Some thoughts on prestige, public opinion, and the Giller prize

August 4, 2011 by · 12 Comments 

Anyone who doubts the pernicious cultural impact of American Idol need look no farther than the CBC’s books coverage. Simon Fuller’s venture into prime-time karaoke was in effect nothing more than an update of the cheesy 1980s’ TV talent show Star Search, hosted by Ed McMahon, which pit pairs of wannabe performers against one another. Contestants faced off in a series of categories – male vocalist, female vocalist, dance, comedy, spokesmodel (!) – following which a panel of judges would score them using a rating system of one to four stars. The contestant with the highest average score won. Fuller’s big innovation with Pop Idol in Britain – and its more pervasive American counterpart – was to allow the general public to vote on the winner. (In the Star Search model, the studio audience was allowed to vote only in the event of a tie.) The audience participation aspect of American Idol, which permits audience members lounging on their sofas to directly influence the outcome, is as important as the narcissistic, “everybody is entitled to be a star” mentality the show promotes.

But what is significant about both Star Search and American Idol is that in neither case is the audience allowed to participate in the audition process. In other words, the contestants who land on the shows have already been vetted by professional judges, who can be assumed to hold them to a certain standard in their fields. (Whatever that standard may be based on: more about this in a moment.)

Flash forward to 2010, and the 10th anniversary of the literary elimination contest known as Canada Reads. To mark the anniversary, the CBC, which broadcasts the program each spring on Radio 1, decided to alter its usual format by allowing members of the general public to nominate one Canadian novel published after January 1, 2001. This novel would represent what the person nominating it considered to be an “essential” work of Canadian fiction published during the period of eligibility. The number of votes for each book were tallied, and the most popular 40 titles were fashioned into a longlist, from which the public was again invited to vote for their favourite book, this time for the purpose of culling the 40 titles to a shortlist of 10, from which the five Canada Reads celebrity panelists would chose one book to defend on air.

Leaving aside the rather nebulous definition of the word “essential” (the eventual winner, Terry Fallis’s comic novel The Best Laid Plans, was deemed more “essential” to CanLit than such novels as De Niro’s Game, Oryx & Crake, Three Day Road, Life of Pi, The Book of Negroes, JPod, Good to a Fault, and A Complicated Kindness), what Canada Reads asserted was the primacy of popular opinion, where anyone with access to a computer could feel that they were influencing the outcome of the contest. (Sometimes in a manner that was less than fair: although there was an official limit of one vote per person, I heard many accounts of people voting several times from different computers.)

Now, let’s consider the Scotiabank Giller Prize, this country’s most lucrative prize for literary fiction, which for the first time in five years has switched broadcast partners from CTV to the CBC. Along with their duties as the official broadcaster for the award ceremony itself, the Ceeb has promised that it will “be celebrating some of the best Canadian fiction of 2010 and 2011 with some great contests with fantastic prizes.” The first of these “great contests” is the so-called “Reader’s Choice Contest,” which allows members of the public to vote for the book they think deserves to be nominated for this year’s Giller. The public can consult a list of eligible books, available on the Giller website, and choose one they think should be included on the longlist for this year’s prize. (The list of eligible books is more inclusive than what publishers officially submit for consideration; publishers are restricted to three titles apiece, unless an author has previously won a Giller or a Governor General’s Literary Award, in which case they are automatically considered for this year’s prize.)

Here’s the relevant rubric from the CBC Books website:

This year you can make a difference by nominating a book for the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Explore this year’s eligible books and let us know which one you believe deserves to be considered for the $50,000 award.

CBC Books will tally your nominations. The book that garners the most nominations will be added to the official longlist, which will be announced on September 6, 2011. Submit your selection by filling out the CBC Books nomination form by midnight ET on August 28.

Here we have the same American Idol–style participatory mentality that held sway over last year’s Canada Reads proceedings infecting what is putatively this country’s most prestigious award for fiction. The difference is, whereas Canada Reads is a game, a goof, a self-conscious entertainment, the Giller is a major cultural force in this country. According to the Giller website’s homepage, the prize “awards $50,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English and $5,000 to each of the finalists.” Since its inception in 1994, the Giller prize has positioned itself as the premiere arbiter of quality literary fiction in Canada. It is our Booker, our Pulitzer, our Goncourt. The website specifies that it bestows its honour on the “best” work of fiction published in this country, not the most popular.

