Why I won’t listen to Canada Reads 2011

October 29, 2010 by · 27 Comments 

Thirty seconds.

That’s the approximate amount of time it took after yesterday’s announcement of the 40 titles in contention to appear on the 2011 edition of the CBC’s Canada Reads program for Twitter to explode with tweets from authors, publishers, friends, and fans, all of them advocating for one title or another. Throughout the day, my various e-mail accounts were inundated with pleas to vote for specific books. Normally sensible people were reduced to shouting, slavering promotion machines, backs were scratched, logs were rolled, and asses were kissed.

Welcome to the Canada Reads Effect, 2011 style.

On the off chance that you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, allow me to explain the cause of all this commotion. This year, Canada Reads decided to change the format for deciding which books appear on its program. Instead of allowing the five panelists to choose their own books, the producers decided to canvass the public for nominations. The books had to be Canadian novels published after January 1, 2001. Librarians, booksellers, and bloggers (including yr. humble correspondent) also submitted choices for what they felt to be “essential” books of the decade. From these submissions, the idea was to come up with a 40-title longlist from which the panelists would choose one book each to defend on air.

So far, so stupid.

As you may remember, I had some difficulty with this new format. Chiefly, I was perturbed by the notion that the CBC would take the one thing that made Canada Reads so interesting – the practice of having five panelists each choose a Canadian book they felt personally invested in to defend during the debates – and artificially curtail it.

Then on October 26, associate producer Erin Balser posted a new amendment to the rules for this year’s competition. To wit:

We want YOU to choose the Canada Reads Top 10 list. That’s right, instead of the previously announced panelist-chosen Top 10, the list will be yours to decide. Canadians across the country (and around the world) can have their say in what novels belong in the Top 10 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade. The panelists will pick from that very list.

In other words, they’ve taken one of the biggest problems with this year’s format and exacerbated it. Now, instead of choosing from a relatively robust slate of 40 books, the five panelists will be forced to choose from a meagre 10 titles. Not only will panelists face the very real potential of finding not a single book among the 10 that tickles their fancy, but assuming they don’t all choose different titles the first time around, some panelists will be forced to defend their second, third, or even fourth choice. Hopefully, they’re all really good actors, because it’s going to be very difficult to fake that kind of sincerity.

For listeners, there is the possibility of having to suffer through a week of discussions around five books that have already been Canada Reads contenders. A Complicated Kindness, Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Book of Negroes, Oryx and Crake, Life of Pi, and Three Day Road, all of which have made prior appearances on the show, are included on the longlist. Should the public in its infinite wisdom decide that these six books all constitute “essential” titles from the last ten years, that won’t leave the panelists much else to choose from. (It’s also interesting to note that the most exciting Canada Reads winner from the eligible period, Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski, didn’t make the longlist. It was the only eligible winner from previous years to get snubbed.)

But all of this pales in comparison to the one unintended consequence of this year’s revised format: the transformation of authors and publishers into carnival barkers and circus performers all clamouring for the public’s admiration in the form of a vote for their book. This is one aspect of the new rules that I didn’t see coming, although I should have (it happened on a more limited scale around last year’s Canada Also Reads). The Canada Reads Effect is real: the upswing in sales and attention an author receives as a result of being on the show is something that writers who toil in obscurity hoping for a big break would be foolish not to covet. But the unfortunate result is the kind of undignified, depressing displays of self-promotion and glad-handling we’ve witnessed over the last few weeks. Now that the public is in charge of selecting the shortlist of books, this sad spectacle is only going to get worse.

The CBC has turned Canadian authors into dancing monkeys, tapping along to the tune of Mr. Ghomeshi’s hurdy-gurdy. It’s unrefined, depressing, and base. And it’s the best reason why I’ll likely be tuning out of the 2011 program from here on in.


27 Responses to “Why I won’t listen to Canada Reads 2011”
  1. Alex says:

    I don’t think the new format was a good idea, for the reasons you mention: No personal investment in the titles by the panelists and the danger of having a slate of retreads/the usual suspects. But really: Publishers behaving like carnival barkers and circus performers trying to drum up interest in their books? I thought that was their job! No point blaming them for it.

