Canada Reads loses the plot: UPDATED
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.