Saturday, February 05, 2011

Canada Reads 2011 - Pregame Post

In just 2 days CBC Radio will launch its 10th anniversary edition of Canada Reads, the literary smackdown event that annually has Canadian book sales soaring, CBC listeners on the edge of their seats, and critics up in arms. Love it, or hate it, it's impossible for Canadian readers to ignore.

As I'm a Canadian reader, I've decided to once again weigh in. It didn't hurt that the producers offered me a gift pack of all five books to discuss the program on my blog-- more on that later.

Before getting into my predictions, thoughts and so forth, perhaps a little history of my relationship with the program is in order. For those regular readers of my blog, I'll keep it short, I promise-- you know this stuff already. I was an early fan of the program and blogged about it regularly. Of course being a fan doesn't mean that I thought they did everything right and like most listeners I had suggestions on how it could improve. My main complaint was, and still is, the use of an exclusively celebrity panel. I campaigned, shouted loudly, irritated the producers, and they irritated me in return. At its worst, I boycotted the program for a year. At its funniest, I was inadvertently sent an inner-office email from one of the producers who, quite correctly, defined our relationship as "weird." Then, last year, I was a panelist of the National Post knock-off version, "Canada Also Reads." Like most knock-offs, I don't think it adequately compared with the original, but it, and a few other knock-offs, seemed to get the producers' attention that some changes might be in order.

I give them credit for finally reaching out to the listeners (and readers), even if I don't quite agree with the way they did it. For the first time ever Canadian readers were asked to nominate books of the past 10 years they felt should be on a top 40 list of essential Canadian reads. I like this idea and the list itself, but not in connection with the Canada Reads program. Here's why. Such lists have become the latest fad at CBC. There was the list of Canada's Greatest individuals, then there was the Canada's Seven Wonders program. I don't have an issue with these things as long as we don't take it all too seriously. It's a fun way to get the country talking, remembering, feeling some pride, and I'm sure it helped the CBC in the ratings department as well. Win-win. The book list could be considered in the same light. However, that 40 list was whittled down to 10 and then to five to be debated by, once again, celebrity panelists. These changes do not work for the betterment of the program. First of all, books from all of Canada's rich literary past are no longer possible contenders. A frequent beef that people spouted last year was that 2 of the contending books (specifically Generation X and Fall on Your Knees) were already read by a great number of Canadians and didn't make it interesting for those listeners who wanted the show to introduce them to something new. Perhaps this was a part of the producers rationale in restricting the books to the past decade. However, in doing so we lost the possibility for such books as Rockbound, Next Episode, or Sarah Binks, books that were in danger of being forgotten forever, if not for the resurgence in interest thanks to Canada Reads. But my biggest issue against the Top 40 list being used to find the Canada Reads contenders is that it took too much control away from the panelists. Up until now panelists were allowed to bring whatever book they wanted to the table (with a few exceptions, such as non-fiction, and so on). They took a book they felt passionately about and defended it with all the strength and strategy they could muster. With one exception. A few years ago Rufus Wainwright was set to defend Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers. Because of a scheduling conflict Wainwright had to back out and Molly Johnson was brought in to replace her. While she remembered liking the book in university, it wasn't her choice book and it showed. Lacking the noticeable enthusiasm of the other panelists, Beautiful Losers lost. Perhaps it would have lost under Wainwright's defense as well, but it certainly would have been nice to hear from someone who picked it as something all Canadians should read. Are we to get a panel of Molly Johnsons this year? Sure Lorne Cardinal picked Unless from a list of ten, but what would he have picked had his options been wide open? No matter how enthusiastic this year's panelists will be, at best they'll come across as hired spokespeople doing their best at a celebrity endorsement.

