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.