Of course, the “best” work of fiction in any given year is a chimera: determinations of literary worth are so subjective that a final verdict is ultimately down to the sensibilities of the three people who make up the jury in each prize period. One such jury determined that Vincent Lam’s story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures was superior to both the aforementioned Rawi Hage novel De Niro’s Game and Carol Windley’s story collection Home Schooling. Last year, the jury decided that Johanna Skibsrud’s flawed first novel, The Sentimentalists, was a better choice than Alexander MacLeod’s brilliant debut collection, Light Lifting. These are matters of taste that can be argued from here until doomsday.

What is inarguable is that in each case, the decision as to a title’s relative worth has been made by a dedicated cadre of three people who have been chosen for their expertise in exercising critical judgment. The jury members have been charged with a task: surveying a field of literary work and determining, to the best of their abilities, which book they consider to be the strongest. It’s a flawed system, to be sure, but it’s the best we’ve got.

Allowing the general public, out of a sense of misplaced populism, to vote a book onto the longlist devalues the work that the jury does in sifting through the submitted books and coming up with a number of choices for books they feel deserve to be elevated above the rest. Should the public choose a book that the jury has already determined will make the longlist, the process is redundant. Should the public choose a different book from those the jury has determined are worthy of longlisting, there is little likelihood that title will make it to the shortlist. (It will, however, be able to claim the status of “Giller nominated” novel or story collection.) The only event in which the public could have a tangible effect on the jury’s mindset would be if they chose a book that the jury had not yet considered (because it was eligible, but not officially submitted by a publisher) and that they subsequently felt to be worthy of distinction. But the likelihood of this happening is remote, to say the least.

In any event, the public’s nominations are tainted from the outset, because members of the general public will not have read the entire slate of eligible books, which means they are unable to make an informed determination – even on a subjective level – as to which is best among them. Indeed, the general public can’t have read many of the eligible books, since a good number of them aren’t available for sale until after the August 28 closing date for the CBC’s contest. What this means is that many people will be voting for books on the basis of an affection for their authors’ previous works, which does little to advance the perception that the Giller prize is a measure of the best fiction produced in a given year. Anyone who doubts the validity of this need only take a jog over to the CBC website, where there are already numerous people advocating for the inclusion of Lynn Coady’s new novel, The Antagonist, on this year’s longlist. The only problem: the book is not available yet. As a result, readers such as Jen from Vancouver are reduced to saying, “I have not read The Antagonist yet but have no doubt it will be worth [sic] of nomination.”

Needless to say, an author’s previous track record has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of a new book. Although I, too, am a fan of Coady’s work, I can’t attest to the merit of The Angagonist, because, like Jen from Vancouver, I haven’t read it. This year’s Giller jury, on the other hand, has had access to the book, and is therefore in a better position to gauge its relative worth, not only on its own merits, but also in comparison to the other submitted books in this year’s field. This is precisely why a jury is charged with the responsibility of going through a group of books and choosing what it considers to be the worthiest among them. By elevating uninformed public opinion to the same level, the value of this work is diminished.

As, it would seem, is the legitimacy and prestige of the prize itself. To make such a claim is to immediately get branded an elitist, but this too misses the point. Choosing the nominees and eventual winner for the Giller prize has always been an elitist endeavour, to the extent that it has focused – rightly, in my opinion – on the strongest works of literary fiction being produced in this country. If the prize were meant as a popularity contest, why not just take the five top-ranking books on BookNet Canada’s sales rankings each year and make that the shortlist? It should go without saying that the reason for not doing this is that sales don’t equate to literary worth.

Should there be any doubt as to the elitist nature of the award, just read the comments by Elana Rabinovitch, one of the prize administrators, in the National Post. Asked about the changes to this year’s prize, Rabinovitch defended the decision to include a people’s choice aspect (which, interestingly, she claims originated entirely with the Giller administration, not with the CBC), as a way “of giving some attention to the longlist.” When asked about a tweet from the Giller Prize Twitter account, which suggested that genre fiction was not eligible for the prize, Rabinovitch responded, “it’s the literary fiction first and foremost, that’s why publishers don’t submit genre novels like detective, mysteries, novels that are in a series, and the like. They just don’t because I think it’s generally known that the award is for primarily literary fiction.”

