Canada Reads loses the plot: UPDATED

October 7, 2010 by · 22 Comments 

Remember the books that were debated on last year’s Canada Reads program? You know, the list that included such heretofore unknown and unheralded works as Generation X, Fall on Your Knees, The Jade Peony, and Good to a Fault? The list also included one outlier – Nikolski, which went on to win the contest. But if you remember the books, you’ll also remember the criticism, heard from every corner of the Internet and the mainstream media: we’ve already read these books. We’re familiar with them. They’re known quantities. The great thing about Canada Reads – where it does its best service to the cause of literature in this country – is that it introduces readers to books and authors they’ve probably never heard of. Next Episode by Hubert Aquin. Rockbound by Frank Parker Day. Icefields by Thomas Wharton. Fruit by Brian Francis. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. And so on. It was precisely the dismay with the lack of adventure in last year’s list that prompted all the alternative contests that sprang up around Canada Reads: the National Post‘s Canada Also Reads, Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads: Independently, Salty Ink’s Atlantic Canada Reads.

Flash forward to October 2010. The 2011 iteration of the CBC’s annual literary smackdown marks its 10th anniversary, and to celebrate, they’ve decided to change things up a bit. In previous years, as you probably know, five celebrity panelists were asked to choose one book to champion over the course of the week-long debates. The book could be a novel, a collection of stories, or poetry (although only two books of poetry have ever vied for the title: George Elliott Clarke’s Whyla Falls in 2002 and Al Purdy’s Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets in 2006). And, significantly, the book could be from any time in this nation’s history. (Rockbound, which won the contest in 2005, was originally published in 1928.)

This year, the panelists are more restricted in their selections, in a number of important ways. On the CBC Books blog, Erin Balser lays out the new rules of the game:

So, this year, in honour of the many milestones Canada Reads and Canadian literature have celebrated in the past 10 years, we’re mixing it up. As Jian Ghomeshi announced on Q … instead of giving the panelists free reign to choose whatever books they like, we’re going to give them a few parameters: it has to have been published in the past 10 years, and it has to be selected from a list: the top 40 essential Canadian novels of the past decade.

Hmm, a list you ask? How will this list be populated? Who gets to determine which books are “essential?” This is where you come in! Throughout the month of October, we’ll be soliciting people’s choices for the “essential Canadian novel of the past decade.” Again, it has to be a Canadian novel published after January 1, 2000, in English or translated into English. All books are game, even if they were already on Canada Reads!

To be blunt: this is a monumentally stupid idea. Let’s enumerate the reasons why.

1. The 10-year time limit. By restricting the selection to the past 10 years, the producers of Canada Reads have artificially – and detrimentally – proscribed the field of books from which to choose their shortlist. The list of 40 books will perforce privilege books that loom large in people’s recent memories, but will eliminate anything that has been unfairly neglected in the past or has dropped out of the collective consciousness. The vast majority of Canadian writing – including all of CanLit’s foundational texts – is inadmissible for consideration. Confining the books to be nominated to the past decade is a clever marketing hook to tie the books into the program’s 10th anniversary, but it hamstrings the selection process in a way that is astounding in its shortsightedness. Canadian books don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a literary tradition that stretches back to Confederation and beyond. By ignoring this, Canada Reads is promoting a narrow and erroneous idea of what this nation’s literature is, and where it came from.

2. Only novels are eligible. I’ve argued long and hard in many different venues that short stories are the best things this country has produced in the field of literary arts, yet they are constantly (and inexplicably) neglected by the critical community, prize juries, and the reading public. As if to prove this thesis correct, Canada Reads has eliminated story collections from consideration in its selection criteria. (This announcement came on the same day that two story collections were shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. I’ll take “Defining Irony” for $2,000, Alex.) Even if one accepts the 10-year timeframe, think of the authors and books that are left off the potential list of contenders. Anything by Alice Munro. The short fiction of stalwart practitioners such as Bill Gaston, Mark Anthony Jarman, David Bezmogis, Mary Borsky, Caroline Adderson, Matthew Firth, Craig Davidson, Pasha Malla, Margaret Atwood, Nathan Sellyn, Sharon English, Carol Windley, Clark Blaise, Barry Callaghan, and Lisa Foad, all of whom produced superb story collections in the given time period. Interesting experiments in short genre fiction, such as the Zsuzsi Gartner–edited collection of dystopian sci-fi, Darwin’s Bastards or the anthology of urban crime fiction Toronto Noir are also out (this one may have been ineligible anyway, since it was published by an American house).

