“Before he was here, I had a chair”

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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.

Yr. humble correspondent tries out his radio voice

October 2, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The redoubtable Erin Balser (@booksin140 on Twitter and Books in 140 Seconds on the Keepin’ It Real Book Club) has inaugurated a Monthly Book Report podcast on the CBC Books website. The first podcast features a look at the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which includes a roundtable discussion Balser conducted with yr. humble correspondent, Kobo’s Nathan Maharaj, and Evan Munday of Coach House Books. The podcast also contains a news roundup and a look at the City of Toronto Book Award, with input from nominees Cary Fagan (Valentine’s Fall), Lauren Kirshner (Where We Have to Go), and Mark Sinnett (The Carnivore).

Some shameless self-promotion

December 4, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

My review of Lawrence Hill’s 2009 Canada Reads winner, The Book of Negroes, is online at the Canadian Notes and Queries site, for anyone who’s interested. Here’s a taste:

When The Book of Negroes won the 2009 edition of Canada Reads, CBC Radio’s annual Survivor-like literary elimination contest, broadcaster Avi Lewis, who was championing the book, referred to author Lawrence Hill’s “titanic task” in taking on the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century and refracting it through the life of one woman, Aminata Diallo, an African girl who is kidnapped as a child and shipped to the Thirteen Colonies where she is sold into slavery. It is likely that Lewis didn’t intend the obvious pop cultural association that accrues to his particular choice of words in this instance, but in fact Hill’s book shares much in common with James Cameron’s Academy Award-winning film about the great twentieth-century nautical disaster. The Book of Negroes and Titanic both view historical events through a fictional lens, employing a panoramic background, and filtering their respective narratives through the personal journeys of specific, individual characters. But more importantly, both cleave to a populist sensibility, avoiding difficult moral questions in favour of stock figures and situations, and providing a fictional experience that, notwithstanding the tragic nature of their historical backdrops, is comfortably familiar to a mass audience.

Also, for anyone who’s interested, yr. humble correspondent is scheduled to appear on Mary Ito’s Fresh Air radio program on CBC Radio One tomorrow morning at 7:30 to talk about the year in books. Normally I wouldn’t be up at such a godforsaken hour on a Saturday morning, but they asked so nicely I couldn’t refuse.

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.