It is also generally known that the people making the decisions about which books to honour are respected experts in the field of literature or, at minimum, well-read individuals from other walks of life who have acquired a level of discernment and taste. Unlike those who would instantly apply the kind of pejorative connotation to “elitist” that attaches to words such as “racist” or “homophobic,” I feel that there are circumstances in which expert opinion – elitist opinion, if you prefer – is not only desirable, but necessary. (Would we, for instance, trust members of the general public to perform open-heart surgery or assess the structural integrity of a high rise?) Adjudicating a literary prize of Giller’s stature – that is, a prize that has a measurable, demonstrable effect on the literary culture of this country – is one of those circumstances.

It is all well and good to say that Giller is only allowing the public to select one title for the longlist, and that the shortlist and the winner will be down to the official jury, but the legitimacy of the prize is nonetheless impacted. This is especially true given the nature of online voting contests, which, as was proved by last year’s experience with Canada Reads, has little to do with actual worth, and everything to do with who is most adept at marshalling the users of social media to vote for their book. The Giller prize has become significant in this country precisely because of the prestige that accrues to it. The choice it faces now is: does it continue to award literary merit, or does it become a popularity contest? It can’t be both.

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.

TSR endorses Kenneth J. Harvey’s novel Inside for Canada Reads 2011

October 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

As you are likely aware, I have some problems with this year’s vote-in format for the CBC’s Canada Reads. However, they approached me to endorse a title as a Canadian litblogger, and I was so chuffed by the invitation that I couldn’t possibly refuse. Plus, it provided me with an opportunity to plump for a book I feel deserves a wider audience. That book is Kenneth J. Harvey’s 2006 novel Inside. Here’s what I wrote for the Ceeb:

Margaret Atwood famously identified survival as the abiding theme in Canadian literature, but this has usually been interpreted to mean survival against the elements, or disease, or war, or the depredations of time. Renegade novelist Kenneth J. Harvey reconstitutes this theme in his 2006 novel Inside, about a man who is released from prison after 14 years when his conviction for murder is overturned. Given his freedom and the promise of a government cheque to compensate him for his time inside, the novel’s hero, Myrdon, tries to return to civilian life, but has been institutionalized to such an extent that he finds the experience viciously daunting. Told in staccato sentences that mirror Myrdon’s psychological malaise, the novel is an uncomfortable, at times almost off-putting read. But for all its ferocity – this is a very cold, violent book – it also stands as a stark and precise dissection of one man’s alienation and loneliness. Part Albert Camus, part James Ellroy, Inside is an excoriating examination of modern anomie, of one man’s attempt to survive life outside the walls of a prison cell. Its shattering final scene carries all the force and effect of a Greek tragedy, and only solidifies this novel’s place as one of the most potent works of fiction to appear in this country over the past 10 years.

Eight other bloggers, including Kerry Clare, Chad Pelley, and Sean Cranbury provide their own recommendations, and there’s a poll at the bottom that allows the public to vote for which title they think deserves a spot on the longlist. Hop over to the CBC website to read what each blogger has to say and, if you’re of a mind, cast a vote for your favourite among them.

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.

Introducing: Atlantic Canada Reads

May 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Chad Pelley is the Newfoundland-based author of Away from Everywhere, a book that has been on yr. humble correspondent’s to-read list for several months now. He’s also the brains behind Salty Ink, a literary site devoted to Atlantic Canadian writers and writing. In the latter capacity, he’s inaugurated a program called Atlantic Canada Reads, modelled on the CBC’s annual literary smackdown, Canada Reads, and the National Post‘s upstart alternative, Canada Also Reads. Pelley’s asking people to e-mail him with suggestions for an Atlantic Canadian book of fiction they’d like to defend. He’ll narrow the submissions down to a longlist that will be revealed on June 1, followed by a “well-rounded” shortlist with accompanying essays from the selected books’ defenders beginning June 14. The winner by popular vote will be announced on Canada Day (July 1 for all you non-Canuks out there).

TSR caught up with Pelley to discuss the impetus behind this newest variation on the Canada Reads template.

TSR: Why an Atlantic Canadian version of Canada (Also) Reads?