Moreover, poetry is ineligible. This is hardly surprising, since poetry almost never gets consideration in this country outside of awards specifically dedicated to the form, but so far as I’m concerned, any list of essential Canadian books from the last 10 years that doesn’t include Ken Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht, Karen Solie’s Pigeon, Jeramy Dodds’ Crabwise to the Hounds, or Adam Sol’s Jeremiah, Ohio is profoundly inadequate.

3. Previous Canada Reads contenders are eligible for consideration. In other words, the resulting short list of books could conceivably be comprised of five books devoted followers of Canada Reads have already read. And given the populist slant of the program and its selection criteria, it is to be assumed that books like Nikolski and Icefields won’t make the cut the second time around. Life of Pi and The Book of Negroes, on the other hand …

Last year, I complained that the program should be renamed Canada Rereads. It never occurred to me that this comment might be taken literally.

4. The public gets to vote on the longlist. This is the crux of the issue, and this marks the single biggest change from years past. The three previous issues are also subsumed in this one detail.

The problem here is twofold.

First, by allowing the general public to nominate titles, and by assigning one point for each nomination, the producers of Canada Reads have ensured a list that tilts toward mainstream, popular books. It also ensures that there will be no surprises on the list, because the public will vote for titles that are beloved to them. In other words, they’ll vote for titles they’re already familiar with, books that they’ve already read.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the list of books that have already received nominations. According to the CBC blog, the books that are being touted include such idiosyncratic esoterica as Life of Pi, The Way the Crow Flies, The Stone Carvers, Three Day Road, The Birth House, and The Year of the Flood. One intrepid soul did nominate Elle by Douglas Glover, but (along with a couple of other exceptions) that’s about as adventurous as the nominations to date have become. And given the fact that each title is awarded the same point value, it’s the ones with multiple nominations that will make the longlist. Anyone want to venture a guess as to which titles those will be?

The second problem with this format is that the panelists have to choose what book to defend from a preset list of books selected by others. Instead of being allowed to choose a book that they passionately believe in and debate its merits, they are forced to choose a book that someone else passionately believes in. One reason that previous years’ debates have been so interesting is that the panelists are really, truly invested in their chosen books. That investment comes from having to publicly champion a work of literature they feel is worthy of being read by the nation, a work of literature that is close to their hearts. When Rollie Pemberton championed Generation X last year, listeners could hear the energy in his voice as he talked about it and sense his distress when the rest of the panel ganged up on it. Now imagine Rollie Pemberton in effect being told, “You have to choose one of the following ten books.” Is there any way he could muster the same kind of passion?

In other words, the new format takes what was most interesting about Canada Reads and artificially curtails it. Which seems like a strange way to celebrate 10 years of success.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN CORRECTED: An earlier version of this post stated that Whyla Falls was the only work of poetry to be featured on Canada Reads. Thanks to Nathan Maharaj for the correction.


22 Responses to “Canada Reads loses the plot: UPDATED”
  1. Nic Boshart says:

    NO SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS!?!? I, much like yourself, have often touted the short-story as the only Canadian writing worth bragging about. Although you forgot to mention Andrew Hood. I was hoping for a little more behind-the-scenes nudging instead of a free-for-all crowd-sourced long list, but I have to hand it to the CBC, they are trying. They did listen to the masses complaining about the picks, and are attempting to hand a bit more control to the audience, which is great. It’s nice to see them wanting and getting involvement from a larger group of people. I’m skeptical too, but I think (am hoping) that they’ll use a little bit of back-room sneakiness to curate the forty books. Seriously, Life of Pi? I also saw someone nominate Lullabies for Little Criminals. Didn’t that win twice or something?
    That said, they are attempting to bring independent publishers to the fore with some of their contests, which is completely awesome.

  2. Kerry Clare says:

    I’m nominating Sean Dixon’s The Girls Who Saw Everything. And yes, the whole thing might be a disaster, but it could also be amazing. (Though I do despair of Canada Reads repeats: Mercy Among the Children again?? Noooo!!).

  3. Andrew S says:

    And here I thought it was just me.

    But … it’s kind of ironic to note that we’re criticizing Canada Reads for copying the format of Canada Also Reads: the vote-in list, the panelists having to choose from that list. The difference, of course, is that Canada Also Reads was at the Afterword, with a much smaller audience, and that it started with an indie sensibility. We can expect that Canada Reads’ list will look like a bestseller list.

  4. Very angered that I cannot recommend Henderson the Rain King for Canada Reads!

    I’m happy to cut Canada Reads some slack because they’re the CBC and they’ve got enough relevancy problems without me adding to them – and I agree with Kerry about the disaster potential so it should be interesting either way and at least they’re trying to engage the public.