  2. When I see you next week, and I kiss you on the mouth? This is why. Thought you should know.

  3. If you think the panelists actually chose the books in previous years, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. CBC chose them. Always have.

    And oh, the fuss about self-promotion. If ti is beneath you, your books are doomed to oblivion.

    I think anything that gets people talking about books, short of a criminal act, is absolutely terrific.

  4. George says:

    During my tour last week an author pointed out something that I thought was interesting: “Why?” asked said author. “Do people think it’s okay to send me emails begging me to vote for their book when they’re well aware I also have a book out? Presumably they’ll be voting for their own book, so why shouldn’t I?” Is it desperation or solipsism?

    Besides the very idea that Canada can only be interested in reading novels, I have long predicted this would turn into a social networking beg-fest, with the most friends winning. I love the authors involved, the CBC people, and even Jian, but this is really just degrading to those forced to campaign for a spot in the public eye. Everyone might be watching Shamu, who’s well-fed and famous, but she still has to dance for her fish. (It reminds me of the IFOA people making poets duke it out for a reading spot in an event that started 30+ years ago as a poetry festival.)

    That’s my crank for the day.

  5. Well put. I wasn’t exactly surprised at the number of writers in social media feeds yesterday who expressed frustration with it all, but more than a few directed their frustration at writers who are “dancing” along. It wasn’t pretty.

  6. Edward says:

    This new format will be as effective as our local weekly newspapers’ various “best of the city” sort of awards, in which readers are impelled to vote via write-in suggestions for their favourite pizza shop / bank teller / bookstore / etc. etc. The result is that a lot of people vote for the business they use most often, or for the only one they’ve heard of through advertising. Hardly a critically-achieved evaluation.

    The Canada Reads process is probably a little better than that, but not better enough. The “best” books (a simplistic concept to start with) should not necessarily be the most popular, or the best known, or those with the best marketing campaigns. What’s wrong with a diverse assessment of expert opinions anyway? In the long term, this trend toward total public involvement in everything (except, of course, the electing of governments) is likely only to reinforce social and cultural mediocrity.

  7. A well-stated argument, though I’m not entirely sure I agree on all points. I will admit to sending out a “please support us” email on behalf of our author and our press, but I’m inclined to disagree with the assumption that this revision and the transformation of authors and publishers into shills for their own work will have any significant impact on the voting or the outcome of the event. For the most part, we’re pandering to the same circles. It’s a show, but not a terribly effective one with that in mind. I’m curious to see where the public (those not associated with specific publishing circles) will land, and I too dread the possibility of having to retread some of the same book discussions all over again, but I respect the intent (if not the execution) of this year’s milestone Canada Reads. It might fail, it might disappoint, but at least it’s an attempt to vary up the formula.

    Of course, this relaxed viewpoint might simply be a product of how severely disappointed I was with last year’s selection of titles. I see more hope in the top 40 than I did in those five. Time will tell if I’ll be eating my words…

  8. Nathan says:

    Steven, given that, even after expressing disdain for the new rules, you participated in the thing by nominating a particular novel (which resulted in its own flurry of “vote for me” messages), I don’t know if you can now rage quite as effectively against the machine. I don’t condemn you for participating – it’s good promotion (horrors!) for your site, after all, but coming down on the whole thing like Moses from the mountain, shocked and appalled at the idea that authors and publishers might leap at a rare opportunity for effective self-promotion, seems a little much. If you hate the thing this much, you shouldn’t have participated. If you don’t, your rhetoric is way over the top. You are writing about people who sent around a few emails or put stuff on their facebook pages as if they were crazed tweakers.

    I said it before, I’ll say it again – and likely not for the last time – it’s a SHOW. That’s all. It’s not an arbiter of literary taste, it’s an entertainment.

    I agree that much of the student council election-level self-promo has been annoying, but it’s not like it’s never happened before, or is all that surprising, or even unavoidable.

    Don’t listen. Or listen. It really doesn’t matter that much in the end.

  9. In sports they call this a ‘re-building year’ – a year of tinkering and experimenting with the gears to see whether they can produce something newer and better than they had.

    And Nathan makes an excellent point: It’s a SHOW. That’s an excellent distillation.