Chad Pelley: The simple answer: Salty Ink’s niche, or mandate, is to promote Atlantic Canadian fiction and poetry. Hence Atlantic Canada reads. The goal here is simply to have fun promoting books. As for why I played off the popular Canada Reads competition, especially since The Afterword recently played off the same competition with Canada Also Reads … I thought the title was catchy. I could be accused of ripping off two great competitions, but I really see it as a nod to CBC and The Afterword. Salty Ink is young, having only been launched in November, and given its esoteric niche, doesn’t have the readership those other places have. Atlantic Canada Reads will grab more attention than a similar but differently titled competition.

TSR: How have you been influenced by Atlantic Canadian writers?

CP: I’m a writer myself, who wasn’t entirely aware of this this influence until my debut novel came out in 2009. I did quite a few radio shows and interviews, and every time I was asked about influences, I realized it was consistently a Newfoundland author, if not an Atlantic Canadian. There is such a diversity of style, delivery, and subject matter coming out of here. I consider myself a “best of collection” of my favourite books (but by no means as “good” as these authors). I like the sentence-level evocative elegance of Lisa Moore’s writing, I like Michael and Kathleen Winter’s attention to detail, I admire Kenneth J. Harvey’s versatility in style and story and his trademark graceful grittiness, I like Jessica Grant’s fresh, unique stories and how she delivers them, I like how Michael Crummey constructs a novel, I’m floored at what Amy Jones does with narrative structure … and I could keep going and going. I like how David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children was like getting your heart stomped on, it was that engaging.

TSR: Do you think these kinds of competitions/lists (e.g. Stephen Patrick Clare and Trevor J. Adams’ book Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books) have literary legitimacy? Should literature be considered a contest, or is the merit of these endeavours simply in bringing attention to work that might otherwise get overlooked?

CP: I think the notion of competitions and awards is fundamentally absurd – how can you really compare two works of fiction? On what grounds? And every judge, no matter how objective, has a bias. But competitions are a good form of promotion nonetheless. And recognition. I can’t speak for others, but in my case, everything Salty Ink does is intended to be all for fun in the name of book promotion. As an “emerging” writer, I am well aware how important promotion and word of mouth are in this industry. The stat is that someone needs to hear about a book seven to 11 times before they’ll buy it. Salty Ink is just trying to be one or two of those influential mentions.

Canada Reads 2010: Day 5

March 12, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Steven W. Beattie: “I honestly think it’s an adavantage to have a book that doesn’t have an identity yet.” That was the lesson that Roland Pemberton took away from the Canada Reads 2010 debates, after witnessing the two Goliaths – his own book, Generation X, and Perdita Felicien’s choice, Fall on Your Knees – drop out of the running first and second. He has a point. When all was said and done, it was the two relative unknowns – The Jade Peony, which won the Trillium Award and the City of Vancouver Book Award, but could not reasonably be considered a household name, and Nikolski, this year’s only true outsider – that made it to the final round. When it became apparent after the tie-breaking re-vote that Good to a Fault was out, Jian Ghomeshi said that Nikolski was “by every measure the dark horse going into this contest.”

And yet it was the dark horse that ended up going the distance. Samantha Nutt, who said early in today’s program that she was voting “with [her] heart” when she voted against Nikolski, later admitted to a bit of strategy following the first day’s debate, when she “realized people were liking it more than [she] expected.” Nutt said she felt confident that The Jade Peony could win against Good to a Fault, but she was nervous about going up against Nikolski. By contrast, Simi Sara, the diplomat on this year’s panel, said that she had made up her mind from the start that if her book was voted off, she would throw her support behind Nikolski.

So, a surprise victory for Nicolas Dickner’s strange, iconoclastic, allusive, and (something none of the panelists made mention of this week) funny novel. And yr. humble correspondent, who was pulling for it from Day 1, couldn’t be more pleased.

Alex Good: A dramatic conclusion? Actually … no. I feel like kicking myself for leaving out my prediction from this year’s intro, because in my draft I had picked Nikolski to be the winner. Though I didn’t see things going down quite the way they did.

The final vote came as no surprise. It seemed pretty clear throughout the show that The Jade Peony didn’t have a lot of support. It was just flying under the radar. And I’m glad Nikolski won. It was my favourite. Though I think Fall on Your Knees would have also been a great popular choice.