    Also, I don’t really expect more from the Ceeb than what they’ve done here which I think is pretty good and if nothing else it’ll be an excellent test of Erin’s ability to handle caustic remarks from all corners of our fairest of lands.

    That said, Steven, two things spring to mind.

    a) what are the 5 best book contests in Canada and what makes them so good?

    b) when is the Quill going to redefine the book contest/award scenario with one of their own?

  5. Panic says:

    I’ll back you on that. I loved it.

  6. I’m trying to think how others might have run this thing: Clint Eastwood, former mayor of Carmel, is a libertarian who would say the people are best to decide for themselves. Obama would pick a independent panel of partisan experts and draw up legislation of what we should read based on their findings. Putin would put all the books in contention into the public domain and sell the rights to a few lucky oligarchs who would then get to pick the winner. Harper would get a whiff of the controversy and call the whole thing off until next year.


  7. God, I couldn’t agree more. About everything. I don’t want to read the five most popular Canadian books from the last ten years. Because, for starters, I’ve probably already read them. Most Canadians also seem to give CanLit a big miss, unless they are already award winners – which means the list will probably be exclusively Canada Reads/Giller/Governor General’s winning books. And lastly, I don’t really believe in the wisdom of the crowd. It’s pretty rare that the book “everyone is reading” is very good. This is likely to be as reliable as NOW Magazine’s Best Of lists, which regularly tries to pass of The Keg as the source of Toronto’s Best Steak.

  8. Nathan says:

    I am a little baffled by this post and the tone of the comments: if you all prefer to read challenging works of non-mainstream fiction, why are you bothering with Canada Reads in the first place? You all sound as though you are doing just fine sniffing out things to read without waiting for Ghomeshi et al to pronounce this year’s national book club winner.

    “I don’t really believe in the wisdom of the crowd.” Great, so why does it matter to you or others of your iconoclastic ilk what book Canada Reads picks? That would be a more relevant notion for a show entitled “You Read,” in which you pick a book you plan to read. Quietly. To yourself.

    Also, if the worst possible outcome of this is that an intelligent and well-written work of literary fiction such as Life of Pi gets promoted yet some more, then the state of literature in this country is actually just peachy. It’s not like the new rules will allow Mein Kampf to win.

  9. Douglas Glover: The Life and Times of Captain N.

    Best $2 I ever spent on a book. Let alone a book by a Canadian. But it’s ineligible.

    Also ineligible:
    16 Categories of Desire, also by Glover
    Kilter: 55 Fictions by John Gould (which I haven’t read in years but enjoyed at the time)
    Ken Babstock’s Mean (which I read over and over for a period of months many years ago)
    Some of Alice Munro’s best work
    John Steffler (That Night We Were Ravenous: best poem about a moose ever written in any language)
    Anne Carson
    Al Purdy


  10. Erin Balser says:

    I appreciate the faith, Sean. Really, I do.

    First all, thank you to everyone who has commented on this year’s format. I’m so amazed by the rich conversation this twist has created that, frankly, I think that alone has been worth the ride.

    Essentially, what this decision comes down to is this: Canada Reads is about five regular readers (who happen to be relatively well-known) picking a book they think Canada should read. That’s pretty much it. There’s no goal to bring awareness to under-appreciated or overlooked titles (although we love that when it happens). We’re not trying to teach Canadians or punish them or enlighten them. We want them to have fun with reading. The “novels only” approach was designed to keep everything clean and simple for the panelists and for the game. (Canada Reads, after all, is a game). And it’s not forever. Even Survivor had to mix it up sometimes.

    When the books are all from left field, we get socked and when the books are all former bestselling blockbusters we get socked. But that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? Because of Canada Reads’ flaws, we have Canada Also Reads, Canada Reads Independently, Atlantic Canada Reads and thousands of other spin-offs in libraries and book stores across the country. And that’s not even mentioning the millions of conversations people are having about books because Canada Reads pissed them off or made them jump for joy. And this much talking about books is fantastic.

    I personally think change is good, and we’ll just have to wait and see if it works. I have faith in the reading public that the list will be reflective of what Canada reads or wants to reads or what they want to see on Canada Reads. And if it’s not, well, Beattie, you’ll have something else to write about.

    So, thanks to everyone who has discussed, dissected and destroyed this year’s format. I’m loving every minute of it.

    And so is everyone else at the CBC. Really.

