761 Words about Canada Reads

2011 winner


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

Random shelf in downstairs hallway. No order, definitely no dewey decimal system. They’re arranged whimsically, and I read ’em all. Cherry Ames Dude Ranch Nurse,  please meet Louis Althusser.

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.

Essential. Accessible. Whatever.

With some trepidation I chose today to watch the Hunger Games online — live video feed plus chat (moderated by Hannah Classen and Brian Francis).

I was planning on blogging about it today, right after the big event but, well… I painted my bathroom instead. Then I did some laundry, played with the dogs, trolled the internet, you know.

Yeah, it was that interesting.

Good point, Box 761

I found myself distracted by the inane commentary of the live chat — I spent some fascinated moments looking to see what Brian Francis was going to paraphrase; I started sending comments, just to see if they’d post them (see above). It was kind of fun, in a slighty nauseating kind of way.

Worried that I was going to lose some of it. I started cutting and pasting, just so I could go back and enjoy it all later… insightful comments about the whole Canada Reads process like one from a listener/emailer named Aaron, who asked:

What does the winner of this get?

Oh dear.

And really, aside from amusing myself with the online chat stuff, I did listen, really I did. I’ve made this topic a bit of a speciality of the house, these past few months, and I do a lot of thinking about it. Aside from rummaging around  my own big brain, I’ve been finding some bloggers/writers who are writing some pretty interesting stuff about #canadareads lately, as well.

I mentioned the Walrus article in a previous post — essential reading, I think (more on that word, essential, later), and after much quiet out in the Districts (a Hunger Games reference, fyi) people are finally starting to talk. Charlotte Ashley over at Inklings has been writing some really great, funny and honest stuff. Her exasperation is a breath of fresh air.  Bonnie Stewart, social media maven, wrote some great commentary here today in her blog. I like this, and I love the fresh, irreverent… frustration I hear in these voices.  We’re all bookish sorts, we all love writing, reading, reading about writing — all of it. And what I am starting to hear is a sense of loss — where is the respect, the dignity that writing should have?  What is the CBC doing to contribute to meaningful commentary about literature in this country? Is Canada Reads doing it?

Nah. I can’t even go into depth on this one right now. It makes me tired and bores me. I’ve said it over and over again. Watching that train wreck today was like, I dunno… watching a pretend show about books. It was like a sitcom book panel — you had a smart and earnest young woman, a driven “career gal”, a business man, a sports guy (“life is a battle!”), and an Aboriginal actor/director. After an agonizingly long introductory session (with cheesy voiced-over slideshows for those watching online) with awkward speechifying, they finally got to the point in the show where they were supposed to, you know, debate.

I must have nodded off for a moment because the next thing I knew, they were talking about books being “accessible” and “popular” and then some of them seemed to think that the point of the show was to discuss “getting kids reading”…. Nowhere did I hear anyone even attempt to qualify what “essential” means. I’ve been waiting for that for a while now, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it continues to go unproblematized. So what if the entire shebang is based on these books being “essential”, right?

In keeping with my interest in the peripheral commentary, I saw the following on Facebook this evening:

"Gateway book"?

I think there’s a whooooooole lot of confusion in that post. (Where do they get their stats, and help me out here — is “semi-illiterate” better or worse than “semi-literate”?) I get what they are trying to say, but it’s a cobbled together mish-mash of ideas that culminates in the Grand-daddy of all concepts.

I refer, of course, to that of the “Gateway Book”.

Holy mother of all things literary, what the heck is that? I have no doubt that the person who wrote that post thought they were making some really valid points. Some of those points were voiced by our celebrity panel earlier today. For some reason, all of a sudden, books aren’t about you know, craft, or art

Books are now about being “accessible” (which I guess in our culture now means “easy”?).  At this point, I would be happy if they went back to talking about “essential” — somehow that’s less offensive to me.  “Accessible” means “easily approached or entered” (according to my quick but hilariously apt google search for a definition).  At least “essential” implies worth of some sort. In my world, “accessible” means that all people are able to access the material, not that the book is easy for “semi-illiterate” people to understand.