Two final comments:

(1) Could that opening re-vote have been more absurd? They had to do a re-vote because of the tie, but the way the vote broke down, the tie-breaker was going to be Michel’s. Unless somebody else changed their vote … but at that point why would they? … the result was a foregone conclusion. I imagine everyone rolling their eyes as they went through the motions.

(2) OK, yes, Michel was a great panelist. I said after Day 1 that he was also the worst panelist because of his occasional difficulties with English, but in the end I think that helped him. As Jian commented, he managed to come across as opinionated without being arrogant. A fluent English speaker would have seemed pompous and patronizing delivering the same lines Michel did in his fractured pronunciation. But I don’t want to cover the big guy in wet, slobbery kisses. Because, and I don’t think this can be stressed enough, he was a total fucking über-ringer! Come on! This was as bad as Avi Lewis last year. Vézina is a professional author, publisher, editor, literary critic, and radio personality! Up against an athlete, a doctor, a hip-hop performer, and a television host. He should have been kicking ass all over the place.

Overall, however, I give this year’s program high marks. Of the three of these we’ve covered now it was the best. But really, if they’re going to bring in ringers like Lewis and Vézina, then why not have a full panel of well-informed, articulate, bookish commentators and leave the celebs out of it? That might be really interesting.

Canada Reads 2010: Day 4

March 11, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Alex Good: “Oh my! That is an upset!” – Samantha Nutt on Fall on Your Knees being voted off today

And it certainly was. Or … sort of.

Stunned panelist Perdita Felicien certainly didn’t have any illusions about what happened, calling the vote “purely strategic” since “no one wants to go against the best book.” Which was Samantha’s rationale for her vote against it yesterday. The vote breakdown was interesting though. Samantha didn’t stick to her strategy and instead went against Niklolski. I guess she figured it was more vulnerable. Michel turned against Fall on Your Knees for what I think were strategic reasons (“I like short action books” didn’t cut it for me, especially coming from a guy like Michel). Roland, justifiably shocked to be alone in his vote, held firm against Good to a Fault and looks locked in against it the rest of the way. He even had to apologize a couple of times for beating on it. Perdita’s decision to go against The Jade Peony was, in retrospect, a mistake. She should have taken out Good to a Fault while she had the chance. She claimed “payback,” for Samantha’s vote yesterday, but revenge seems to have blinded her. Simi continues to rule as the strategy queen, knocking off the strongest competition, though perhaps not with the votes she thought she’d have.

And that’s how it played. This should make for an interesting finale.

Samantha was once again called out for “sitting here quietly” “in a savvy way” while the other two books go at it. Is this going to work?

Michel continues to be the intellectual loose cannon, championing Nikolski‘s “polyphonic structure” (didn’t expect to hear that on a show like this) while talking about how it reflects modern society’s “intrinsical ways of communications” (something getting lost in translation there). He also scored a major zinger against Perdita when she expressed her reluctance to read difficult books.

Michel: It’s been 50 years since education was compulsory in this country!
Perdita: What are you saying?
Michel : You should be able to read.

Ouch! Is he going to get away with that? You have to wonder, because right after this exchange when Jian called for the vote Perdita seemed very keen (“Let’s do this”). More payback? Michel also voted against Fall on Your Knees, so that’s where she might be going.

Another good program, overall. Could have done without the intro claiming that the winner will be a “guaranteed bestseller,” and that the program sells “more books than any other literary award in Canada,” but the commercial angle seems unavoidable. Also nice to see the shout out to the blogosphere.

Steven W. Beattie: “Omigod! The quarterback is toast!” – Die Hard

Okay, I’ll admit it. I did not see that coming. Yesterday, Fall on Your Knees looked destined to go all the way in this year’s Canada Reads competition; today, it became the second casualty, following yesterday’s Generation X massacre. This was, let’s face it, “purely strategic.” Simi Sara, who cast the deciding vote against Ann-Marie MacDonald’s book, even admitted that it was “nothing personal.” “I do love Fall on Your Knees,” Sara said. “I think it’s a Canadian classic.” But, she said that it’s already had its day in the sun and she felt that it was time “to see another book shine.”