  11. Nathan:

    I have no especially interest in non-mainstream books, but I do want honest recommendations from literate people. Canada Reads is good for that in theory – appoint a panel of people who love books, ask them to bring their absolute favourite to the table (with the minor quibble that it must be Canadian), and have them debate about which of them is best. This produces great recommendations because the books are lasting rather than trendy – books which have genuinely stayed with someone rather than being just a decent thing they read this year. By appointing a panel of reasonably literate people you get, hopefully, books which are wonderful by default, and through debate they bring up things for us to watch for in our own reads.

    A “crowsourced” list with heavy constraints is more likely to be the average voice rather than the personal voice. The panelists pick from a list rather than support a book they are really attached to, so it’s not really a recommendation so much as a performance. And, as to the wisdom of crowds, I’d rather a recommendation from a well-spoken panelist than a faceless mob. Nothing averaged out has ever been better than something personal.

  12. I remember tuning in to Canada Reads the year someone was actually championing my favourite Canadian book, Beautiful Losers. I told my CanLit prof about it, excited to see it there, and he told me he had stopped listening to Canada Reads. I asked why, and he said “You’ll see.”

    Beautiful Losers was voted off the CR island on the first damn day. Which is bad enough, but the reasoning was even more abysmal: all of the participants said they loved the book, still thought it was excellent and had withstood the test of time, was powerful and readable and every Canadian OUGHT to read it… except…

    … that it was “too challenging for the average Canadian.”

    What. The. Eff?

    Needless to say, I took up my prof’s torch as well and haven’t bothered tuning in since. Canada Reads can soak its little ostrich head. But I’m curious about Canada Also Reads and such…

  13. Nawaz says:

    Getting booted first was a true sign of Beautiful Losers’ greatness. It brings to mind that the Globe and Mail once slagged it for having CanLit’s worst sex scene… completing missing its humour and intentional playfulness.

    Nothing bold or interesting will make this Canada Reads list.

  14. John Mutford says:

    I had more of an issue with how the top 10 will be created:

    The judges will each submit their two selections as Canada’s essential novels. They will submit a third runner-up selection in case any panelist’s choice(s) are already selected by other panelists. They will make these choices based on the following criteria:

    1) Public opinion: Does the public think this book is worth being named an essential pick?
    2) Critical reception: Do Canadian literary critics give the book a positive review?
    3) Commercial success: Did this book sell well enough to be deemed an essential pick?
    4) Personal opinion: Is this title an essential read for you?
    5) Canada Reads viability: Do you think this book can actually win?

    I voiced my concerns over #3 especially, and I was given the response, “We actually leave the sales figure projections for others to think of as our focus is on the discussion and radio program.” I think there’s a comma intended after “of” and it doesn’t ease my mind any. With these directions, wouldn’t a panelist think that high sales is mandated? And if it becomes that, isn’t the question not what every Canadian should read but what book we should applaud ourselves for already having read? I have nominated a book, Jeff Lemire’s Essex Country, as I think Canada Reads has done good things in the past, but knowing how the system is working this year, don’t think it’s likely to make it into the debate. It certainly hasn’t sold as many as Life as Pi.

    As for some of the other changes, I have to agree with you on the 10 years thing. It’s a shame that a Rockbound can’t compete again.

    As for the poetry and short stories thing, it doesn’t bother me as much. They’ve competed a few times before and they always get knocked out because panelists find them too hard to compare to novels. It’s most likely the same would happen again. They say on their site that should funding come through, they’d consider a Canada Reads Poetry or Canada Reads Short Stories edition. But instead of holding our breath for that one, I think this is where those interested in creating their own spin-offs should come in. Last year’s spin-offs got a bit of attraction at least. Remember, people have argued for years that nonfiction should be allowed to compete and yet the show’s popularity hasn’t suffered. Still it’s disappointing that the producers have gone the exclusive route rather than becoming more inclusive.

    Finally, with the past contenders being allowed in, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, some past favourites of mine have been eliminated in what I felt were substandard defenses. It would be nice for them to have another shot, hopefully with someone more capable. On the other hand, past winners are a whole other issue. They won. Would you induct someone into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame twice?

  15. Nathan says:

    Charlotte: I mostly agree with the idea that some of the changes made this year may make for a less interesting series. And I agree that the notion of a panel of people having to argue for their own choices is what makes CR special – I have argued (somewhere, maybe on my blog, though I can’t find it), that it’s always a plus to hear WHY people like or dislike a particular book, rather than have such a like/dislike merely taken for granted (as with people, including some misguided reviewers, who think reviewers should only review books/authors they already like), or kept hidden (as with most prize juries).

