Days Two and Three of Canada Reads have come and gone. Terry Fallis’ book The Best Laid Plans is the winner. That is just about all I’m going to say about that.
I have been heartened in the past days to see so much insightful, funny and honest commentary on Canada Reads… it makes my job that much easier. It felt, for a while, as if were the only one writing about this stuff; I wondered, sometimes, if it wasn’t easier for me to do it because I don’t have a place within the established literary circles, or publishing, or radio… I’m just a blogger, you know? I have no real vested interest except for that which is concerned with being able to live in a culture that respects books and writing, that privileges writers and well… takes this stuff seriously.
I’ll read just about anything and give it a chance. I’m pretty omnivorous when it comes to reading and there’s almost nothing I won’t try to read. Like Debbie Travis, there are some books I just haven’t been able to finish, just couldn’t do it. I only have so much time in
my life, and like Nancy Pearl and her Rule of 50, I don’t feel guilty about it. That said, there are very few. Confession: never, ever, was able to finish Old Man and the Sea (10th grade reading assignment). Nor have I managed to finish Eat, Pray, Love (Gah! so bad). I say I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, but now I can’t actually remember if I finished it. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
We’re all allowed our personal opinions. That’s cool and I want to keep it that way.
In a contest, though, such as this they have set rules. Criteria that they need to take into account when they judge a piece of writing. Sara Quin said it during the post-game show — that in the end “it’s a job” — they had criteria and she had to work within those rules. I can’t, and won’t, say I agree with her choice, but I like that she worked within the rules of the game and that she took her job seriously. That everyone had a different idea of what those rules were is clear, though, and problematic.
I’ve been getting really caught up in this, so want to take a step back. I don’t want to nit-pick every little bit of this, because (thank god) other people are offering up reportage and play-by-play of what happened yesterday and today. There are some really great blogs out there talking about the competition now, and about the books, and giving their really smart comments and analysis. Do a tag search, and you’ll find tens of sites, all with interesting fresh things to say about this show.
I’m more interested in a comment that Debbie Travis made in the post-game show, about a conversation she had with Ami McKay. I’m paraphrasing, but she said that Ami told her there’s a “code” of conduct — that authors don’t talk down other author’s books. Jason McBride wrote a great article about this in the December 2010 Quill & Quire. His question was “Is honest criticism possible in the tight-knit world of CanLit, where everybody knows everybody else?” and it’s a good question to ask. It’s pertinent to this space, here, because I know the whole Canada Reads gameplay thing has made it very difficult for people in the literary community. That difficulty trickles down to little wee blogs like Box761 — I can get 300 hits on a posting, and not a single comment. People don’t want to talk about it, not out loud, anyway, and certainly not in public.
Debbie Travis said it herself — that her job was to say what the writers can’t. That said, though, did Debbie or any of the other panelists do that? I think not. It was an exercise in diplomacy, all around. Even when one of the panelists didn’t like a book (or even finish it), their stock phrase was “it didn’t move me” or “it’s not my thing”. Not a single person there said “the writing wasn’t great, and I wonder how it got into this contest” …. something I’ve wondered about a couple of these books (and no, I’m not going to tell you which ones).
Instead, they latched on to these ridiculous arguments about how x book is better because it will help teenagers read more, or it will encourage more people to go into trades… wtf? Since when is Canada Reads about making teenagers and “semi-illiterates” interested in reading? Since when does that mean we dumb down the entire canon of great literature in Canada? That we privilege “easy reads” over great writing? Argh.
What has bothered me from the very beginning is this sense I get that all of this is just so much filler… something to drive hits to their site. Someone, somewhere, in the bowels of CBC decided that hits to the site and tweets with the #canadareads hashtag were the indicators of success for this process. The part of this competition that got the least amount of air time was the books themselves. I know what each author thinks is a great gift for christmas, and I know more about what some random Canada Reads “team” thinks of the books than I care to know. I read about the Canada Reads Dinner Party Contest, and what five select bloggers think about Canada Reads blah blah blah. It was incessant, the noise coming from the Canada Reads portal.
What I didn’t see, until day two or three of the actual competition, was anyone really talking about the books. And before you think I’m just snarky for the fun of it, I want to go on record here –it wasn’t all that bad. On Days 2 and 3 I wasn’t able to listen to it in real time (life intruded), so I was able to have a leisurely stroll through the replays, and it felt almost-kinda-maybe like they were sorta-almost getting to the point where there was some interesting commentary on the books themselves. Jian Ghomeshi was really great (though seems ambitious — is he bucking for a tv show?) and he moderated it ably. He wasn’t great at hiding his biases, but that’s okay. The debaters were — by the end of the competition — doing better at actually discussing the books themselves. In fact, during the post-game show, I found them all to be very appealing and smart. During Day 3’s pre-show live audio feed, they were delightful and real. I liked them by the end of it all.
I am swayed, against my will almost, by the comments in the live chat — people wrote things like “I could barely sleep last night because of anticipation” (weird), and “love the talk about canlit, this is great!” and “I’m going to go out and buy these books”… these are things that I cannot deny. Canada Reads does have a strong influence. All the more reason, though, to take seriously their responsibility toward keeping the tone of it respectful, of not selling out to the lowest common denominator, and of not making a spectacle of themselves just to get hits.
Things like this drive me crazy (from Facebook today):
Just like all 10-year old children, Canada Reads needs to understand that any attention is not good attention. They could take all of that frenetic social media energy and use it for good. Respectful, author-empowering, calm, informative “edutainment” (shudder. I couldn’t think of another way to say it. Forgive me) that will by its very nature help Canada read more.
This has been a difficult post to write. I despise the frantic, empty, exclamation mark-happy prattle that they’re serving up. I abhor the Hunger Games-ishness of it all, and find myself wanting to tell the grown ups over at CBC what their kids are doing while they aren’t looking. I find it impossibly frustrating that by all accounts this has been the most “successful” Canada Reads ever — largely because they are gauging that success by counting hits and click-throughs and memberships in the CBC Book Club, etc. I am torn, because while I complain about all of this, I also bought all five books and read them and found myself delighted by a few of them. I saw the chat scrolling down, full of people emailing from all over Canada and beyond… I saw that it was really something that people loved. I don’t really get it, but I’m willing to concede it.
I haven’t been slagging on Canada Reads for all these months for no reason. It’s because I really thought — and still do — that they could be doing it better. That whether they like it or not, the CBC is in the position of great power to shape culture, to further appreciation of writing, and to model respectful behaviour toward those who create that culture that CBC is disseminating.
Next up? The Bookies. Sigh.