Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Canada Reads 2011- Day Three, Here Lies The Body of Leslie Moore, No Les, No Moore

Yay! It's negative reinforcement Christmas!

Cut the program down to just 3 days? Continue using celebrities? Knock out Essex County on the first day? Don't worry CBC, all is forgiven. The Birth House didn't win. Whew, that was close.

And while I did initially predict The Best Laid Plans would win, I was way off with the rest.

I had a lot more to say today but I made the mistake of checking out Charlotte Ashley's take over at Inklings. Honestly, she captures so many of my feelings about the program today that I won't bother repeating most of it. Check out what she has to say, including her suggestions to improve next year. I will comment on some of her points though, especially the one about the Canada Reads "myth," as she calls it,
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.
Very well said. But I'd like to add that to some extent a myth of self-importance is necessary. According to the Canada Reads website, the chosen panelists are told only to "select the book they think Canadians should read." It doesn't specify whether or not this means "essential" or "accessible" or "responsible," "educational," "entertaining," "inspiring," or "challenging." Yet year after year the Canada Reads panelists will argue their mandate almost as much as they argue their books. I've read a LOT of commentary about this year's books and panelists not being up to the same standard as past years. They were frustrating yes, but we're suffering Saturday Night Live syndrome if we think this lot was vastly different. Debates didn't have any more depth in the past (well, maybe 2 days worth more depth but the panelists can't be blamed for that), strategic voting was always going on (though perhaps no one has been as honest and open about it as Georges was today) and they've always taken this way too seriously. But if they didn't take it serious, the program wouldn't be as entertaining as it is. To fight for a book, when they have to realize no book is going to please all Canadians (note the CBC directive above doesn't use the word all), they have to pretend it's of the utmost importance. Otherwise it's just a book club that we aren't allowed to participate in.

Debbie Travis said today that "[Canada Reads] is not Survivor." The Survivor comparison, of course, has been bandied about since the inception of Canada Reads. Critics of the program use it as an insult and a good many fans of the program defend against it with all they can muster. Survivor is a low-brow... oh, dare I even say it without spitting... television show. They know Canada Reads is much more. It has noble causes (see Charlotte's myths above) and it's about books, not uncleverly disguised Doritos ads and bikini-clad low-lifes eating sheep testicles in Borneo for money. They argue that it's more akin to an insider view of how the Giller is chosen, debating about quality literature and so on. But the truth is somewhere in the middle. It's a reality show, no doubt about it. And that's in the entertainment sense of the phrase, not the documentary sense that critics wish the term meant. I do find it entertaining. I do like reading the books and picking my favourite. I do like picking heroes and villains from the panelists. I would like more discussion of the quality of the books, I really would, and I would like my favourite book to always win. But that's Canada Reads. There's plenty of room for improvement, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Not always getting what we want keeps it interesting (and what keeps us screaming from the deepest depths of the blogging world to the lofty peaks of the Twitterverse.)

Back to today's show for a second. I'm glad they addressed the anger that listeners expressed about Debbie Travis's not having finished The Best Laid Plans. She said that she finally did last night, but I don't know if I believe her. I also find it surprising that so many people care. It's not as if she didn't attempt it. If that was the case, then people should complain-- it was the whole reason she was invited to appear the program, to read and debate all 5 books. But she tried The Best Laid Plans, found it difficult and frustrating to read and threw it down. I think it was a pretty damning indictment and of all the issues I had with Debbie Travis's performance-- and if you read yesterday's post, I had many-- that wasn't one of them. I finish whatever book I start, no matter how much I hate it. And yet I've had so many people, bloggers and non-bloggers alike, tell me that it's a waste of time to do so. An author has the responsibility to grab you in so many pages or they've failed, or so they say. Did Debbie Travis have the responsibility to finish in order to debate the merits or lack thereof of this particular book? She read enough to know what the plot was, who the characters were and what they were about, and that she really didn't like any of it so much that she had to put it aside. I think it was fair. Voting off other books before she went after that one? Not so much.

I also wanted to address the issue of whether or not an author and his/her past success (awards, money, reputation) matter in whether or not a book gets voted off. Again, this come back to what the panelists of the year perceive to be their mandate. Personally, it could matter for me. First and foremost, I'd be voting off my least favourite book. However, if my favourite (i.e., the one I was personally defending) got voted out early, then my next favourite and so on, until I'm left with two books I either don't really like or feel ambivalent about, I'd probably go with the "need" of the win as a voting point. I implied above that the debates aren't really important. However, for the authors (and their publishers) they're very important. We're talking a huge jump in sales for the winner. So, if I can't decide between Fallis and McKay, I'd probably base my vote on sales. Why not? Her book was a bestseller already, his was not.

I have similar thoughts about the panelists. All else being equal-- again, assuming my favourite book is out of the running and I'm unenthusiastic about any of the others-- I'd be just as likely to vote for a book based on the eloquence of its defender or against a book based on the obnoxiousness of the defender. When the quality of the writing (quality being subjective in most cases), is taken out of the equation, that's when (and only when) panelist abilities and personalities, past awards, books sales and the like should enter the picture.

But it's all done, for another year. I'm not overly enthusiastic about this year's winner as I've yet to read it, but I'm curious to do so. I'm happy the Birth House didn't win and that in the Canada Reads readers' poll Essex County won with over half the votes. That's more than the other 4 books combined! I guess I wasn't as off the mark with that one as I'd thought.


John Mutford said...

Other views?



JK said...

John, thank goodness for your post. Just when I was starting to feel alone in still supporting the competition, this well-reasoned post says many of the things I was thinking writing my own wrap-up ( It's okay to be disappointed in the results or the panelists this year, but there's no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water, and I'll keep listening. I'm glad you'll be listening too.


Anonymous said...

I'm having problems commenting with openID and the comment I wrote yesterday got lost in cyberspace, sorry.

As you know, it was my first time following Canada Reads. I found it entertaining the first couple of days, but yesterday was just irritating. I can accept its format and other arguments for it, but it was just too repetitive for my liking. We have all understood that change starts at the kitchen table and that the public need to know more about how democracy works. I would have liked to see a bit more variety in the defenders' arguments.


Buried In Print said...

"I would like more discussion of the quality of the books, I really would, and I would like my favourite book to always win. But that's Canada Reads. There's plenty of room for improvement, but I enjoy it nonetheless."

Agreed. I wish that I'd been following your comments as the event unfolded, but I'm catching up after-the-fact. (Same with my chatter on Charlotte's posts and elsewhere in the ether.)