But enough of the negativity. At least the producers' intentions were admirable. Reaching out to the listeners and getting them involved is at least a step in the right direction (of course, I know a way to get them even more involved, but I digress). During the Top 40 nominations, the Canada Reads staff reached out to bloggers, librarians, independent book store owners, and everyday readers and invited them to have their say. It was through this opportunity that my nomination, Jeff Lemire's Essex County was first suggested, it was subsequently nominated by none other than Mariko Tamaki, and the ball kept rolling from there, bouncing it into the Top 5 to be debated next week. Are the Canada Reads producers and staff doing all of this selflessly? Of course not. I mentioned above that they asked me, and a few other bloggers to discuss the program on our blogs this year in return for a prize pack of Canada Reads books. I know it's cheap publicity for them. However, in her initial request, producer Kimberly Walsh wrote that she had "no expectation that [I] be excessively positive, just that [I] be fair." The fact that I was even one of the ones asked is a surprising step. Few have been as loudly critical as I have over the past ten years, but they seem to be embracing, for once, the constructive criticism. In return, they've gotten more web buzz this year than I've ever noticed before. Much has been negative, but the Canada Reads folks don't seem to running away from it, and not in an "any publicity is good publicity" sort of way either. They've addressed some of the concerns, defended some of the concerns, and at the very least, have acknowledged the concerns. They almost threw out the baby with the bathwater this year with their drastic changes, but at least they're looking to improve.

I also want to commend the Canada Reads on their website attention this year. Never had they had this much build up. They've had top 40 recommendations, Brian Francis' resident blogger posts, the Canada Reads staff themselves debating the books, podcasts and articles on the authors, books, and more. I don't remember them ever promoting the contest this much and they've done it wonderfully.

Now, on with my predictions and picks. Admittedly, I'm at a disadvantage in that I haven't read two of the contenders (The Bone Cage and the Best Laid Plans). They had hoped to get the books to me in time, but I inadvertently gave them my wrong address (I moved across town in October of last year and gave them my old postal code). But ignorance has never stopped me from shooting my mouth off before. So, without further ado, here are my choices followed by my predictions...

Who should win...

1. Essex County- Jeff Lemire No surprise here. I nominated it after all. For a whole list of reasons, not the least of which is that it feels so much like a Canadian novel and yet it's cutting edge. The story should appeal to traditionalists and the format should appeal to those looking for something new to the CanLit scene. The rift between those who represent the old guard of Canadian writing where the stories are more carefully paced and introspective and the new wave of Canadian experimental writing with its quirky characters and flamboyancy is huge and growing. I think Lemire's Essex County might just provide the segue that we were missing.

2. The runner up, if I'm to believe the reviews and synopses that I've read, should be Terry Fallis' The Best Laid Plans. One of our largest cultural exports is our comedy and with the success of This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the Rick Mercer Report, clearly we like political satire. With Richler no longer with us, we need someone new to take his place. But I get the impression that Fallis might be lacking Richler's acerbic wit. I'm a little nervous that he plays it too safe. Good satire can't do that.

3. Unless by Carol Shields A good story is a good story. Unfortunately I think Shields' death and reputation as one of Canada's foremost writers will overshadow the discussion of the story. Perhaps it represents the old guard that I was talking about earlier, but it's still beautifully crafted. Humorless, maybe, but touching. I actually prefer this one over the Stone Diaries.

4. The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou- Again, I have to base this on the impression I've gotten from other peoples' reviews. I get the impression it's a little slow going, especially if you're not interested in sports. King Leary may have won a few years back, and it revolved around a hockey player, but that one was funny and had such a memorable character. I don't get the impression that this one is anywhere near as compelling as that book, and I've not heard from anyone that it's funny.

5. The Birth House by Ami McKay- Sometimes after I've read a book that I didn't like, it softens in my memory over time. Unfortunately, I think I've grown to dislike the Birth House even more. It's not funny either. Nor does it need to be. My own top pick isn't funny. But worse than not being funny is that the Birth House tries to be. I won't get into all my other reasons again, but you can read my review here.

My predictions:

1. The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis- It sounds to me that it's one of the most entertaining of the lot. Plus, with its political stuff, it'll be perceived as intelligent. That's a pretty good combination. However the biggest reason it will win is through process of elimination. It'll most likely be the least polarizing.