    That said, the book that I recommended – Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – is a book that I believe more Canadians should read period. Not because he’s a stylist or terribly ‘literary’ or any of that shit but because the ideas in that book deserve to be a part of the discussion that we’re having about books and technology and a bunch of other things. Just my opinion. Gibson doesn’t need the money or the flurry of tweets but I think that PR would be an interesting counter-point to the literary books that our panelists will discuss.

    I think that maybe we should be asking for a more challenging selection of books to be discussed – more robust if you will.

  10. sallyspar says:

    I agree with Nathan, that Canada Reads is after all a SHOW, entertainment, and if this new stunt allows more opportunities for publicity, or puts reading into the public eye, then all the better for it! We don’t get enough entertainment shows that actually deal with books. Also, the “undignified, depressing displays of self-promotion” yesterday can be called by another name: marketing. This is something we see on Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis, with or without Canada Reads.

    My opinion is that this year, by “changing things up,” CBC is trying to promote Canada Reads a little more actively… we who run in the book circles are very familiar with the award and the way things ‘usually’ work, but this year, throwing the vote out to the general public may get the attention of more people. I see it as an attempt at that, anyway. And the controversy over the nominations, changing the rules as things go along, even the site crashing for an hour or so when certain books went “missing” from the list, all of it adds to the buzz. They have found a pretty effective marketing scheme.

    I don’t know how many people will be voting on these books, but if the top ten are picked out of forty, by an entire nation (okay, maybe I’m being a little unrealistic there), then surely they can find ONE celebrity for each book who genuinely liked it.

  11. Jake Mooney says:

    It’s morphed, all of a sudden, into the exact opposite of itself. Instead of a private fandom pushed into the public (radio sphere), it’s a public fandom, the fandom of twitter feeds and social cliques, running the private experience of reading. And it’s made Twitter completely fucking unusable.

    And how is it “getting people talking about reading”, exactly? Unless, by people, you mean any plural amount of persons. Because there’s only two kinds of books on that shortlist: 1. Books the country is already familiar with and 2. Books by people with hyperfast texting thumbs/well-worn retweeting buttons.

    Fuck the whole thing. If anything, Steven, you’ve undersold the argument.

  12. Nathan says:

    So don’t listen, Jake. As far as I can tell, the show wasn’t ever really aimed at the likes of you/me/Steven, anyway. It was never “private fandom” in the public sphere. It was always public fandom – celebrity fandom, which often meant politically or culturally appropriate fandom.

    Canada Reads is/was a game, a show, a game show, one with a inescapably wrong-headed assumption at its heart: that one book could actually fit all. The point was never the books themselves, but the broadcast conversation, which lived or died on the charisma of the guests, not the integrity of the book selection process.

    My god, we are a precious bunch: ready, at the implementation of some new showbiz rules and the sight of a few annoying tweats, to hurl thunderbolts down from Olympus. If this is what it takes to enrage us, then we deserve to be ignored.

  13. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Nathan: I grant you that it’s a SHOW, but it’s a highly influential SHOW that is helping to set the terms of reference for a discussion of books in this country. Book review sections are shriveling and dying on the vine and what is replacing them? The false democracy of the Internet as manifested by this year’s Canada Reads selection process. It’s the not-so-thin edge of the wedge, which is more significant than a few annoying tweets.

  14. No Statler and Waldorf this year?

  15. Nathan says:

    Steven, I think the influence of Canada Reads extends only so far as to make the winning book a bestseller for a while. Other than that, it has no influence on how books get talked about, written, or published.

    As with Stephen Henighan’s long-ago comment that the Gillers are killing CanLit, so with your down-from-the-mountain thundering: if all it takes to kill Canadian writing is a whole lot of new exposure and money, then it doesn’t deserve to live.

    And really, there are so many thin-edged wedges around when it comes to “what will finally kill books forever”, I’m starting to think it’s the fat ends we should be worrying about.

  16. Panic says:

    “My god, we are a precious bunch”
    Little bit! I feel like the thing that bugs Beattie and others about Canada Reads, is its populism. The unwashed masses have a vote in how people talk about books? Disgusting!
    I agree that book reviewing is dying, and that we need more, so much more of it. (I love reading book reviews for their own sake.) I don’t particularly enjoy the Canada Reads program, as entertainment. But they’re not really related, and I don’t see why the two shouldn’t co-exist. Oprah’s Book Club didn’t destroy the New York Times Book Review section.

