Canada Reads 2010, Day 2
Man, these guys just can’t get enough of beating up on that book. I almost feel like jumping to its defence simply because it’s such an obvious underdog (almost, mind you, almost …). Today, after Jian Ghomeshi asked the panelists which character from someone else’s book would stick with them the longest, then noted that no one named a character from Coupland’s novel, Samantha Nutt responded by saying that Generation X is not a book that “hangs on its characters.” And is that okay, Perdita Felicien? “No. Yawn. It’s not okay.” Wow. Felicien, who Ghomeshi pointed out is probably the polar opposite of one of Coupland’s slacker characters, wasted no time eviscerating the novel, which she thought was “boring.” Her assessment was met by Nutt, who called the novel’s characters “ungrateful,” and by Michel Vézina, who said that the characters in the book “were little rats that needed a good slap behind the head.” Indeed.
I did have a certain sympathy for Roland Pemberton, who must have felt besieged, but frankly he didn’t marshal much of a defence for his beleaguered title. The best he could do was to say that Generation X employs brand names as a means of critiquing our consumerist society. Ghomeshi tried valiantly to help the book, by calling it aesthetically interesting and commenting on the way it prefigured graphic novels and at one point even comparing it to On the Road.
But in the end, Ghomeshi’s intercession was for naught. When the dust cleared, Generation X was left lying there, bloodied and beaten, showing only the faintest twitches of life. If Coupland’s novel isn’t the first to get voted off tomorrow, it will constitute one of the biggest reversals in the history of Canada Reads.
But Generation X wasn’t the only book to take a pounding today. Felicien (who I never want to go toe-to-toe with) called out Good to a Fault for being “stereotypical” and said that its characters had no flaws. (An evident misapprehension: even Clara, the saint, is shown to be misguided at best, and perhaps even selfish in her reasons for helping Lorraine and her family.) When Vézina said that he will remember Clayton, the family patriarch, Felicien snapped, “You like deadbeat dads? That’s so stereotypical.” (It was unclear whether she was referring to Clayton or to Vézina himself.) She went on to say that she found the book’s moral framework too righteous, in contrast to her assertion yesterday that Fall on Your Knees is, in her opinion, morally complex.
Then, having said all that, she went on to name Mrs. Pell, the grandmother, as the character she’d remember longest from someone else’s book. She did say that she thought that Marina Endicott “could have gone further” with the character, which I take to be another misapprehension; one of Endicott’s strengths is character, and she knows just how far to push things without having her characters slip over into caricature.
Pemberton also criticized the characterizations in Good to a Fault, saying that they were “not developed well” and that the book contained too little detail. This was one of the stranger statements in today’s debate, since most of the criticism around the novel thus far has indicated that people think it contains too much development and detail.
Simi Sara, the book’s defender, also had an odd take on Good to a Fault, positioning it as a post-9/11 novel. In our time, Sara said, “there is a lot of soul-searching,” and people are asking themselves, “how do I make my life better?” However, I’m not convinced that this is any different post-9/11 than it was pre-9/11. One of Good to a Fault‘s attributes, its seems to me, is its timelessness; its themes of charity vs. self-interest are universal, and could apply equally to any location and any period in history.
Then again, the whole “contemporary novel vs. historical novel” discussion – which rears its head every year on Canada Reads – was a bit of a non-starter. Ghomeshi kicked it off by suggesting that Good to a Fault and Nikolski were the only contemporary novels on the list this year, perhaps inadvertently putting yet another nail in Generation X‘s coffin, then Vézina (faltering a bit after yesterday’s stellar performance) said that historical books have to deal with history while contemporary books have to deal with what’s happening now. Um … yeah … He went on to say, “My interest in a book nowadays is: What is it teaching me about the world?” At which point yr. humble correspondent found himself banging his head repeatedly against the surface of his desk.
Nutt’s assertion that The Jade Peony contains the most “inventive” writing style of the five books prompted another flurry of head banging on my part, as did her earlier claim that historical novels should be admired for the “huge amount of work” their authors put into researching their chosen period in history.
Finally, the one novel to emerge virtually unscathed from today’s debate was Fall on Your Knees. Sara voiced the argument that most of Canada Reads’ critics have already made: that the book is “a classic of Canadian literature” and doesn’t need the additional attention. However, she also said that it was a “great, epic, fantastic story.” That’s a wash, in my eyes.
So, after two days, Generation X appears to be roadkill, and no one seems willing to say anything substantial against Fall on Your Knees. Which, given the scrappy nature of the book’s defender, is perhaps unsurprising. Tune in tomorrow to find out how things play out. (Oh, that clicking sound? That’s Ghomeshi loading the gun that will put Generation X out of its misery.)
Alex Good: Have I said how much I groove to the show’s theme music? I wonder if I can get it as a download.
What I don’t like is the way Jian has to start each show with comments about the program’s influence on bestseller lists. He did the same thing last year. It makes me feel like I’m listening to an infomercial.
Anyway, here are my quick thoughts. (I should say, by the way, that I’m listening to the show on the radio, being on ye olde dyal-uppe at home, so these are immediate impressions written a few minutes after the end of the program.)
I thought today’s show was another good one. The panelists are doing a fine job, at least strategically speaking. Vézina continues to be the most interesting, saying things like “Nikolski is a book about humanity and garbage.” I just wonder if they’re going to explain this fire-breathing stuff. Roland was clearly feeling a bit of despair at the end after listening to Generation X get hammered again (not just the book, but the spoiled and ungrateful demographic) and muffing a critique of Good to a Fault (not enough detail?). It will be interesting to see how Perdita’s strong, unvarnished opinions (she really tore into Generation X and Good to a Fault) play out against Simi Sara’s “ambassadorial” technique of just wanting to see all five books win.
Two big questions came up … and then popped like bubbles. First the subject of contemporary relevance vs. the historical novel was addressed. Sort of. Nobody seemed to take a strong position. Where’s Russell Smith when you need him? Then Jian finally brought up the O-word [No, not that o-word, the other one … SWB] and the fact that a couple of the books were already huge bestsellers. But everyone agreed this shouldn’t be a consideration. So that was the end of that.
Handicapping the field after two days:
Death row: Perdita, Simi, and Michel hate Generation X. Michel, Roland, and Perdita hate Good to a Fault. (One of the good things about this year’s program is the strength of some of the opinions. They aren’t all just playing nice.) So barring some weird breakdown in the votes, those two seem likely to go first.
Dark horse: Nikolski. Yeah, it got criticized for being “thin” on day one, but it’s still hanging around.
Stealth candidate: The Jade Peony. Did anyone actually read it? Nobody seems to want to talk about it.
Frontrunner: Fall on Your Knees. Perdita might want to take it down a notch for the next couple of days. She’s playing with a lead. No need to hit the others when they’re down.
And what about the new music they play while the panelists are filling out their ballots? It made me want to get up and dance!