I'll bet she's reading Lemire's book right now!

But. um. Gateway book? hee hee. What’s next, reading chapter books? Staying up all hours of the night reading?  OMG, what if they start to read… poetry.  It’s like Reefer Madness, but with words. You know, it seems harmless at first, you let them read a few picture books, some comics, then a graphic novel… then all hell breaks loose — they’re reading everything and don’t care who knows it!

It’s as if writers (and Canada Reads judges) are now the social workers of the reading world. They have to get those kids reading, and it has to be easy, that goes without saying.


Hm. Where was I?

Sorry, so easy to get carried away. There’s almost too much to think about here, and so little time. Tomorrow this will start all over again. We will hear Georges say that life is a battle. We will see Ali Velshi do his thing —  slyly clever schtick-y sound bites that upon reflection don’t actually say much. Debbie Travis — successful mogul Debbie — will continue to slide her eyes down and sideways and tell us how nervous she is. Lorne Cardinal will be thoughtful but not forceful (I almost forgot he was on it for a moment there). Sara Quin will be articulate and free to speak her mind, and flush with the power of being a swing vote.

Who’s going to get kicked off tomorrow? I think they must be going in reverse order, from best book down, so I think Carol Shield’s finely realized and beautiful book Unless will be the next to go (in my mind they were tied for 1st place). I don’t like it, but there you go.  Essex County is a great book, and it made me think about novels and the creative process in ways that many other books haven’t in a long time.

Personally, I’m pretty sure that none of those five books are the “essential” book of the decade. Maybe someday we’ll all have to have a little chat about that — which books we think are essential.

First, lets define essential though, okay?



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Brian Francis:

“Haunting connections between the characters…cinematic.” Sara

Monday February 7, 2011 10:28 Brian Francis


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Hannah Classen:

And she didnt’ even need all the time!

Monday February 7, 2011 10:28 Hannah Classen


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Brian Francis:

Lorne’s turn.

Monday February 7, 2011 10:28 Brian Francis


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[Comment From Aaron Rodgers Aaron Rodgers : ]

What does the winner of this get?

Canada Reads? Welcome to the CBC Games.

A few days ago, I wrote a fairly tongue in cheek post about books I’ve been reading. I was a little sheepish, actually, because there was a lot of dreck in there with the good stuff. I mean, I’m a reader. I have two degrees in english lit., worked in publishing for years, and have always read not only in great quantity, but managed to think about it while I was doing it. But I decided to just leave the list as it was — I’m not so invested in this that my ego will take a hit if someone laughs at me because I like popular fiction, along with my classics.

The really important issue, of course, is that I’m a reader. I buy books, almost always new, because I care about giving authors their royalties. Electronic or otherwise, I’m trying to make sure that my reading something counts. I’m a bit of a stickler about copyright, and once made my daughter cry because I wouldn’t break copyright laws and burn a cd of the Back Street Boys for her. I have dear friends who are brave enough to try to make a life as authors — not an easy thing to do in Canada, and certainly there is a special place in heaven waiting for them.

Imagine my delight when the CBC’s Canada Reads 2011 announced their contest to find the Top 40 Essential  Novels of the past decade. I thought it was a great idea, and made a mental note to nominate a friend’s novel (Heave, by Christy Ann Conlin) when I next was on the computer. I like her book a lot, I like her, and I know her commitment. I know the struggles that went into writing that book. Is it essential? Dunno, but I like it and wanted to put her book’s name in the hat. This decade had produced a vast amount of Canadian fiction that I think are essential. The number of books I’ve bought, read, lent out and put on my shelves at home is a big one. “Essential” is a toughie, so I’m not really going there. I will, though, say that 40 years from now, Heave will give a clear, poetic, and funny picture of a specific place and time, of a particular generation.

She nailed it.