None of this sat very well with Perdita Felicien, who was audibly stunned. “I feel like I want to cry,” she said. Later, when the discussion had moved on to the remaining three titles, Felicien was heard to remark, “I’m having a hard time, but let’s be professional.” Still, as Alex points out, the Olympian may have only herself to blame for today’s surprising turn of events. By casting her vote against The Jade Peony as payback for Samantha Nutt’s vote yesterday, she ensured that both Nikolski and Good to a Fault remained in contention, and simultaneously sealed her own book’s fate. She’s been a pugilist from day one, but by trying to get back at Nutt, she got hoist on her own petard.

The rest of the discussion was the best so far. Vézina was back in form after a lacklustre couple of days, not only talking about Nikolski‘s “polyphonic structure” (which I agree was surprising to hear in the context of the CBC’s literary popularity contest), but also pointing out that Dickner’s approach in the novel mirrors the disjunction of modern city life: “Nowadays, in our urban way of living, we don’t know our neighbours.”

He was also brilliant in defending the book against readers who don’t want to rise to the challenges it poses. This included not just Felicien, who said that the book “leaves too much to the reader” (“I don’t want to do that much homework,” she said, and later said that she doesn’t want to think when she’s reading a book, prompting Vézina’s wicked response quoted by Alex above). But Vézina also had to defend the book against Nutt, who said it was “too disjointed” and who found the non-linear structure “frustrating,” and against Jian Ghomeshi, who said that the reader has to fill in some gaps in the story. “I believe readers have a responsibility in filling in the gaps,” Vézina said. When asked to give a final pitch for Nikolski, he took direct aim at his detractors, saying that “it should be read because it’s not an easy book.”

Vézina also hit the nail on the head in his critique of The Jade Peony when he said that the book made him feel like he was being lectured rather than being told a story. He was on shakier ground when he criticized Choy’s structure by talking about what he would have done differently, but he was so strong elsewhere today that this was easy to overlook.

Nutt, meanwhile, continued to allow the panelists to duke it out over the other books, extending what Ghomeshi characterized as her “rope-a-dope” strategy from earlier in the week: “As long as they’re attacking each other’s books, they’re not attacking mine.” Today, when Ghomeshi called her on it, she admitted, “I’ve been sitting here quietly, watching it all go down.” Whether that strategy will continue to work in her favour is anybody’s guess. I’m beginning to have this nagging feeling that the two books remaining in contention after tomorrow’s vote will be Nikolski and The Jade Peony, which would mean that Vézina will have to work twice as hard to convince his fellow panelists that the literary title should win out over the educational one. Stay tuned.

Canada Reads 2010: Day 3

March 10, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Alex Good: I must say I’m enjoying this year’s program more than previous years. Mainly, I think, because of the honesty factor. Today’s show was a good example. We knew going in that Generation X was going to be the first book voted off based on what everyone had said thus far. Still, you never entirely know how these things are going to work out. But when the votes were counted it was pretty much what everyone expected. All the haters stuck to their guns and gave Generation X the boot.

Odd that there is this populist aversion to Coupland, despite the fact that he’s such a popular author. I have to wonder if things would have turned out differently if Roland had picked a more recent, and better, book, like The Gum Thief.

Samantha Nutt was Ms. Honesty in the early going. When Jian brought up the fact that The Jade Peony was flying under the radar thus far (as pointed out in yesterday’s expert commentary), she confessed that her strategy was to lay low. Then, when she voted against Fall on Your Knees, she was open about voting strategically, trying to take out the “Goliath” thus far.

The discussion went well. It seems pretty clear that Good to a Fault is next off. When Jian tossed out a question about which book had the strongest sense of time and place, no one mentioned Good to a Fault (even though a couple of panelists mentioned two books in response). This forced Simi to play a bit of defence, saying that Good to a Fault is a universal text. Which was well played, but surely in a losing cause.

Michel was disarmingly honest as well. When the question of class came up he basically just shrugged it off and admitted that notions of class didn’t play much of a role in Nikolski. But on the issue of the “Canadianness” he was floundering a bit, wondering where the francophone presence was in the other books. This wasn’t getting him anywhere.

So overall another good program. Jian is making some interesting points as things go along. I like the way he started off today’s program with the observation that these books are all “youngsters” (that is, all written in the last 20 years). That made me wonder what a Canada Reads program made up of books published pre-1970, say, would look like. One thing’s for sure, those would be five books most Canadians would not have already read.

