Canada Reads announces its 2010 contenders

December 1, 2009 by · 11 Comments 

The contenders for the 2010 edition of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads – the annual literary elimination contest now entering its ninth year – were revealed in Toronto today. The list of panelists is fairly interesting (it includes an Olympian, a hip-hop artist, and the executive director of War Child Canada) and the books they’re defending are … well, let’s just say they’re largely known quantities, including one Giller nominee, one Oprah pick (!), and one book with a title so ubiquitous it has worked its way into the cultural lexicon (and even has an entry in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary).

The five books in contention are:

  • Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, defended by Perdita Felicien
  • Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland, defended by Roland Pemberton aka Cadence Weapon
  • Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott, defended by Simi Sara
  • The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy, defended by Samantha Nutt
  • Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, trans. by Lazer Lederhendler, defended by Michel Vézina

Now, given that the annual CBC contest is meant to settle on one book that the panel would like the whole country to read, if you’re like me, the first question you’re prone to ask yourself is this: Are there any committed readers in Canada who haven’t already read Fall on Your Knees or Generation X? I’d wager even most casual readers in this country will have at least a passing familiarity with these two titles. And many readers have been exposed to Marina Endicott’s novel as a result of it being shortlisted for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. When The Book of Negroes won the contest last year, my feeling was they should have changed the name to Canada Rereads, given the number of people who had already consumed Lawrence Hill’s novel prior to its appearance on the CBC broadcast. This year, three fifths of the entire list could reasonably fall into that category.

It’s not that the titles are unworthy, but they are already on the nation’s radar, so to speak, which represents something of a missed opportunity for bringing attention to titles that might otherwise have gone overlooked. There is no Fruit on this year’s list, no Icefields – lesser-known books from smaller publishers that broke out of obscurity as a result of their appearance on the CBC broadcast.

Moreover – with one notable exception – they all fall within what Victoria Glendinning famously referred to as the “muddy middle range” of CanLit. The exception, of course, is Nikolski, a strange, idiosyncratic novel out of Quebec, which I thought was the best unheralded book of 2008. The fact that it’s about to gain a much larger English-language audience is heartening; the fact that it is the likeliest to be eliminated early in the competition is a foregone conclusion.

But the majority of the novels on this year’s list have an undeniable sameness about them. Indeed, three of them are family dramas: one a multigenerational saga with Gothic overtones (Fall on Your Knees), one a Carol Shields-like domestic narrative (Good to a Fault), and one a novel about the immigrant experience in Canada (The Jade Peony). That leaves only Generation X, which has now become so ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist it has lost whatever edge it might once have had, and Nikolski, the only authentic outsider on the list.

Add to this the fact that the oldest of the five titles – Generation X – was published in 1991; there is no Rockbound or Next Episode (both of which went on to win in their respective years) to be discovered by a new generation of readers. That may have something to do with this year’s panelists, who skew younger than in previous years, but it results in a certain narrowness of focus in the current roster of books.

At the announcement ceremony today, much was made of the so-called “Canada Reads effect,” the boost that being on the CBC program gives to a particular title. In the wake of last year’s victory, The Book of Negroes – which Avi Lewis, who was championing it, admitted had already been read by tens of thousands of people – went on to become an even bigger bestseller, scored a movie deal (a movie the CBC will be co-producing, not incidentally), and has just been released in a deluxe, illustrated edition. No doubt the Canada Reads effect exists. One can hope that this year, it will prompt readers to rediscover Endicott’s first novel, Open Arms, or to dip into some of Coupland’s lesser known (but better) mid-career novels such as Miss Wyoming or Hey, Nostradamus!

In the meantime, readers can get down to reading (or rereading, as the case may be) the five books that will feature in the debates on CBC Radio One during the week of March 8–12, 2010.


11 Responses to “Canada Reads announces its 2010 contenders”
  1. Miss Wyoming! Love that book.

    Excellent post, Steve.

  2. patricia says:

    Yeah, overall, I thought this year’s list was a major disappointment. Was especially surprised to see Fall on Your Knees and Generation X. Canada Rereads is right. And I would still love to have one ‘ordinary Canadian reader’ on their list – just a regular Canadian non-celebrity whose only claim to fame would be an unbridled passion for good books.

  3. Kerry Clare says:

    Will my committed reader label be revoked if I admit to never having read Fall On Your Knees? I tried, and I tried, and then I gave up, and have been feeling okay about it since.

    Must also say that while Good to a Fault was perhaps “Carol Shields-like” (or “Carol Shields’-like?), it was missing everything that made Shields’ novels great. In fact, it was precisely the kind of novel you get when you try to write a “Carol Shields-like” novel.

    Good for Nikolski, though.

  4. Mark Sampson says:

    Once again, I find myself wishing not so much that I could choose the books for Canada Reads, but rather that I could choose the panelists. Ohhhh, if I could choose the panelists…..

  5. Andrew S says:

    So what is the selection process, precisely? Do they select panelists, and end up stuck with their picks, or do they select panelists based on their picks? Or do they select the picks and then find the panelists willing to go to bat for them?

    Seems to me that the process is broken.

    I’m gravely concerned that Bertelsmann AG will continue to be underrepresented.

  6. Finn Harvor says:

    ‘Moreover – with one notable exception – they all fall within what Victoria Glendinning famously referred to as the “muddy middle range” of CanLit. ‘

    Is this characterization fair to Gen X? Its title hardly made its way into the zeitgeist/dictionaries by simply being a catchy phrase; I remember how witty and, ah, novel it seemed when it came out. Incidentally, if my memory is correct, it was originally published by an American house (Crown, I think) … circumstantial-yet-further evidence that Cdn houses might expand somewhat further their ideas of what the novel can be.

  7. Sarah Neville says:

    Did anyone else think that Perdita Felicien’s _Fall on Your Knees_ was perhaps the best example of humorous self-deprecation Canada’s seen since Atwood strapped on goalie pads for the Rick Mercer Report?

  8. Gregory Longaphie says:

    Excellent post! Canada Re-Reads is a perfect moniker for this disappointing list. Perhaps there should be a version of Canada Reads that follows Kenneth J. Harvey’s example when he created his Re-Lit Awards for literature.
    I would agree that ‘Nikolski’ is the type of book that reflects the original spirit of Canada Reads- a book that the panelist is passionate about and that has been overlooked; essentially, the type of book that the panelist would thrust upon you if you were to ask him or her for a good book to read. Books that have been Oprahed (‘Fall on Your Knees’) do not need to be championed on Canada Reads. I want to be surprised by a selection such as ‘Fruit’ by Brian Francis or reminded of a novel that I’ve read and forgotten about but had the immediate ‘a-ha’ moment of ‘ what a great choice!’- Icefields by Thomas Wharton.

  9. Did anyone else catch JG’s blunder when he asked Michel Vezina if he felt he had an advantage being “the only writer” in the contest–just moments after Rollie Pemberton said that being on CR was another “legitimization” for his kind of writing? Priceless

  10. Nic Boshart says:

    I’m more excited by the judges than the books this year. Even Nikolski was a much lauded book in Quebec and France.

    I think it’s great to see Rollie Pemberton get some recognition, and with him hip-hop, as a member of the literary community nationally.

  11. Angela@cbc says:

    Lol; speculation as to how the books were chosen aside, I think the selection is amazing this year… but then I’m biased. It’s hard to find 5 books that EVERY Canadian believes even belongs on a list together! But I am curious, what books WOULD you pick if you could, and Mark, you’ve made me super-curious… just which Panelists have got you excited?

    In the meantime, I’m looking for people to comment on my first blog question about The Jade Peony, if you would like to weigh in!