got to thinking about literary competitions in general, and came to the conclusion that a public poll is probably as good a way to choose a winner as any.

I mean, think about the "strategic voting" that went on with Canada Reads. Think about the usual carping that accompanies the Giller and the Booker and so on. Such objections are inevitable when one book is artificially declared "better" than others. Basically what these competitions do is attract attention to books, a worthwhile endavour no matter what the outcome.

In that spirit I'm making an attempt to read the other seven books in the competition. Three down, four to go.

Finally I do want say a very warm thank you to everyone who voted for us, and especially to John for doing such a splendid job in defending the book. It was a thrill just to make the shortlist.

Sandra said...

Nice to know your thoughts on the whole thing. Buchanan's and Grant's books, as well as Yellowknife were already on my tbr list. I'm keen to know your opinions on the others as you read them. You may convince me to read some of them.

Teddy Rose said...

I have to agree with your summary John. It did seem like they just slapped it together, last minute. I wish they would have given everyone time to read all of the books. It would have made a better defense.

I voted for Yellowknife and intend to read it.