So … next off: Good to a Fault. After that, things should get (strategically) interesting.

Steven W. Beattie: It’s funny that you enjoyed today’s discussion so much, Alex, because I thought it was easily the weakest thus far. Not so much because the panelists were weak (Simi Sara is proving to be quite eloquent in defending Good to a Fault, Samantha Nutt finally came out of stealth mode around The Jade Peony, and Perdita Felicien continues to scare the living shit out of me), but because the topics were all so boring.

Even Jian Ghomeshi was forced to admit that the subject of Canadianness “comes up every year,” and, honestly, every year it’s a non-starter. “Surely it’s not an unfair question,” Ghomeshi said. Well, in a way, it is. It’s an easy default subject to talk about on a program called Canada Reads, but each year the overwhelming response (which yr. humble correspondent would heartily endorse) is that it doesn’t matter. Sara got it right when she said that “trying to determine what being most Canadian is” when discussing these books is a mug’s game, if only because it’s close to impossible to agree on the relevant criteria.

I will admit that there were two moments in this discussion that gave me pause this year. The first was Michel Vézina complaining that except for Nikolski and a few “very short mentions” in Fall on Your Knees, “the French-speaking fact of Canada is totally absent in all of these books,” despite the fact that 25% of the population (according to Vézina) is francophone. You’re right, Alex, this went nowhere.

The other moment that gave me pause (literally: once again, I had to rewind the playback to make sure I’d heard correctly) was Nutt’s astonishing assertion that the immigrant experience “is one that you don’t often get in fiction.” This is where you can imagine my eyes popping out of my head on rubbery stalks à la Jim Carrey’s in The Mask. The immigrant experience is not often reflected in our fiction? Really? Well, let’s see: Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures; The Amazing Absorbing Boy; Barnacle Love; Cockroach; Soucoyant; Brown Girl in the Ring; The Electrical Field; Obasan; Certainty; In the Skin of a Lion; More; What We All Long For; Some Great Thing; The End of East. And that’s just off the top of my head. Arguing that The Jade Peony is the most Canadian book remaining in competition because “it’s about a quintessentially Canadian experience” is one thing, but it’s impossible to suggest that novels about the immigrant experience are hard to find in Canada.

At one point, Ghomeshi suggested that Good to a Fault is particularly Canadian because it features a working-class woman who spends most of the novel in hospital and doesn’t have to pay for it. Tommy Douglas would surely approve. However, what interests me about this comment is not so much what it says about Canadian health care, but what it says about something the panelists seem to be studiously avoiding when discussing Endicott’s novel. We’ve now had three days of discussion around this book, and the subject of cancer has not come up once. This is no small matter in the book, since it’s Clara’s discovery that Lorraine is suffering from ovarian cancer that prompts her to take the family into her home. The fact that this subject has so far been off-limits is interesting; it will be interesting to find out whether it’s broached tomorrow or Friday, should Good to a Fault make it that far.

Which it probably won’t. Like Alex, I suspect it will be the next to get voted off given the way the panelists have been leaning thus far. At the midpoint of the debates, I can foresee a finale in which strategist Nutt faces off against brawler Felicien for the title. I’m still hoping Vézina can rally tomorrow to make a compelling case for Nikolski. He’s going to need to if he wants to keep his book in contention past the third vote.

Canada Reads 2010, Day 2

March 9, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

Steven W. Beattie: So, that’s it for Generation X, right?

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!

Canada Reads 2010, Day 1

March 8, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

Alex Good: Day 1 of Year 9 of the contest and I do believe all of my burning questions received at least a provisional answer. And it was actually a really good discussion, too.

My awards:

“Didn’t See That Coming” Award: Samantha Nutt. Apparently The Jade Peony “teaches us something about ourselves as Canadians.” Uh-huh.

Big Winner: Fall on Your Knees. Perdita is a scrapper! And articulate, with a good radio voice. As far as the book was concerned, when given the chance none of the other panelists laid a glove on it and the Oprah stuff never came up. It’s looking very strong going forward.