  17. nrmaharaj says:

    A key element of the success of CanadaReads past was the looming possibility of an underdog book making it through, which occasionally actually happened.

    Does anyone expect a Rockbound or Next Episode to emerge from CanadaReads 2011? Do we expect a Sarah Blinks or Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets to even make it to the table this year?

    No, we don’t.

    I think Steven makes it pretty clear that he understands CanadaReads to be “a show”; the core of his argument seems to me to be that the problem with this year’s scheme is that it radically diminishes the likelihood of surprise and with it the show’s value as a piece of entertainment.

  18. John Mutford says:

    Do you think they have their …ahem… celebrity panelists already lined up? And if so, I wonder how they’re feeling about all this? (Assuming that Denise’s conspiracy theory above isn’t correct). Maybe they’ve found the professional celebrity-type, the one that doesn’t give a shit what she’s hawking as long as she’s on the air. Too bad Paris Hilton isn’t Canadian and could read, she’d be all over this.

  19. “The CBC has turned Canadian authors into dancing monkeys, tapping along to the tune of Mr. Ghomeshi’s hurdy-gurdy. It’s unrefined, depressing, and base.” Well put.

  20. saleema says:

    Well said, Steven. Regardless of how the books may or may not have been chosen before, it’s no doubt depressing and exhausting for the writers involved to have to endlessly flog their books through this whittling process, and it’s going to be boring as hell if the Top Ten turns out to be the same books we’ve seen before. The show really is about the underdog books and the panelists’ passion for the titles.

  21. LH says:

    Nathan: I grant you that it’s a SHOW, but it’s a highly influential SHOW that is helping to set the terms of reference for a discussion of books in this country…

    Yup, and it stopped being a leader long ago.

  22. Nathan says:


    Your first point, which Steven also made earlier, is completely false: Canada Reads influences the sales figures of a few books. That’s it. Where is the evidence that it is setting the terms or reference for book discussions? How would that even work? Does it mean we don’t talk about books without designating one person the Ghomeshi in the group?

    There are a few book/culture shows on CBC Radio that have had a lot more impact on how books get talked about than Canada Reads. The one thing I appreciate about Canada Reads – the ONLY thing – is that the discussions manage to get beyond the smug, sotte voce treatment of books that happens elsewhere in the CBCverse. That has nothing to do with the books and how they were selected – I couldn’t give two shits about that, being perfectly able to make my own reading choices – but everything to do with the panelists and the format. Inevitably, if you have open discussions among people who don’t self-identify as bookish-types, the conversations will be lively. That’s why they make sure the panels do not consist of a bunch of wall flowers and wilting lillies like us actual book people.

    As for whether or not it is a “leader” – what does that mean? Who wants a “leader”? What is a leader in the context of book-themed radio? I’m okay with syndico-anarchism when it comes to BookLand’s ruling structure.

    (And wait: if it’s not a leader, how is it seeing the terms of reference?)

    Honestly, if changing the book-selection process of a radio show is enough to raise your collective blood pressure, how do you all react to actual cultural outrages? If you feel your hunger for out-of-the-mainstream books is not being served by Canada Reads, then I would suggest you are looking in the wrong place entirely.

  23. Nathan says:

    “SETTING the terms of reference…”


  24. Steven W. Beattie says:

    “That’s why they make sure the panels do not consist of a bunch of wall flowers and wilting lilies like us actual book people.”

    Nathan: You’re the dictionary definition of a “wilting lily.”

  25. Nathan says:

    I consider myself more of a lilting willy.


  26. LH says:

    I was actually speaking more broadly of the CBC. It seems to me we have few sources in this country willing to take risks with book coverage. If the CBC can’t even do that I don’t know what to say…

    And yes, I do expect to be able to look to a nationally funded organization, even if it is a big and complex as the CBC to open up our country’s vast array of literature to readers. In other words, to lead.

  27. Steve Zipp says:

    Here’s a new idea. Let’s pair authors with dancers or skaters — or even better, wrestlers — and let em go at it.