Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Canada Reads 2012- The Hype and Gripe

For those of you that still care, Canada Reads is back once again with another installment of their annual literary smack-down. And though book sales will soar and it'll no doubt be the number one book related program in the country, the naysayers will also be out in force. I've been the flag-waving super-fan, I've been the vitriolic super-annoyed. In the past couple of years however, I've been working on my moderation skills. I'd still consider myself a fan, but a true fan can still recognize when things aren't exactly as they should be. In fact, a true fan should because true fans care enough to seek improvement. In that spirit I bring you my praise (the hype) and my complaints (the gripe):

The Hype:
1. This year they're trying nonfiction. It's going to be interesting to see how a panel will handle these books. Will they focus on writing quality? The importance of the topics? Both? It's nice to see the Canada Reads crew experimenting with new approaches.
2. Return to older books. Last year they restricted it to books published in the past 10 years and I missed the opportunity to discover books I'd missed for whatever reason the first time around (King Leary, Rockbound, etc).

The Gripe (Unfortunately I have more of these):

1. This year they're trying nonfiction. Yes, I know, I'm hard to please. I do like nonfiction, but with the insane changes last year and now this, I admit it: I miss the old show. And besides, couldn't they just allow panelists to choose nonfiction if they wish? Is there something saying that nonfiction and fiction can't compete with one another? They've had poetry, short stories, and graphic novels take on novels, granted unsuccessfully, but what's to say nonfiction would suffer the same fate? If you look at book sales, nonfiction can certainly hold its own. But making it solely nonfiction? I'm not sure I like where this is going. Will next year's competition be restricted to cookbooks? Instructional manuals? Works of Margaret Atwood? Opening up the competition is a good idea, but only if they genuinely open it up.

2. The Top 40, the top 10, the top 5. We get it. CBC wants to milk this baby to death. Not content to simply announce the 5 books in November as was the tradition, readers are now asked to suggest and vote on their favourite books to create a top 40 list, which leads to another vote to arrive at a top 10, and then the five panelists will pick a book from that list to defend in the spring. Again, part of this plan is admirable-- fans get a chance to be part of the action. But this was my biggest beef with the program last year and biggest beef with the program this year. We're left with panelists who are potentially only there for publicity sake. Sure they pick the final five, but from a very short list. Compare this with panelists from past shows who were free to pick from any fictional Canadian book of their choosing. Who do you think would be more passionate about their choices? Don't say that last year's panelists seemed passionate because it doesn't compare when people are debating for the sake of debating versus debating for something they really care about. And besides, if they want to truly let fans participate we all know how they can do it: add one or two or five to the debating panel.

3. The lack of transparency. On the surface Canada Reads looks like it's all about transparency. It's one of the reasons that fans, like myself, appreciate the show. If you've ever wondered what conversations go on behind the scenes for the Giller or Governor General's Prizes, Canada Reads should be right up your alley. But the voting process this year seemed fishy. Here's a comment I submitted to their website, which they published but neglected to answer:

Just a thought from us impatient folk who submitted our recommendations and have yet to see them posted: could you please offer an explanation of your process? Will all recommendations eventually be posted or are they screened in some way? How long should we wait until we inquire about whether or not you actually received our recommendation? If our recommendations don't get published online, are they still considered when you do your final "support" tally for the top 40?

When they asked for submissions, they said that the 40 books with the most votes (i.e., nominations) would make the almighty top 40 list. Fine, so my submission (Cassie Brown's Death on the Ice) probably didn't enough submissions. However, I don't think it was given a fair chance. You see, each day they published some submission "highlights." They apparently got thousands of submissions, so I understand that they couldn't publish all of them. However, when they publish some submissions while the vote counting is still underway, the daily published submissions are more likely to get more votes. If, for instance, my Cassie Brown suggestion was published, who's to say that other people wouldn't say, "Hey, I remember that book! It was great! I should nominate it, too." Instead they published four or five submissions for Karen Connelly's dreadful Burmese Lessons, which in turn made the top 40 list. I'd ventured to guess that maybe they were simply publishing the submissions that already appeared in the lead. But then, they also published three or four nominations for Charlotte Gray's typo-ridden Gold Diggers and yet it was her Mrs. King that made the cut. If it had a rhyme or reason, they really should have communicated it better. Otherwise, it looked like the producers manipulated the outcome, picking their favourites and promoting them accordingly (sometimes working, in the case of Connelly's crap book, or not working, in the case of the Gray's Gold Diggers). In any case, mine wasn't the only comment of complaint, and while I understand that they don't have to, can't, and shouldn't address every single whiny letter they get, there were a bunch of us with similar complaints, their credibility is shaky enough as it is, and clearly they got the damn complaints as they moderated the comments and still chose to publish them.

If you read all the above, I assume you care somewhat about the program. If you do, go check out the top 40. Vote if you want and/or voice your concerns with the direction of the program. I personally want it to succeed, but I think the producers need to sit down and seriously discuss what the fans want and question where they want the show to go.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Although I will still follow it with interest when it airs, Canada Reads has lost some of its appeal for me as well, and for many of the same reasons. I completely agree that there is more passion, more vigour in the debate that stems when the panelists choose their own books. And while I applaud, somewhat, the process being opened up to non-celebrity Canadians, the current process seems a bit of a hot mess.

I still like your idea of having non-celebrities on the panel itself. Go Team Mutford!

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Hey, who you callin' a non-celebrity? I want to see Max Spencer, the guy who runs a local barbershop on the show!

Shonna said...

Have to agree with you John. I think it is better when the champions can pick their own book. I've run into that as an issue when I'm doing programs around the Evergreen award. We have some champions who aren't really thrilled about their book and thus don't present it in an appealing way to the audience. (BTW, we do pit fiction against nonfiction, although fiction has won to date).