So did a multitude of other hard-working, multi-tasking and over-extended writers. I could name scores of whom I think have written fine works, scores more who moved me, irritated me, made me want more. That’s what good writing does. That Canadian writers persist in writing, in the face of the small returns, astounds me. There are very few million-dollar contracts here, a “best seller” in Canada is a work that’s sold 5,000 copies or more.

People don’t do this to get rich, though we’d all like them to be able to. As with anything, there’s a certain amount of self-promotion necessary. In the world of Twitter/Facebook/YouTube/blogging odds are that it’ll help your sales if you know how to exploit (social)media. I mean, in a world where Shit My Dad Says goes from a Twitter feed to a book and then a shitty sitcom starring an increasingly squinty and ubiquitious William Shatner….

It obviously pays to know your way around the interweb. That Shit has made bags of money for that guy, and it is a household name.

There is, though, a moment when necessary, healthy narcissism becomes something more sinister. I think that moment is when that narcissism becomes celebrated. When the urge to self-promote is expected.  To wit, today’s CBC  Canada Reads 2011 blog entry:

Things are heating up in the race to the top 40! Several authors aren’t taking any chances and have started campaigns of their own: Corey Redekop, author of Shelf Monkey, has a Facebook page dedicated to getting his novel on Canada Reads and Leo McKay Jr., author of Twenty-Six, has started a YouTube series sharing 26 reasons his novel should make the cut. We’re not ready to reveal numbers just yet, but we’re willing to say that the campaigns are working. If you’re an author with a book you want to see make the list, you better get cracking.

They’re kidding, right? I find that the whole paragraph gives me an uncomfortable feeling, but that last sentence really has me shuddering, just a bit. Like, it wasn’t enough that the author worked at least one job (if not two), while writing their essential novel? It wasn’t enough that most writers choose to live at or below the poverty line, and persisted in honing their craft? It’s not enough that their novel drove enthusiastic readers to vote for the book?

Apparently it’s not. They are now required to “get cracking” and create a publicity campaign! I went to Corey Redekop’s Facebook site, and he’s actually offering money to people who vote for his book. I’m sure he’s a great guy, but I’m afraid I have not yet read his book and this Facebook campaign is not making me want to….  Just sayin’.

Remember the list I told you about? The list of books I’ve read lately? One of them was a terrific book called The Hunger Games (part of a trilogy by the same name). It’s a YA book that seems to have crossed over (meaning grown ups are “allowed” to read it too). I loved these books, and think that Suzanne Collins is a brilliant writer. For those of you who’ve not read it, it’s set in a dystopian future where once a year the government requires that each district give up two of its children, chosen by lottery, and enter them in the Hunger Games. They are dropped into an enormous arena strewn with traps and hazards, with a heap of weapons and supplies in the middle. The last person alive wins a lifetime of luxury and celebrity. The action is filmed and broadcast to the entire world.

Remind you of anything?

This whole 40 Essential books thing wasn’t set up to be  a Can-Lit Version of the Hunger Games, I know it wasn’t. It has, though, degraded into something akin to that. It was not set up to be an opportunity for authors to shill their wares. I wrote a comment on their blog, because I thought it was kind of creepy that they were encouraging this behavior — suggesting that authors get cracking, instead of reminding us all that it’s really about readers sharing books they think are essential. It’s about sharing what moved you. It’s about encouraging people to go out and buy books, to make reading a normal part of your life.

Someone answered my comment, and suggested that it was a great way for them to find out about books they’d never heard of, that authors were seizing the opportunity to publicize their books…. while this may be true, to a certain degree, the game’s rules have changed. As soon as the CBC told authors to get cracking it became an imperative.

Odds are that whichever books “win” the top 40 will be good ones –there are a lot of good books out there. But I suspect that many really great authors will be so turned off by this ridiculous, degrading exercise that they will have nothing to do with it. It’s no longer about Canada Reading; it’s about Canadian authors having to shill, and to sing for their suppers.

My advice to you? Go buy a book today, hopefully one by a Canadian author. Write a fan letter to a Canadian author, and forgive those authors pandering to the CBC Games — they just got cracking because those seem to be the rules of the game these days.