2. Essex County by Jeff Lemire- Don't let its making it this far fool you. It doesn't stand a chance. Everyone knows this and it'll be strategic that it gets this far. Then just when us fans get our hopes up, the claws will come out. Unfortunately the discussion will be all about graphic novels versus regular novels (I'll eat my shirt if someone on the panel doesn't whine, "It's just too hard to compare a graphic novel to a normal novel.") and worse, they'll get sidetracked with graphic novels versus comics (note to nerds: no one cares). The merits of the story itself will barely get a mention. (Prove me wrong Sara Quin!)

3. The Birth House by Ami McKay- They'll all claim politely that this book is funny, but secretly someone will disagree. This vote off will be the most diplomatic vote off of the whole debate. It's a book we're supposed to like. Canadian history, feminist themes, a vibrator joke, rural Canada... the fact that it's all so terribly forced won't be mentioned (shhhh! McKay might be listening!) Despite that, I have faith in the panel that it'll be taken out, no matter how polite the execution. Debbie Travis will be shocked.

4. The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou- Oh man. Georges Laraque will be pissed. All the panelists will genuinely like this book, but admit that it's lacking something. Plus Laraque will be so intimidating, without even opening his mouth, that people will want his book gone. The strange thing is, despite Laraque's earlier dismissal of Essex County, he'll be one of its biggest defenders from this point on.

5. Unless by Carol Shields- This will be an entirely strategic vote and its vote off in day one has already been decided. Atwood, Richler, Munro and Laurence haven't won one of these things, and Shields won't either. There's such a thing as too popular. The panelist will say, and perhaps fairly, that enough Canadians know of Shields' writing already. If they haven't read Unless before, they probably won't now. There's no real point to it winning. To acknowledge her talent? Hasn't it been acknowledged?

What about you? Will you be listening? Which have you read? Who do you think will win, and most importantly, who do you want to win?


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Whew. Don't take this wrong, but I need a drink after reading your post. It was actually really compelling reading, far more interesting than a post of this length has any right to be, but I still want a drink. Probably I would have wanted one anyway.

I've only read two of the books this year, so I don't think I am qualified to offer my wager. I will say that I loved Essex County more than I dreamed possible, and that, much as I adore much of Carol Shields' work, I think Unless is just getting the dead author vote.

Anonymous said...

Great overview of this year's competition. Like you, I've never been in love with the celebrity panelists and I really hate that the books will be defended so randomly this year. What I used to like about Canada Reads was that it introduced me to books I'd never heard of through the passionate arguments of the panelists who loved those books. I'm concerned that this year's format will essentially remove that passion. Because it is hard to be that passionate about a book someone else made you read.

Melwyk said...

I agree with you about the format this year -- having celebrity endorsements of assigned reading just isn't the same as having passionate readers defending a book they've loved. But, since I've only read one of the books in the competition, I can only state that I think The Bone Cage was quite a good read and worthy of a win. Will have to see what happens...but I would love to see more heartfelt choices next year. Crowdsourcing doesn't seem like a great idea in this instance, at least not to me.

Steph said...

I am totally in agreement with your predictions for this year! Wow.

And what an incredibly thorough, considerate post. Well done.

I have to say I'm not really concerned about the celeb thing; I figure it's to draw more followers, and I can see the logic in that. They also did pick, rather than were forced to read, the book they're defending. Sure, they were given ones to choose from, but those choices had been voted there by the public. Had panelists been able to bring their favourite, would the choices have been as ideally different or lesser known, or, as in past years, books that have already had their day and are as well known as the celebs themselves? I figure that in this case, you either like the book enough to defend it or you pass up the chance to be on the show. At least, that's what makes sense to me.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Then my work is done here. With the inspiring you to drink I mean, not the inspiring you to read Essex County.

Jocelyne: Agreed. And I have to say, picking from a list of ten would not be easy. I'd read 6 of the top ten, and I consider myself a pretty avid reader of Canadian fiction. I'm curious how many of the ten each panelist had even read when it was time to choose. Might it be that some of them voted for the only book in the list that they'd even read before. Hard to get excited about that.

Melwyk: Good to hear such a glowing review of the Bone Cage. I look forward to reading it.

Steph: Matching predictions, eh? Similar logic, too?