Big Loser: Generation X. This is Dead Book Walking. I mean it took a beating. I’m not sure even I would have been that negative on it. Can’t put the blame on Roland (Edmonton has a poet laureate?), but he must have finished today feeling a little shell-shocked.

Best Panelist: Michel Vézina. His introduction to Nikolski was impressive, talking about how it relates to the social web of North American cities becoming more complex (hadn’t thought of that), and the obscure relations among modern “exploded” families. He also scored points (with me) for calling out Good to a Fault for being 50 pages too long.

Worst Panelist: Michel Vézina. Sorry, but this guy’s English is brutal. I don’t know how the Ceeb let him on the show. He was struggling for words and even tried to make a joke (at least I think it was meant to be a joke) that seemed to stump everyone.

Machiavelli Award: Simi Sara. Oh, she’s a pro. Introduces herself by saying her only strategy would be to have no strategy, then uses her intro time to launch into an attack on Fall on Your Knees, The Jade Peony, and Generation X for being books that everyone has already read. That has to be her strategy for beating them. But it’s looking like an uphill battle for Good to a Fault anyway.

Overall I thought it was a good show. I’m a little depressed that Fall on Your Knees came out as the clear frontrunner, but things may change.

Steven  W. Beattie: First off, did I complain last year about the annoying (and ubiquitous) theme music for the program? If not, let me do so now. If so, let me reiterate my objection: Enough with the theme music! Let’s get on with the meat of the program.

To wit:

After the usual general introductions (during which we learned that Perdita Felicien “squatted with books on [her] head” to prepare for the debates and Michel Vézina can apparently breathe fire), the panelists wasted no time getting down to what Samantha Nutt referred to as the “classroom brawl” that is Canada Reads. They brawled about Nikolski, which Nutt found “confusing” and “tricky to follow”; they brawled about Fall on Your Knees, which is “too dark” for Roland Pemberton to recommend; they brawled about Good to a Fault, which Vézina (bless him) said was 50 pages too long. But mostly, they brawled about Generation X. This was the book that took the brunt of the beating today, for both the right reasons and the wrong ones.

I will admit to letting out a little “squee” of joy when Perdita Felicien called the characters in Coupland’s book “annoying” and “too clever for their own good.” Score one for the Olympian. I will also admit to clenching my fists a little when the same panelist complained that the book has “no forward-moving plot.” Minus one for the Olympian (which I guess means she comes out even).

If there was an overarching theme to the debate today it was that plot-driven books, books in which stuff “happens,” are preferable to books that are more interior, or more focused on language than on action. Felicien’s complaint about The Jade Peony was that “not much happens.” Pemberton praised Fall on Your Knees for being “very well-written,” which he equated with being “very visual” and “cinematic.” And Nutt found Nikolski “left [her] feeling as if [she] was still waiting for something to happen.” This came on the heels of her complaint about the book’s opening line – “My name is unimportant” – “To me, the name is important.” Perhaps if she were to stop thinking about how little happens in the book, and start considering things like Dickner’s patterns of metaphor, she might notice the echo in the novel’s first line to that of another, older, equally waterlogged novel: “Call me Ishmael.” The ironic inversion here is completely intentional, and completely in tune with Dickner’s approach, which has precisely nothing to do with making things happen.

Fortunately, Michel Vézina was on hand to reply: “We’re not watching TV here, we’re reading books.” Hear, hear, M. Vézina. To be fair, this comment was in response to an interjection by Jian Ghomeshi: “A reader doesn’t necessarily want to feel like they’re doing work, do they?” (Heaven forbid, Jian.) In response to Nutt’s specific accusation that Nikolski is “thin,” Vézina pulled no punches: “If you read it in a thin way, you’ll find it thin.” Ba-boom! (I admit that here I had to pause the playback on my computer and rewind it. “Did Vézina just call his fellow panelists superficial?”) Nikolski, Vézina continued, is “not a book that tells you everything.” Pemberton agreed, saying that it “gives the reader credit.” Later on, talking about Fall on Your Knees, Vézina (who is quickly emerging as my favourite panelist) pointed out that “action is not the only purpose in a book.”

So, a mixed bag after Day 1. Here’s hoping that Vézina can convince his fellow panelists that there is more to literature than plot. If not, and should Nikolski get voted off at the end of tomorrow’s show, it may prove to be a very long week for yr. humble correspondent.

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