    My quibble was with the tone of Steven’s post, and with many of the comments, which took CR to task for being insufficiently literary. As Erin points out, it’s a game – a game show that involves breezy book chat. If that’s your thing, then it’s a bonanza, and have fun. If it’s not, and you’d rather spend your time reading and reading about more lit’rary fare, then don’t listen/follow Canada Reads.

    I was asked, many years ago, by one of the early CR panelists (a friend), for suggestions as to what books would be good to champion. I suggested Solomon Gursky was Here and Life of Pi – obviously not because they were books I felt were obscure or challenging, but because they were both smart, well-written books that would appeal to people who didn’t necessarily spend all of their time reading literachur, which I took to be the whole point of the show.

  16. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Point taken, Nathan, but even for “people who [don’t] necessarily spend all of their time reading literachur,” it’s the surprise inclusions that make the contest fun. That’s why everybody – literary critics and the general public alike – seemed so disappointed with last year’s list. It was chock full of stuff they’d already read, in some cases several times over. The great thing about Canada Reads is that it introduces people to books – even populist-oriented books – like Fruit, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, Brown Girl in the Ring, etc., they might not otherwise have encountered. I’m not suggesting that all the books need to be by some unknown experimental author, but the system the CBC has set up this time around seems tailor-made to produce a list of books that are already bestsellers or, at worst, have already had their day in the sun on Canada Reads.

  17. Nathan says:

    As I said, I agree with the idea that the changes may make for a less interesting show, and less interesting discussions. I am all for the idea of quirkier books getting some time in the sun. (And former winners should be disqualified, for any number of reasons.)

    All I’m disputing is the idea that CR has some kind of obligation to be inclusive or even brave. (From the point of view of a reader who is very jealous of his own literary loves, I am happy to be spared the sound of Marc Garneau and Nelly Furtado and some guy from Little House on the Prairie, etc, discussing the merits of books I actually care about. Well, maybe Garneau, but only because he’s been in space.)

    It’s this kind of thing I don’t get:

    “Canadian books don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a literary tradition that stretches back to Confederation and beyond. By ignoring this, Canada Reads is promoting a narrow and erroneous idea of what this nation’s literature is, and where it came from.”

    The obvious reply, again, being that it’s a book club show, not a undergraduate course in CanLit.

  18. Kerry Clare says:

    Oh, please bring on Marc Garneau! Not only has he been in space, but in 1990, he kindly recorded onto a cassette the answers to a list of questions I’d sent him about his space adventures, thereby winning me a prize at the science fair! What a guy!

  19. John Mutford says:

    Nathan: As I’m one of the only one that mentioned the word “inclusive,” I feel some of your last comments were directed to me. I didn’t say they had any “obligation” to be inclusive, only that it’s disappointing they’ve chose to be more exclusive.

  20. Finn Harvor says:

    “… a literary tradition that stretches back to Confederation and beyond.”


  21. Nathan says:

    The Relits are limited to small press titles. Provincial book awards are limited to authors who live in those provinces. City of Toronto Book Awards are limited to books that have something to do with Toronto. The Canadian Jewish Book Award has its limits right in the name, as does the Amazon first novel award. Most book prizes are limited to titles published within the last 12 months. There are all kinds of book prizes. All of them have limits of some kind. There is no “any book, any time” award.

    If anything, CR has the most relaxed eligibility rules of all of them, even with the new limits.

    So the criticisms can only be about what these new rules (might) mean for the show itself, and its entertainment value, not about how it has abrogated its responsibilities to Canadian Literature.

    If you think the show will be less interesting as a show, fair enough, and I see the point (though I’d still rather listen to a show about volcanoes or space travel than one in which near-celebs chat about novels).

    If you think it means CanLit has been dishonoured, then CanLit is a mighty sensitive creature.

  22. I agree with your points here.

    I further add that what I find especially difficult for me to watch is that this new format is pitting authors against authors (not, I might add, book against book — it’s a nuance that’s important to point out).

    Erin Balsor (producer at CBC) points out the connection to “Survivor” here; I take that further and suggest that it’s a Can-lit “Hunger Games”. Balsor’s comment: “So, thanks to everyone who has discussed, dissected and destroyed this year’s format. I’m loving every minute of it. And so is everyone else at the CBC. Really.” seems to me to be just a little bit dismissive. It makes me think of her and her cohorts rubbing their hands together as they snicker over the hoops they’re causing authors to jump through. This isn’t – not any more — about readers. It’s about which author sings loud enough for their supper.

    Having already conceived of and created the supper, it seems really unfair to make them beg for it too.