I can understand the ratings argument for the program, I really can. However, early on someone there explained to me that it was more about media types being comfortable in a sound booth. As if people from the street aren't called in for interviews all the time. I myself have even appeared in a CBC sound booth. It ain't rocket science. But assuming it really is about ratings, again, my argument is that it shouldn't exclusively be celebrities. If one of the five panelists this year was say a mechanic from Beeton, Ontario, would you really tune out or be less excited?

Kate said...

The only finalists that I've read are Essex County and Unless (many years ago). I'm cheering for Essex County, which I loved, and have recommended to many people who have also loved it. Though I wouldn't mind if The Best Laid Plans won - I sat next to Terry Fallis at lunch at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival last summer, and if his book is as entertaining as he is in person, it's sure to be a good read.

I agree that Unless probably doesn't stand a chance, as the "old guard" of Can Lit have tended to not fare so well in Canada Reads. It is my favourite of Carol Shields' books, but that's not saying much since I am not a huge fan of hers.

And I also agree that some of the passion for the debates may be missing with the debaters not being given free choice; however the audience buy-in may be greater, since we had a chance to vote on the books being debated.


John Mutford said...

Kate: Looks like we have similar taste.

Jodie Robson said...

Hmm, well, from what you say I would like to read Essex County and The Best Laid Plans, but can't get them here. Much as I admire Carol Shields, I don't think her book has a place here. On Amazon UK I can't even find a plot summary of The Bone Cage.

Anonymous said...

I kept this post on hold until I had finished my reviews.
I enjoyed reading it. This is the first time I "participate" in Canada Reads as I only became aware of it last year during the debate and did not really understand what it was about.
I have not made any prediction, but I can see your points.
I also found it difficult to pick up a book to cheer for and I haven't. My views on The Birth House are very different from yours. I will have a look at your review as I am very curious to see a male point of view on it.

Charleydog said...

I have read Unless and The Birth House, and both are great stories.

Anonymous said...

I think there's an inherent conflict in this sort of event--it has to please existing readers while attracting non-readers, and that is a tricky balance. I presume the celeb judges are meant to attract non-readers to books--if I know the celebs in a different context, I might pick up a book because it's championed by a person I like. And the books need to be accessible for non-readers, so it's a very specific type of book we're talking about here. But such a selection may alienate regular/passionate readers, who would a)perhaps look for different sort of books, and b)may be too-familiar with the selection for the event to hold interest, other than for its competitive aspect.

My own utterly biased and unscientific opinion is that The Birth House is a non-reader's book. I think Unless could be a real cross-over though, and I'm totally rooting for it. It's so layered that it stands up to repeated re-reading, the language seems light but lands body-blows, and it has enough of a plot to hook the dilettante reader. And to answer your point about the point of this one winning: despite everything, this sort of writing is often labeled women's fiction and consequently dismissed and diminished, so, IMO there's a real need to celebrate Unless and reaffirm its greatness.


John Mutford said...

Geranium Cat: It would be interesting to know if a satire of Canadian politics would work for a non-Canadian reader.

Emeire: I enjoyed your review. Thanks for sharing. I'm a little wary though when the male/female divide gets brought up. Perhaps more females would appreciate The Birth House than males, but I'm not sure that's why I didn't enjoy it. I was a little annoyed that Brian Francis, despite enjoying the Birth House, worried that the males on the panel wouldn't take to it. It can also be a cop out to say that most males just don't get it. The subject matter isn't what turned me off, it was the writing. A lot of people would also assume Unless would only appeal to females. But that one I enjoyed.

Charleydog: Well, I'll agree with you on one of those. If you had to pick, which would it be?

Niranjana: Maybe The Birth House would appeal to non-Readers, as you call it. The way it tries to be literary, it could be the Canadian equivalent of a Jodi Picoult novel. As for Unless being "diminished" as a female novel, I'm not sure. Shields, Munro, Atwood, and Laurence? There aren't many Canadian male authors with that kind of respect. If you think it unnecessarily restricts her readership with such a label as "female fiction," I agree. But the same thing happens to male authors. How many people think sci-fi is for men? Ask Robert J. Sawyer if that's fair.

Anonymous said...

Well, it looks like it is not a male/female thing, Ali Velshi sounded like he really enjoyed The Birth House...